(Trigger warning: sexual violence)
I emerged from the woods, intending to follow a secluded laneway to the next trail, when I noticed a white van parked about 100m behind me on the laneway. There was a man in the driver’s seat. I paused imperceptibly, then walked in the opposite direction. As I trudged through the deep snow beside the lane, I could hear the van’s motor running behind me. The van was slowing driving closer. The hairs raised on the back of my neck. Without moving my head, I eyed my surroundings. There were no other hikers nearby, this time of day. After all, I liked to hike in solitude. There was plenty of open space if I needed to run, and I was about 800m away from some buildings that should have people in them. My heart started beating rapidly, and I stiffened as the van passed me. It drove on down the lane, around a bend to a parking lot out of sight. As soon as it disappeared, I ducked back into the woods, striding quickly in the opposite direction, down a steep incline towards the pond. I made sure I couldn’t be easily tracked if I were followed, and I only stopped when I was certain any danger was past.
As much as I enjoy hiking in the woods alone, there’s one aspect that makes me incredibly nervous: the fear of being assaulted. If I dwell on it too much, I start to get righteously pissed off that I’m a woman who has to worry about such things. But I do worry. The scenario above? It actually happened, just a few weeks ago. The man in the van was probably harmless, but when I’m alone in a semi-secluded area, every man is a possible threat.
I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse from a distant male relative, and I suffer from mild PTSD related to my experiences. In the past I’ve also had a couple of close calls that have kept me from walking alone for months. The first happened when I was a young teenager. I’d decided to walk in my suburban neighbourhood early one summer morning before dawn. An older man in his 50s passed me on a bicycle, then circled back, quietly catcalling to me. I immediately ran to the nearest house and pounded on the front door, waking the inhabitants and scaring the man off. Then, in my late 20s, I was walking alone by the university on a weekend morning, and a man exposed himself to me near the river.
A quick online search on the subject of running safety (the closest thing to hiking safety that I could find) turned up repeated admonitions never to run alone. This frustrates me to no end, because I don’t want to have to depend on someone else’s schedule to get my exercise. Besides which, I enjoy exploring the natural world at my own pace, stopping often to take photographs. In my experience, this doesn’t make me a great hiking partner. More importantly, I feel less free when I have to curtail my activities because of the implied vulnerability of my gender. This is not cool.
So I compromise. I may go alone, but I try to be as conscious as I can of any possible threats to my safety. I try not to be predictable. I vary my locations, as well as times and days of the week. I “check in” my location on Facebook when I arrive. (My mom once asked why I always identified my location on Facebook when I went for a hike. “Um, so you know where to start looking if I disappear, Mom.”) I watch for other hikers – or other people, period. I plan escape routes. I don’t listen to music while I hike. I stay aware of my surroundings – I’m alert to every twig cracking, every leaf rustling. And if I get a bad feeling about a secluded area before I enter it, I immediately turn around and go somewhere else.
I still make poor judgements, though. Like the time I went hiking alone at the Sifton Bog early one morning. I had never been there before, and didn’t know what to expect. There were signs posted in the parking lot, warning of a local thief who was repeatedly breaking into parked cars. That should have given me pause. The trail map showed long trails circling the bog, and a single trail going right in to its centre. I chose the latter, because I wanted to see the bog itself. The landscape was amazing; the boardwalk made me claustrophobic. At the end of the trail I quickly snapped a few pictures and then turned around to leave. I was startled by another woman walking towards me with a large dog.
“I didn’t know if this was a good idea,” she said. “I’ve never walked here alone here, this time of day.” I admitted that I’d felt uneasy, too. Our hushed, embarrassed laughter revealed our unspoken fears. I made a decision: I wouldn’t be taking that particular trail alone again. And maybe I should finally look into those Aikido classes that Sam is always recommending. This article suggests that learning even a basic martial arts fighting stance could deter a potential attacker:
“A woman’s immediate reaction is going to determine her fate…If I’m an attacker and I run towards a woman and she steps back and gets into a martial arts fighting stance I’m going to say ‘This woman is crazy or knows what she is doing and I’m going to find someone else to mess with.'”
I so want to be someone who an attacker wouldn’t dare mess with.
[Author update, July 2016: I started studying the martial art of aikido in early 2014, and am currently about half-way to achieving my black belt. I was also diagnosed with breast cancer in the summer of 2015, and both aikido and cancer have shifted my perspective on fear. Aikido taught me to “enter” when I’m being attacked, and cancer proved to me that I could fight. Martial arts may not be the answer for every survivor of abuse or trauma, but I would highly recommend aikido to anyone. MLG]
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.