Tracker gains big following even as some say tales stray

Many disciples, and a few skeptics, for outspoken Pinelands outdoorsman.

Posted: June 26, 2011

They've come from all over, by plane from Germany and by car from Virginia, to 30 remote acres deep in the Ocean County Pine Barrens.

From the stage of an open-air lecture hall, Tom Brown Jr. - internationally renowned outdoorsman, author, and, say some, self-mythologizer - orders his pupils into the woods to light a fire in the name of the late Apache whose teachings define his life.

The group members silently encircle the blaze, hands linked and heads lowered. When they return, their fleece and Gore-Tex smell of smoke.

"When you were at that fire, how many of you noticed that different perspective forming?" Brown asks solemnly. Sixty hands rise into the air.

Brown nods, then launches into another lecture, a curious mix of American Indian spirituality and practical know-how gained from decades of living off the grid.

Like newborn fawn, humans know instinctively what plants they can eat and where to find water, Brown explains later.

"They're sitting out there trying to identify the five medicinal properties of an oak tree," he says of his students.

"I've only told them two. They'll sense the rest."

'A tough person to know'

At 61, Brown is one of the world's best-known authorities on tracking and survival techniques. His extensive writings have earned him a cult following and drawn thousands of visitors to the outdoors school near Waretown that bears his name.

With his perfectly cropped silver hair, clean-shaven face, and former proclivity for muscle shirts, the rangy, taciturn Brown doesn't fit the classic image of the outdoorsman.

"He plays up the gruffness, because people expect it. A lot of people push him to be an Indian, but he doesn't like that. He's a white kid from Toms River," says Charlie Blackwell, 44, a longtime admirer. "He's a tough person to know. Either he'll talk your ear off, or he won't say a single word for a day."

Most of Brown's story can be gleaned from his 17 books. The titles, ranging from boyhood memoir to edible-plant guide, have sold two million copies since 1978.

Written with childlike wonder of the natural world, they struck a chord with the outdoors community and have helped market Brown's Tracker School, where nature and survival courses run $900 a week and have attracted celebrities such as actors Chuck Norris and Aaron Eckhart.

Brown's tales of a youth spent roaming the Pinelands with his elderly Apache mentor, and his career tracking people and animals, have some skeptical, however. Online message boards are devoted to debunking the Brown legend.

"It comes down to whether you want to believe it," says Dave Wescott, past owner of the Boulder (Colo.) Outdoor Survival School, which describes itself as the nation's oldest wilderness school. "People come along and make their accusations, but nobody has done anything to prove it or disprove it."

Words and deeds

Brown tends to embellish, say some involved in the events he has described.

In his 2003 Case Files of the Tracker, Brown writes that in 1999, he tracked a Bengal tiger for a mile after it escaped from a private residence in Jackson Township, N.J., and was shot by police.

The tiger "could strike from anywhere at any moment. The forest was virtually silent, as if in mourning," Brown writes.

But a retired member of what is now the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife recalls that the big cat crossed a road and lay down to die only 70 yards into the woods, leaving a bloody trail.

"My grandmother could have tracked that tiger," says Martin Morales, a former captain with the wildlife department, who was on the scene.

Brown is "a really competent guy, but I think he should be writing novels."

In the same book, Brown says he captured a rogue military operative he had trained. Details, including locales, have been left vague, Brown says, due to the sensitive nature of the case. The events described in the book are similar to those of the 2003 film The Hunted, on which Brown served as technical adviser to Tommy Lee Jones, who played an FBI tracker on the prowl for a trained assassin.

Dick Marcinko, who led the Navy's original SEAL Team Six, sent some of his special-ops force to Brown's school in the early 1980s, when, Brown says, the case occurred. He was impressed by the results, Marcinko says, but the idea that Brown was sent alone and unarmed to rein in the operative is "stretching a little far," he says.

Berkley Books, Brown's publisher, declined to comment on the authenticity of the accounts.

Brown vows that they are "100 percent true" and says many who doubt him have "an ax to grind."

He typically is summoned when traditional investigators have failed, Brown says, and "the last thing they are going to do is make themselves look bad."

Few who have witnessed Brown tracking question his abilities, however.

Matthew Azzarone of the Ocean Township police says he calls Brown if a hiker gets lost in a 100-acre park near the Tracker School.

"It's amazing to watch," Azzarone says. "He's looking at the vegetation and thinking about the commonalities of what people do. He always finds them."

Founded school in 1978

Brown, who grew up near Toms River, N.J., founded his school in 1978 after spending his 20s living in the wilds of the Rocky Mountains and Central America for extended periods.

Business was slow. But that same year Brown's first book, The Tracker, was published. Reader's Digest published an abridged version.

The autobiography details Brown's apprenticeship with Stalking Wolf, of the Lipan Apache, a small tribe on the Texas-Mexico border that dispersed generations ago. Stalking Wolf had migrated to the Pinelands wilderness, where he had a young nephew whom Brown befriended.

Stalking Wolf poses riddles and tests the boys, who are soon walking through a blizzard in nothing but their sneakers and underwear, being chased by wild dogs and slapping the flanks of deer who never hear them coming.

At the end of the Reader's Digest version was a mention of the Tracker School. Before long, people were filing in to learn how to survive in the places the stories were set.

One early pupil was state Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., then the teenage son of the New Jersey governor and a developing outdoorsman.

"The class really stuck with me," Kean says. "One time we came back to the lecture, and [Brown] was up in the rafters of the barn, 18 feet up in the air, but we didn't notice. . . . He was teaching us you had to look at every situation as if you'd never seen it before."

Set three miles from the nearest paved road, the Tracker School is a self-contained world that revolves around its founder. Most people come for the introductory course, which includes topics ranging from making a fire without matches to skinning and cooking animals. But a core group comes back again and again for increasingly advanced classes with names such as Scout and Philosophy 2.

Some get yearlong unpaid gigs as caretakers at the camp, where they keep an eye out for illegal dumping and hone their survival skills.

The school has long been a destination for searchers and those who have struggled through drug or relationship problems and want to change their lives, says Brown's third wife, Celeste. The Browns live in an RV down the road with Celeste's two children and are visited occasionally by Brown's children.

"I always said I wasn't going to be one of those people who follows Tom. But here I am," says Nancy Klein, a 61-year-old from Michigan who has worked for Brown since the late 1980s.

A Northern California couple spent the winter at the camp in a woodland shelter that looks like a pile of leaves with a chimney, but is actually cedar planks lashed together with wood strips.

Bathing was tough, says Jahnia Mitchell, half of the sturdy pair: "You have to break through the ice."

At the school, Brown is an elusive sage. He strolls alone among the trees, chain-smoking. But on stage, he talks to a crowd of 100 with the ease of a television personality.

"When I see a backpacker, I imagine a scuba diver or an astronaut. There's an apprehension people carry inside them, and survival brings you back to being a child of the Earth," he says in an interview.

Brown's brother, Jim, a science professor at Ocean County College and a former state assistant health commissioner, recounts how Brown wore buckskin clothes to school and was generally an outcast. In the solitude of the woods, Brown melded Stalking Wolf's teachings with his family's strict Protestantism, his brother says.

"Our family almost considered it paganism," Jim Brown says. Stalking Wolf "didn't talk a heck of a lot. He kind of had a bit of an accent. I can't tell you how much I detested the guy. His relationship with [Brown], I never got past that."

Stalking Wolf died in the early 1970s. Within six months, his nephew - Tom Brown's closest childhood friend - was killed in a horse-riding accident in Spain.

"It was one of the saddest times of my life because I felt so alone," Brown says. "I had no one who spoke my language. But when I opened my school, I was surrounded by people who worshiped at this same temple."

Decades later, his acolytes know well the gospel of Tom Brown. What of his story is truth and what stems from Brown's imagination is beside the point, they say.

Matt Corradino, 33, is an instructor who lives in the camp with his wife and has studied with Brown for years.

At times, he has wondered about his boss. But then they will be riding in a car at 35 m.p.h., Corradino says, and Brown will ask him to pull over because he thinks he has spotted raccoon tracks. And, lo and behold, he has.

"Whether there's some BS in his stories, that's irrelevant to me, because I'm learning," Corradino says.

"Whenever he's shown me something, it's right."

To watch a video about Tom Brown Jr.'s tracking school, go to

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or

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