Survival School Teaches Tenderfoots
Mar. 03, 2002
APOPKA, Fla. (AP) _ Starting a fire with only some sticks. Tracking and catching a rabbit, then skinning it with a primitive rock knife. Sleeping in a crude shelter of fallen logs and dead leaves.
The Girl Scouts was never like this for Jenny Jai. That's why the 42-year-old cell biologist from Monticello in Florida's Panhandle enrolled in Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School.
``This is big-time camp. This is grown-up camp,'' Jai said. ``All the stuff I wanted to learn when I joined the Girl Scouts but nobody knew how to teach me, I'm learning it here. We're not selling cookies.''
Jai was among 80 students who had come to a YMCA campground in the piney woods on Orlando's outskirts to learn all about surviving _ thriving _ in the wilds.
``That's the perpetuated myth, that the woods are a big, bad place,'' said Brown, who founded the school 23 years ago. ``All I've found is the Garden of Eden.''
Interest in his survival training has jumped since Sept. 11 as students decide they want to learn how to master their environment in the event of a major catastrophe.
Brown's desire to help his students excel goes beyond professional pride. His brother-in-law, Michael Horrocks, was co-pilot of United Airlines Flight 175, the second plane to hit the World Trade Center. A military man he taught died in a helicopter crash in Pakistan during the opening days of the war.
How can a person live off the land with no tools but the brain?
Very well, according to Brown.
Consider that the school's expert-level survival class tosses students, dressed only in a sweat shirt and jeans, into Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness area in the dead of winter for 28 days. After five days, the students must shed their clothes. That's when the training in skinning animals and tanning their hides comes into practice.
``The average weight gain is 4 pounds,'' Brown boasted.
Brown's school began in the pine barrens of New Jersey, where he grew up, but he is expanding to Northern California and Florida. Brown and his team of volunteer teachers were in Apopka through mid-February.
He plans to conduct training in Boulder Creek, Calif., March 3-9 and for two weeks in May in Asbury Park, N.J.
In Apopka, students paid $800 for a one-week session, with 16-hour days, for the privilege of learning how to make a stone saw, which can be used to cut wood, which, in turn, can be used for building a trap to ensnare a wild animal. Leftover wood can be used for a fire to cook that animal.
Ah, fire. One of the first things students learn is how to build fire. It brings heat, light and _ in many cases _ joy.
``I would call it a simple pleasure, but a very deep one,'' said Glenn Knowlton, a 30-year-old member of the Air Force who lives in nearby Tampa.
Knowlton, like most of the other students, spent much of his break time practicing with their bow drills, which quickly spins a wooden dowel over another piece of wood and dry tinder.
``You own fire, you possess fire,'' Brown said. ``I've seen the hardest-ass guys break down and cry when they get fire.''
Brown learned what he teaches from Stalking Wolf, an Apache elder who was the great-grandfather of his best friend in childhood.
``A great deal of what I teach is based on his traditions and beliefs,'' Brown said. ``To have good survival skills, one needs to be 'one' with the Earth, and Stalking Wolf's philosophy is a big part of that.''
That mysticism runs through many of the 16 books Brown has written, and are almost as big a draw for many students as the survival skills being taught.
``His philosophy is what I've been looking for,'' said Tony Yu, a 23-year-old designer from Pittsburgh. ``When I read 'The Tracker,' I was like, 'Oh my God, there's an answer to some of the questions I've been asking.'''
But Brown's classes have many not-so-spiritual applications. His classes often have members of elite military units enrolled, there to learn effective ways to survive so they can better kill. ``I am hoping that some of the guys I trained will have a chance to use those skills on the ground, tracking terrorists to their caves,'' Brown said.
While survival during wartime is a reality that must be taught, it's not what Brown would like to pass on to his students. That lesson, he said, is far deeper.
``The greatest thing about survival, that very few people realize, is they get something that nobody else possesses: freedom,'' Brown said. ``No matter how the bastards get them down in life, they always know they can pull that car off the road, they can step off the bus, Gus, and walk into the wilderness.''
On the Net:
Tom Brown Jr.'s Tracker School: http://www.trackerschool.com/