It’s ironic; Trackers is a wilderness skills program, yet for many of our camps we get on buses and drive places. Many are near, within 15 minutes, some are far, taking a little over 45 minutes to get there. Yet there’s a very good reason for this method; sometimes you just have to get away from the city. Think about it as a “School Bus Time Machine,” transporting our students from the urban environs to a more primitive time.

Years ago, when we first moved into our Portland headquarters, we were very excited to be next door to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. We had the opportunity to trail deer with kids, and even play stealth scenarios in the woods, right in our backyard!

Of course, we were always careful. Some activities were good fits for a wildlife refuge, some were not. I had always assumed tracking was a good thing, even a great one; it provides wildlife information and builds awareness about local parks. But to really understand the animal, you have to go off-trail. You have to walk the way it walks, moving silently with the rhythm of the birds singing, pausing every time a trail braids through the meadow, sensing for every shift in the wind.

Yet going off-trail is understandably not okay in a public park. Imagine if the vast numbers of people in Portland did it, if mountain bikers, hikers, joggers, dog walkers, and everyone else said, “well, if the trackers can run these dirt paths, so can I.” Soon the wilderness would be crisscrossed with innumerable trails as more and more people forged their own way.  It wouldn’t be healthy for the land. And we aren’t going to claim that we have some special privilege to run off trail when everyone else shouldn’t.

So, back we went onto the asphalt trails.

The same thought process is applied to most skills we teach. We do them in a low impact way, we can even do them in a way that helps restore the landscape (i.e. pulling invasive ivy for baskets), but we can’t make everyone so responsible. And even then, the folks that manage the parks may not have the same experience with our skills that we do. Because they literally have hundreds of thousands of people to deal with, it would be impossible for them to make informed exceptions for every person, organization, or bullfrog hunting kid out there.

So what can you do in the 142-acre park directly across the street from our Portland flagship? Mostly get out the binoculars and go birding from the asphalt trail. Sigh. There are very good reasons you can’t make a campfire, can’t build a shelter, or even pull out a carving knife and whittle. The entire populace of Portland potentially using one place force regulations on what was once natural human activity.

Trackers is better at adhering to the regulations than most programs, and even goes above and beyond the requirements whenever we can. We teach complex skills with modern standards of safety and care. I would put Trackers methods toe to toe any camp our outdoor program out there, but even the label “outdoor survival skills” can carry false assumptions I often have to address.

This is a good shelterFor example, a couple years ago a rather upset ranger visited me from an “Unnamed Parks Department”. He had found a rope swing out in one of the parks, and assumed it belonged to us. I sincerely responded that we don’t build rope swings, and that he might want to check in with the neighborhood kids.

Then there was the occasion where a different “Unnamed Parks Department” emailed us pictures of some truly slapdash shelters someone left up in the woods, thinking they were ours. This has actually happened with quite a few different parks, as we are the most prominent survival school in the area. I kindly let them know our students would never build survival shelters that looked so awful and were so nonfunctional. Ours are made with care and thought; check out the one in the photo above. In one case the shoddy shelters were left by another primitive skills school; in another, it turned out to be the actual camp program ran by the park itself!

These are some of the reasons we often use private sites in more rural areas. They are why we have to drive. Sometimes we work with local landowners to create outdoor classrooms, and lately we have been able to buy and put into conservation our own properties. How we manage these natural areas is all about people showing love for a place through hands-on work. The latest example of this is our Rangers Apprenticeship clearing debris from roads and handicap access trails to build their survival shelters. They perform a service project and also sleep in “piles of organized leaves” as rite of passage.

That is how we cultivate these places into havens of old school skills; we train in ways that actually restore a piece of land. They are sanctuaries where kids can step off trail, light campfires, build shelters, and shoot bows. They are about a reciprocal relationship with earth.

But what about the wilderness in the city? Are we leaving it behind? No way, we still use Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge, but very judiciously. There we observe, serve, and watch. But unless we only want to talk about fire, we need to get in a bus and go for a 30 to 60 minute drive. It’s an unavoidable reality.

So by the end of this rant, you might wonder what I’m advocating for. First, we have to respect our local parks and why these regulations exist—even empathizing with the park rangers who work hard dealing with all of us in the random public. Second, we need nearby wild spaces where kids can truly explore as kids and responsible organizations can teach heartfelt wild ways. Will that happen immediately? No. It’s really hard to save enough pennies to get more land. Plus, the land is disappearing fast. We’ve look high and low for places closer into Portland.

So here is my plea. Can you help us? Can you let us know if a local landowner wants to host Trackers camps on their land this summer and beyond? We have best practices for proper insurance, permitting, and safety. We even have the funding! Our experience can help landowners to accomplish this with not only our organization, but other camps and outdoor programs doing such important work.

My Hope, Your Help…

I am making a personal plea, as the Founder of Trackers, as an educator for over 20 years, and as a father who knows the importance of free-range kids. Contact Us if you want to help create a network of citizen managed natural areas that can host inclusive outdoor skills programs in Portland and beyond.


Tony Deis
Trackers Earth, Founder

Featured Programs

Ages 9-17 B.P.R.D Training Camp July 29-August 2 Trackers is proud to partner with Dark Horse Comics for a camp that takes you through the mythic and epic comic book universe of Hellboy. Trainees team up with experienced Agents and take on an anchent and malevolent foe bent on taking over the world!


Ages 10-15 Kayak Adventure Camp Offered throughout the summer  Travel the waterways of Portland in our traditional hand-built kayaks. Learn to balance, paddle, safely recover from tips, knots, and many other nautical skills in this awesome Mariner camp. We provide the Kayak  you bring the sense of Adventure!

Community Picnic & Archery Tournament

Join us for an amazing day in Sandy, Oregon. The entire Trackers Community is welcome to help celebrate the graduation of this year’s Rangers Apprenticeship. Our teens will help teach traditional skills workshops to visiting families.

What Bring your family and a potluck dish. Trackers will be BBQing hot dogs for everyone. Picnic, Rangers Apprenticeship Gradutation, Archery & Horseshoe Tournament

Who Hosted by the Rangers Guild

When Saturday, June 1, 2013, 11am-4pm

Where Bull Run Educational Center, 41515 SE Thomas Rd, Sandy, Oregon 97055 (in the campground)

RSVP or just come hang out!