An in-depth look at this New Jersey-based wilderness survival school. The Tom Brown School has classes in wilderness training for homesteaders who want to experience a truly special outdoor experience.
Wilderness Training Schools, Part III
I'm standing at the upper edge of an overgrown hillside, a
few sloping acres of knee-high grasses and brush in rural
western New Jersey. Above, half a dozen raucous crows play
in a blue sky—the definitive blue sky, cloudless,
crystal clear. Along the lower edge of the field huge oaks
and willows rise above lesser foliage, their boughs arcing
over a wide river, dappling the water in leafy shadow.
A typical countryside scene—unless you include the 40
or so human posteriors and pairs of legs grazing in groups
scattered across the field. The bodies to which they're
connected are thrust out of sight into bushes and briars
and grasses, heads hidden like—well, no, not a bit
like ostrich heads hidden in the sand. Hardly evading the
world, these people are deep in discovering it.
This is the next-to-last day of a six-day Standard
(introductory) course at the Tom Brown School of Tracking,
Nature and Wilderness Survival.
An excited voice emerges from somewhere in a clump of
sedge. "Tom! I found something! I think it's a weasel
hair!" A hand pops up, then a head. "Wow, look at this!"
another voice, belonging to a bluejeaned backside, shouts.
"Hey, I think I found a sleeping chamber!" someone else
hollers. "Look at all these trails!" an awed voice
exclaims, its legs snaking deeper into the vegetation.
The excitement of discovery is contagious, and, dropping to
my knees, I gladly shed my role as observer/journalist,
part a layer of matted grass, poke my head downward and
join my fellow students in a heretofore unseen world. "I'll
be damned," I whisper to myself as I immediately uncover a
tiny, well-worn path—too small for rabbits, probably a
vole run—winding around a sapling and meandering
downhill. "Would you look at that."
Belly down, nose inches from the ground, I study the
two-inch-wide trail, a Lilliputian highway paved with grass
pummeled smooth by countless wee footsteps. The closer I
look, the more I am drawn into life in this grass forest,
and the more I see: some droppings here, a hair there, some
tiny scratch marks, a rounded, nestlike chamber. Carefully
replacing the thatch above one section before parting the
vegetation over the next—as our instructors have
repeatedly reminded us to do—I trace the tunnel
downhill. Every few feet it intersects other paths, some
hidden, some exposed, some larger, some smaller—roads
traveled by mice, deer, foxes, ground hogs, raccoons.
Together, I realize, they form an amazing network, a sort
of macrovascular system pulsing with animal movement, that
must cover the entire field, and—good Lord, think of
it—all the fields adjoining this one, and all those
Transfixed, I slither further into the underbrush.
Some minutes later, a sonorous voice breaks the spell. "OK,
people, gather round." I stand up, blinking in the
sunlight, in time to see my fellow students emerge, heads
popping up through the vegetation one by one, like
surfacing scuba divers. We assemble around our mentor, Tom
Brown, Jr., himself.
The Wilderness Training School: An Overview
At 37, Brown is a teacher, author and living legend. He
looks the part. Over six feet tall, he stands ramrod
straight, a blue T-shirt stretched across a broad chest and
powerful biceps. His hair, showing streaks of silver-gray,
is cut short, military style—a far cry from the
flowing tresses he has worn until only a few months ago.
His eyes are steel blue, piercing, always darting, never
focusing for long on any one person or thing.
Brown became a national figure in 1976, when his first
book, The Tracker, was published. The
Tracker tells the extraordinary story of Brown's
childhood, spent in the New Jersey Pine Barrens under the
tutelage of an elderly displaced Apache scout named
Stalking Wolf. From the time he was seven years old, he was
trained by Stalking Wolf in the old ways, the traditional
skills and philosophies of Native Americans. Brown
believes, in retrospect, that he was chosen by Stalking
Wolf to pass along the ancient teachings and skills.
In 1977 he started this school, today probably the
best-known and largest wilderness survival and tracking
school in the country. He has also written a set of field
guides, a second autobiographical book, The Search
(a third is in the works), and countless magazine articles,
including a popular series, "At Home in the Wilderness,"
But even before he started the school or wrote his first
book, Brown was known among law enforcement and government
agencies as "The Tracker." His exploits in finding
criminals and lost children, sometimes staying on the trail
without provisions for days, are epic. He is widely
acknowledged as the best tracker in the country,
This week, though, he is our teacher, our medicine man, our Stalking Wolf.
Brown gestures with a sweep of his arm to the field and
meadows adjoining. "People travel hundreds of miles to
crowd into places like Yosemite or Yellowstone to see the
wildlife," he says, "when there's so much to see and
appreciate right in their own back yards. A field like this
contains every bit as much wildlife, every bit as much
natural diversity and variety, as any park anywhere in the
country. And all you have to do is learn how to look for
it. That's all. Just learn how to look and see."
We have spent countless hours this week doing just that,
and a great deal more. In five days of almost nonstop
lectures and workshops—beginning at 8:00 each morning
and continuing into the night, sometimes past
midnight—we've covered an astonishing variety of
skills, each in depth: making fires, building shelters,
finding water, building traps and snares, skinning and
tanning, making natural cordage, cooking, arrow and bow
making, flint knapping, Eolithic rockwork, stalking,
foraging, hunting and—of course—tracking.
"I pack this course with information, and then I pack it
further," Brown told us the first night. "Time is critical
here. I use every minute. When you're done on Sunday and
you look at how much we've gone over, your head will reel."
My head's been reeling since the second day. I've filled
two notebooks with lecture notes and I'm working on
another. My hands are scratched and calloused from
workshops: from carving traps, twisting plant fiber to make
cord, chipping rock into cutting tools.
After lunch, each student uses the time remaining before
the next class to practice skills or complete projects
started earlier. An options trader from Brooklyn pulls a
nearly completed bone arrowhead from his pocket and begins
scraping it across a piece of rock to give it a keen edge.
In the field beyond the cooking area, three
students—a real estate salesman, a machinist and a
physical therapist—set chunks of firewood on end in a
line as targets, move back 30 feet and practice throwing a
rabbit stick, an arm-length, wrist-thick piece of tree limb
that, when hurled correctly, is a deadly accurate survival
weapon for hunting small game.
Over by an outbuilding another student stands staring
straight ahead, arms outstretched to either side, wiggling
his fingers slightly. It's an exercise in stimulating
peripheral vision, an element, Brown says, essential to
increasing your awareness of the world. He has taught us to
widen our vision and avoid fixing our eyes in any one
direction for long—a technique he calls "splatter
vision." "Always be a tourist," he says. "Look at the room
you're in, the street you're on, the trail you're walking,
as if you were seeing it for the first time—no matter
how many times you've seen it before. Your mind always
seeks the familiar, but you miss so much. Vary your vision.
Refuse to let your eyes focus on the same things you always
look at. Force yourself to look in different places.
Wherever your vision goes, your senses go."
Other students are at the edge of a cornfield, practicing
the graceful, excruciatingly slow movements we've learned
for stalking. Still another is down on all fours, notebook
at side, imitating the basic animal walking motions Brown
has taught us. "You can't track an animal if you don't
understand how it moves," he says.
A shrill squeaking sound—wood rubbing against
wood—comes from behind me, and I cringe. I don't have
to look to know that it's a student working a bow drill,
the basic survival fire-starting apparatus consisting of a
notched fireboard, a dowellike spindle, a handhold, a small
bow and a tinder bundle. Making one, then starting a fire
with it, was our first workshop. In typical Brown fashion,
we were provided a chunk of cedar, the least desirable of
acceptable woods. "If you can get a bow drill fire going
with cedar," Brown says, "you can get one going with any of
the better woods."
I'm embarrassed to be one of the few students who have yet
to succeed. I sigh. What the heck, I'll try again. I get
the drill I've made. I fluff up the tinder bundle and lay
it on the floor, place the fireboard over it, wrap the
bow's cord around the spindle, position the spindle's
bottom end on the board, put the handhold on the top end.
OK. Left foot anchors the fireboard. Right knee behind left
foot. Chest down tight against thigh, left arm braced
across shin. Start sawing with the bow, easy at first, back
and forth. Now pick up a little speed. Back and forth, back
and forth. Faster. Push down harder on the spindle. There,
some smoke. A little faster, bear down a little harder (I'm
running out of breath, my arm's cramping). More smoke.
Good, faster now, faster; push down a little harder . . .
pop, clatter . . . the spindle flies off the board and
across the room, just as it has countless times before.
Feeling beaten, I walk over and pick the spindle up,
forgetting that the end is hot, and burn my
hand—injury added to insult.
Just then Frank, one of the school's instructors, comes
around the corner. "Did you get your fire yet?" he asks
jovially. I grimace. "Look," he says, "let's get together
after tonight's lecture and see if we can't figure out what
you're doing wrong."
"Nah, thanks, that's OK," I say, shrugging. "I'll just
practice when I get home. It's not that important, no big
The afternoon's tracking lecture, like those before it, is
electrifying. When Brown talks tracking, his voice shakes
with excitement, his eyes burn with intensity, he paces
back and forth, his hand flies across the blackboard to
illustrate a point. He is obsessed with tracking and admits
it. As a child, he developed a callus across his lower
chest from spending so much time crawling on the ground
poring over tracks.
"Every mark is a track," Brown teaches. "Everything that is
not flat is a track; the Grand Canyon is a water track, a
fallen tree is a track of the heartrot that killed it and
of the wind that felled it. Every dent, pocket, fissure,
scrape, mark in the ground, every rolling hill, every
scratch is a track. The ground is a manuscript, an open
book; it is littered with tracks, from the largest to the
smallest, and each one tells you something."
To me, the lectures are a revelation. Brown's teaching goes
way beyond merely identifying foot or paw prints in the
dirt. "Earth mother gives you a clear print to follow maybe
5% of the time," he says. He teaches us compression
tracking—identifying vague depressions in the ground
or deep leaf litter or thin dust by their general shape and
the patterns in which they're arranged.
Then he moves to an even more subtle art, the reading of
what Brown calls pressure releases, the characteristic ways
the earth compresses, cracks, crumbles, moves, responds to
a foot or paw. There are hundreds of them, and each means
something different. There is a single release that
indicates an increase in speed from slow jog to jog,
another for a slight turn of the head to the right, another
for a momentary hesitation (perhaps the person or animal
considered changing direction for an instant, then decided
otherwise). Pressure releases tell all.
"From one footprint," says Brown, "I can tell a person's
height and weight, gender, emotional state, condition of
health and degree of strength. I can tell whether they're
right- or left-handed, whether their stomach is full or
empty, whether they have to go to the bathroom. I can even
tell a few days before a person gets a cold, because
there's a restriction in breathing."
The lecture lasts well into the evening. Brown's energy
never abates. He draws dozens of release patterns on the
blackboard. He steps into a tracking box—sort of a
pro quality sandbox—and demonstrates how even subtle
body movements are revealed in prints. He is unrelenting.
He sketches more releases. He tells us of releases within
releases, of microreleases. We learn that all of the
releases we've discussed can be created not only by a foot
or paw, but by individual toes, by each lobe of an animal's
It's simply too much for a mortal to absorb. By the time we
file out, I've filled my third notebook and I'm brain dead,
the victim of a tracking fanatic. I take advantage of a
rare lull in activities and tumble into my sleeping bag.
Later that evening, an hour before we're scheduled to
partake in a traditional sweat lodge ceremony—a
culmination of the week's lessons—I walk into the
wrong room at the wrong time. A half dozen students are
standing in a loose circle cheering, and in the center a
student who hadn't yet managed to get a bow drill fire
going is holding a flaming tinder bundle.
They see me before I can back away. "OK, Terry, you're
next! You can do it! You've got to do it! Think fire! Think
fire!" Before I know it, I'm in the one place in the world
I least want to be, kneeling over a cold, hard fireboard,
bow in hand.
I start sawing away, back and forth, back and forth.
There's a wisp of smoke. I saw faster. More smoke. "Go!
Go!" the people in the background are chanting. I push down
harder, saw faster. A little more smoke. Back and forth,
back and forth, for what seems an eternity. Suddenly the
smoke billows and someone shouts, "You've got a coal,
you've got a coal!" I drop the bow, grab a toothpick-size
twig and gently nudge the coal into the tinder bundle.
Carefully, I pick up the bundle, cradle the coal inside the
fibers and bring the tinder to my lips. I blow gently. The
coal glows red, the tinder smokes. I blow again. It glows
redder. I blow again. The coal turns bright
orange—and dies. A groan goes up from the cheering
But I know what I've done wrong, and I'm already sawing
away again by the time my coaches are telling me: "Feed the
coal! You've got to keep the tinder all around the coal!"
The smoke billows again, I get a coal again, I tip it into
the tinder and bring the bundle to my lips again. I fill my
lungs with air and blow it out, long and steady. The coal
burns orange. I press the tinder inward, take another
breath, blow it out. More burn, more smoke. I keep the
rhythm going. Breathe in, blow out, more tinder, breathe
in, blow out. The smoke thickens and someone whispers,
"He's got it, he's got it." Breathe in, blow out, breathe
in, blow-whoosh! The bundle bursts into flames!
I am no shouter; at football games, a muttered "All right"
is the most I can manage when the home team makes a
touchdown. But at the sight of that fire, that astonishing
flame created from nothing, something way down inside of me
wells up and before I can catch myself I'm standing and
shrieking like a banshee, announcing with a triumphant
primal scream that I've made fire.
It is a night for profound experiences. In the sweat lodge,
there is no light, and in the darkness no up or down, no
sense of space or time. There is only the
heat—intense, purifying, drawing water from our
bodies—and the rhythm of our breathing, of Brown's
voice chanting, of ebb and flow. "Every drop of water
contains a little bit of the ocean," Brown has told us. "In
the sweat lodge you can feel the ancient pull of the tide,
reminding you of your origins and of the unity of all
We emerge from the lodge into a cold, bright, crystalline
night. I stand under the stars, throw my head back to the
sky and bask.
By 9:00 the next morning we're on our hands and knees out
in front of the barn with Brown, tracking mice across the
farm's hardpacked gravel driveway. I can't see the tracks
Brown points out until I heed his instructions: "Always
keep the track between you and the light, get close to the
ground, and look at the surface at a severe angle." I lean
way down, my eye an inch or two above the ground, low
morning sun opposite. There; so subtle they're barely more
than a reflection, the crucifix-like compression shapes
characteristic of rodents.
An hour later we're back in the classroom. Most of us have
to leave soon. "I have a confession to make," Brown says.
"I brought you here on false pretenses. You came here to
learn survival skills, and I've taught you those skills. I
know that with what you've learned you'll be able to
survive, quite comfortably, anywhere in the country as long
as it's not a parking lot. But that's not why I spent this
week with you." He pauses. His voice shakes with emotion.
"I believe we're fighting a desperate war to save what's
left of the earth from destruction. The earth is our
mother. She is lying raped and dying by the side of the
road. She needs our help. We have to help, or she'll die,
and we with her.
"I believe that teaching survival gets to people's hearts,
that when a person learns how to enter the world purely,
unencumbered by society, where you live a hand-to-mouth
existence with the earth, a connection develops. That's why
I run this school, to bring as many people as possible back
to the earth, and to send them out to teach other people."
Brown speaks slowly, pleadingly. "I hope that when you go
home you will have a new love and respect for the earth,
that you will have a commitment to help save it, and that
you will help bring others back close to the earth. Please,
people, take what you have learned here this week and teach
others. Time is running out."
The room is silent, charged with passion and purpose.
By late afternoon, I'm on a crowded bus headed back to the
Newark Airport, Brown's words still ringing in my ears. I'm
leaving the school with far more than I expected.
Wilderness School Evaluation
Am I an expert tracker? No, that'll take time. But I've got
an awfully good start. I've acquired survival skills that I
know will keep me alive should I ever need them, and that
in any case will allow me to hike, camp or otherwise enter
the natural world free of worry, free of what Brown calls
the "what if" question: What if I lose my backpack, what if
I break my leg . . . And I'll be able to teach those same
skills to my wife and children and friends.
Most important, though, I've gained a greater sense of my
place in the world and a heightened awareness of the life
around me. I have begun, in a small way, to feel what the
Native Americans called "the spirit that moves in all
The bus pulls into the Newark Airport, a hubbub of concrete
and cars. It has been quite a week.
Editor's Note: Tuition for the six-day Standard Class at
the Tom Brown School of Tracking, Nature and Wilderness
Survival is $515. Classes are held once or twice a month
throughout the year beginning in April. For further
information and a schedule of classes, write The Tracker,
Asbury, N J.