Tom Brown’s NJ-based Tracking School brings out the Native American in all of us
By Bruce Northam
New Jersey is probably the last place you’d hunt for a wilderness survival school. However, Tom Brown, Jr.’s Tracker School in western New Jersey is an excellent place to learn survival skills, nature awareness, the ancient art of tracking and the Native American philosophy of connecting with the earth.
Brown’s six-day standard course opens the door to dozens of advanced Tracker School courses. As a child (and adolescent), Tom Brown learned these ancient skills in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens from his mentor, Stalking Wolf, a displaced Apache elder, shaman and scout.
Highly attuned to nature, the scouts were part of a secret society who refined tracking, awareness and wilderness survival to an intense science and art form.
The Apache scouts were the masters of the wilderness and beginning in his early teens, Brown was called on to take those skills into the woods to track lost children, fugitives and even an escaped Bengal tiger. A frequent guest on CNN and Fox News Network, he advises law enforcement bureaus and trains navy seals on all aspects of survival.
Learning from Stalking Wolf
Brown’s mentor, Stalking Wolf, was raised free of reservations in the mountains of northern Mexico. Born in the 1870’s during a time of great warfare and violence, he was part of a band of Lipan Apache that never surrendered.
He was taught the traditional ways of his people and excelled as a healer and a scout. At twenty, he began a sixty-three year wander throughout the Americas, seeking teachers, learning the old ways of many native peoples and never participating in modern society. At eighty-three, he encountered young Tom Brown, who became the recipient of Stalking Wolf’s personal wisdom and hundreds of years of Apache cultural insight.
Brown also reveals the surly edge of a fed-up nature sheriff… a sensitive, down-to-earth environmentalist periodically bringing himself to tears while reflecting on his Apache “grandfather.” Imagine John Muir a marine.
Why New Jersey? Brown calls on his students to “fight on the front lines of the environmental war.” The differences, he explains, need to be made where the worst environmental crimes are being committed. He’s written twenty books in as many years on topics ranging from philosophy to urban survival.
Brown shares generations of outdoor wisdom in the six-day standard course – a continuum of profound lectures and workshops lasting up to a grueling 14 hours per day. He leads an ensemble of instructors, all graduates from many of his 60 advanced courses.
First the survival basics
What if your plane crashes and you are alone, naked in the woods: shelter, water, fire, food. You learn how to build a debris hut and start a matchless fire using a self-carved bow drill. Imagine fiddling a bark-ribbon bow across an upright paper towel holder to create an ember. You also make cordage by reverse wrapping long grasses into strong string, build dead-fall hunting traps, track animals or humans by analyzing their print “pressure release,” and enhance your natural awareness using wide-angle vision. There are workshops on selecting edible plants, hunting with a throwing stick and stalking–or meditating–by way of “fox walking”.
Attendees graduate (at least) as versatile Neanderthals with reactivated primitive sensibility, discovering uses for a knife beyond buttering bread.
The area surrounding Asbury–bordering Pennsylvania, not to be confused with Asbury Park – is a checkerboard of beautiful farms, rolling hills and forest.
Lectures are given by Brown or his staff in an old barn housing a small stage and up to 100 people seated on split log benches balanced on stumps and arranged amphitheater-style. Several workshops are outdoors, including wilderness cooking and food preservation.
Students camp in two social “tent cities” near the barn. The course requires moderate physical challenge, mostly enduring the summer heat. The mentally demanding curriculum unearths flickers of your wild side and is not for anyone rendered miserable by camping in the rain, confronting poison ivy or eating stew ladled out of a 10-gallon steel pot. The hearty fare is two cuts above cafeteria food, with vegetarian options.
The instructors promote hunting only as a way to eat in survival mode, and they demonstrate hunting options without guns: hurling rocks and sticks, building traps. The only assault on the squeamish was an opossum-skinning demonstration – “like pulling off a sock!” Practical survival tips include using oil on your nose to rustproof knives, engorging a condom into a 5-gallon water reservoir and pragmatic ways to gut fish. One instructor shaved his beard with a sharp $10 knife, noting, “you can shave with a sharpened ax.”
Millionaires and backpackers
Typically, forty percent of the draw is female. A priceless experience for any outdoor enthusiast the attendees ranged from vegetarians to hunters to hitchhiking backpackers to soul-searching millionaires. Most modern folk are aliens in the wilderness and our ability to survive within it equals the ultimate freedom.
Brown has turned tracking into an intense science and art form. I saw a paw print, he certified “a disk-fissure crest-crumble lobular pressure release.” Translation: “a strolling female fox with a full stomach, who paused and looked left.”
On one field trip, Brown led us along a forested trail. Within a 50-yard segment of the trail, he identified 50 tracks (left, right or rear print) on hand-written ice-cream sticks pointing at the otherwise invisible tracks of 10 different animals. He doesn’t miss a beat in the woods.
The most compelling ingredient of the standard course is Brown’s passion for the Native American way of living in commune with nature. A loathing for environmental destruction burns in him. Therefore, the Tracker faculty is more than a fraternity of nomads who like sneaking up on animals.
The final night was spent in sweat lodge, where Brown chanted in Apache tongues, prayed for the earth, suggested we count our blessings, pardon our enemies and invited us to seek our most productive path.
The next morning he delivered a “save mother Earth” epilogue that brought tears to everyone’s eyes, including his.
New York City is a million miles away.
If you want to learn to track…
The standard course: six days, Sunday through Saturday
Asbury, NJ – off route 78 near Pennsylvania border / Bus from Port Authority or Newark Airport to Easton, PA, call
school for pick up.
Phone: (908) 479-4681, trackerschool.com
Also: Coyote classes – six-day camps for young men and women, ages 8-17.
Bruce Northam’s multimedia presentations — held at universities and seminar centers nationwide — celebrate the spirit and soul of circling the globe five times, freestyle. His books include The Frugal Globetrotter, In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology, and Globetrotter Dogma (mid April). Visit Bruce’s website www.AmericanDetour.com