The Tracker
The world’s foremost authority on tracking and survival holds class in the wilderness
By Kate Morgan

Tom Brown Jr. says he can tell a lot of things from a person’s footprint: their height, weight and, remarkably, how they’re feeling.

_DSC7855-2135“I can tell, at a glance, whether a person is right- or left-handed, male or female, the emotional state they’re in, whether they’re hungry, how long ago they’ve eaten and whether or not they have to go to the bathroom,” says Brown, 65. “I can tell if a woman is two weeks pregnant, and I’ll know that someone needs to see a doctor before they experience any symptoms.”

This is one of the many skills Brown says he learned as a child in the wilds of Toms River, under the tutelage of an Apache named Stalking Wolf, whom he refers to as “Grandfather.”

“My best friend growing up – his great-grandfather was a full-blooded Apache from the Southwest, who came up to visit when we were 7,” Brown says. “He stayed until I was 18, so every day after school, every weekend, we were back in the woods, because I had this insatiable obsession for learning. Nothing else interested me.”

As Brown tells it, Grandfather challenged the boys with riddles and tests of skill. They found themselves trekking through a blizzard in only sneakers and underwear and sneaking up to slap the flanks of deer who never heard them coming. They learned to camouflage themselves so well, they were able to pet wild badgers.

Grandfather died in the early 1970s, and his great-grandson, Brown’s friend, died in an accident not long after. Brown spent the next few years living off the grid in the Rocky Mountains and Central America, occasionally coming to the aid of police and law enforcement agencies that needed help finding both people who were lost and people who did not want to be found.

“I built my reputation via tracking, both in fugitive recovery and lost people,” Brown says. “I really started working with the police way back when I was about 12 years old. It started with a simple dog bite case. A child in town was bitten by a dog, which then ran off into the woods. My family’s close friend was a retired state trooper.

He came down to find me and said they needed to find the dog to see if it was rabid. I simply tracked down the dog. After that, the local police started using me on their tracking cases. Later, I wandered North and South America tracking for the police and the FBI.”

Some of these cases gained him public acclaim. Newspapers covered a 1975 case where Brown found eight canoeists who’d been lost in a swamp for 12 hours. He was also recognized for his 1977 rescue of a man with mental disabilities who’d been wandering the woods for five days.

Brown says he’s had a hand in high-profile investigations, including the 1969 Manson Family murders of actress Sharon Tate and four other people at Tate’s Los Angeles home.

“I was about 18 years old then,” Brown recalls. “One of the troopers working the case called me in to identify some tracks around the Tate residence. I was flown out to L.A. for one day. I told them there were a number of people involved, and that some of them were women, and then I flew home.”

A 1978 case garnered national attention and thrust Brown into the spotlight after he helped police in Ramsey, N.J., apprehend a suspect in the rape of three teenage babysitters. That case led to offers for movie and book deals, and an appearance on the Today show.

“I was 28, and Tom Brokaw asked me what I wanted to do next,” Brown says. “I told him, ‘Write a book and open a school.’”

Brown did just that. His first book, about his boyhood experiences with Grandfather, called “The Tracker,” was released that same year. To date, Brown has written 17 books, including memoirs, and tracking and plant guides, which have sold more than two million copies internationally.

His school, now in its 38th year, attracts students from everywhere the books are sold. Classes of 30 or so students stay at the camp, which is three miles from the nearest road in the Pine Barrens near Waretown. During a week in the camp, students learn how to survive without the things most suburbanites and city-dwellers consider necessities.

“When you have a backpack on, you’re like a scuba diver,” Brown says. “You lose that backpack, and now you’re a diver who’s run out of air. What I provide my students is that proverbial insurance policy; whatever happens, they’re going to survive. At the end of a week, they’ll be able to survive in any place with virtually nothing. They’ll be more aware than they’ve ever been in their lives, and they’ll be able to track a mouse across gravel.”

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Tracker School students pitch in by making meals for their fellow campers

“People come from everywhere my books are published. In one class I get people from Japan, Germany, Canada, Europe, South America and all over the United States. Some people can’t even speak English. We go year-round, and there are over 100 different levels of courses offered. Some, like the basic courses, are taught every year. Others only run once every 10 years.”

Attendees pay between $800 and $1,000 for a week at the school. A basic survival course includes lessons in shelter and fire building, making arrowheads, finding water, and identifying edible and medicinal plants. These are skills that can – and have – saved lives.

“My son and I did a segment on one of the morning TV shows where we built a debris hut, basically a survival shelter made of sticks and brush,” Brown says. “Well, this little kid watched it, and then when his family went camping he got lost. He built a debris hut, and when they found him he was safe and sound. Shelter is the big one – more people die of exposure than from anything else.”

The Tracker School boasts politicians, famous actors and elite military personnel among its graduates. In the 1980s, Dick Marcinko, leader of the Navy’s original SEAL Team Six, sent members of his special-ops force to Brown’s school.

In another book, Brown wrote about being called in to recapture one of those operatives who’d later gone rogue. In 2003, that particular story was adapted into a major Hollywood movie called “The Hunted,” starring Benicio Del Toro and Tommy Lee Jones. Brown served as technical advisor on the film, teaching the actors the basics of tracking, building fires, carving knives and setting snares.

“They made that into a movie and it’s Hollywood, so in some cases things get made to look a little more exciting than they are,” Brown says. “Only about a quarter of my tracking cases are fugitive recovery. The others are things like drug smuggling or missing persons – normal stuff.”

Brown is perhaps the world’s best-known authority on tracking and survival, but his classes also include a notable spiritual element. The lectures are a curious mix of skill demonstration, traditional Apache ceremony and Earth stewardship.

All of this has served to create a kind of legend surrounding Brown. What he says he can do seems impossible, and there are many who maintain that it is.

A few websites and online message boards are dedicated to debunking Brown’s stories about his Apache mentor and his larger-than-life experiences. In fact, much of the history is difficult to authenticate. Grandfather is long dead, and Brown has said “Stalking Wolf” is a pseudonym, making his existence nearly impossible to verify. Details surrounding the man vary – in some accounts he’s the grandfather of Brown’s best friend. In others, he’s a great-grandfather or an uncle. Some critics say many of the episodes Brown recounts in his books seem tinged with fiction or, at the very least, mildly exaggerated. Berkley Books, Brown’s publisher, declined to comment on the authenticity of the books, but Brown maintains they’re entirely factual.

What has been proven, however, is Brown’s well-documented ability to succeed where others have failed. Local police often call him in to find hikers who’ve gotten lost in the 100-acre park that borders the tracking school. The police keep calling because, as officers have said publicly, “he always finds them.”

Whatever the balance of fact and myth in the legend of Tom Brown Jr., his love of nature – and belief in people’s responsibility to preserve it – are not up for debate.

“Being in the bush, being alone and reflecting on the nature around you, changes the way you look at the Earth,” he says.

“There’s a sense of knowing that no matter what befalls you, you’ll survive because you have everything you need. The folks who come here are people who cherish the wilderness. They hear this drummer that is difficult to describe, but they find inspiration and enlightenment in the relationship between themselves and the Earth. The more time you spend alone, the more it comes out – you just seem to know, but not know how you know. That’s an instinct. That’s the drummer. That’s the bond that pulls us all together.”

November 2015
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