I bought my first pair of hiking boots recently and I LOVE them.
I’ve *meant* to buy a pair for YEARS but somehow never got around to it.
I do a fair but of walking but I haven’t done a lot of hiking in the last. It seemed weird to buy special footwear when I could just wear my sneakers and do just fine.
But I plan to do more hiking and there’s a difference between doing ‘fine’ and doing well.
Any time that I *have* gone on a hike, my sneakers have let me down. Either my feet have gotten wet or I have slid around a bit or I have almost turned my ankle. My sneakers were fine but I looked in envy at my friends in their hiking boots who seemed to be having a smoother hike than I was.
Often, I’d get home and scope out hiking boots online and then put the search aside for later…and never get back to it until I was once again annoyed on a hike.
Recently though, I came across the perfect hiking boots in my price range.
They remind me of a pair my most outdoorsy sister had years ago, so that’s inspirational. And the fact that she used to wear them out clubbing almost as often as she wore them out hiking bodes well for their potential comfort. (She used to call them her ‘dancing boots, in fact.)
Anyway, I have been wearing them on my walks with Khalee lately and I am really understanding the difference between doing ‘fine’ and doing ‘well.’
Now that spring is here-ish, I would normally have ditched my winter boots for my sneakers. But, since I have hiking boots I have been wearing them instead and they are the perfect in-between for right now.
My feet are dry, I feel sure-footed, and I like how my boots look. I can’t wait to try them on an actual hike.
I recently had the opportunity to tramp (that’s what New Zealanders call hiking) the Tongariro Northern Circuit in the Central North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. The TNC is a four-day, three-night 43.1 km loop that partially overlaps with the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The TNC takes place in the shadows and volcanic fields of the mighty active volcanoes Ngāuruhoe (which you may recognise as Mount Doom in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies) and Tongariro. While I had done plenty of day hikes and a handful of overnight trips before, this was my first multi-day trip, and I decided to do it solo. Aotearoa New Zealand has several tramping tracks that are billed as Great Walks, which means they are well-maintained, monitored by rangers, and usually well-equipped as far as huts and campsites go. The TNC is one of those walks, and as such, is well-populated with trampers and rangers alike. That made me feel fine about going solo. I had previously spent a long time wishing I could do something like this, but it wasn’t until I saw these wise words of a kid from the hilarious blog Live From Snack Timethat I decided it was time to go do it: “You can make a wish, but then you have to do the wish. It doesn’t just happen.” I decided it was time to do the wish.
Here’s the thing about tramping in Aotearoa New Zealand compared to other places: pretty much nothing here will kill you except the weather. There are no large predators like bears or mountain lions, there are no snakes, there are no particularly venomous spiders. The water is usually clean and plenty of trampers just go ahead and drink it without treatment and are usually fine. (Note: that’s risky. Don’t do it. Or do. But also, don’t.) What puts people at risk in the New Zealand backcountry is when weather closes in quickly—particularly common in alpine environments—and natural disasters like avalanches, earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. (There are also risks like falling and breaking your leg and being unable to get to shelter.) Those are serious risks, and I don’t mean to be flippant about them. You must prepare for them as much as you are able. Now, admittedly, there’s not a whole lot you can do if a pyroclastic flow is headed your way, but I’m of the mind that life is inherently risky, and if the only thing that ever figured into your decisions was how risky an activity was, you’d never get off the couch. That’s not the life I want, so I’m prepared to accept some calculated risks. I went to an outdoor equipment shop and asked for advice from them and from experienced friends, rented and borrowed the gear that I could, bought what I couldn’t borrow, and set out.
The track was absolutely incredible and the trip was well worth it. I can’t believe I waited as long as I did to make it happen. The photos don’t capture the scale and vastness of the landscape. They don’t capture that mixed-up feeling of achievement, relief, and “Well, that wasn’t so bad!” that rises up when you arrive at the hut. It’s hard to explain the introspection that goes on when it’s just you, your boots, your pack, and a volcano to keep you company. It was transformative. Really.
But a peculiar thing kept happening while I was tramping, and kept happening after I returned and told people about having gone. People seemed very concerned that I, a woman, was doing this tramp solo. At first, I thought it was a bit funny. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it reflected some weird assumptions people have about women’s ability to manage risk. When I told others about the experience and wondered whether people would have said the same thing about a male soloist, a male friend was quick to tell me that “it wasn’t about gender” (a bold assessment from someone who wasn’t there) and that going solo was “potentially foolhardy.” He’s right, in some sense: the risks of tramping—things like avalanches and volcanic eruptions—aren’t about gender. The volcano does not care about the genders of the trampers walking on it when it erupts. Dehydration and hypothermia don’t care about your gender. Venomous snakes don’t care about your gender. Flash floods don’t care about your gender. I’m totally with him on this one: the risk is not about gender. But if that’s the case, then why were the comments? Why were so many of the comments of the scandalized “A woman, alone?” variety? What is it about being a woman that leads people to assume you can’t look after yourself? (If I sound annoyed, it’s because I am.)
I want to be clear about something: I certainly don’t think I know everything about tramping. I’m still very much a novice and will be for a long time. But I’m a sensible novice: I consulted experts while planning my trip, followed their advice, and did every single thing I possibly could do to mitigate my risk. I left detailed trip and route plans with a trusted contact, and I carried a personal locator beacon, a first aid kit, emergency shelter, all-weather clothing, an extra day’s food, and so on. I also respect the power of nature and know that ultimately, sometimes things go wrong and no amount of preparation can save you from that. Nevertheless, I did what was, by any reasonable metric, a good job of making sure I was going to be okay, barring a volcanic eruption. (And let’s be real, having a buddy isn’t really going to help you much in that situation.) It struck me as odd that my friend immediately concluded that what I was doing was foolhardy, when he knew nothing about the precautions I’d taken, and made no effort to ask.
A couple of women tramper friends of mine say they’ve had similar experiences. One says she, too, finds that people are either amazed or concerned when they find out she’s tramping alone, and that something about it rubs her the wrong way. How about you, fellow women soloists? Have you had this kind of experience? How does it make you feel?
I’ll finish off with this photo of sunrise on the ascent to the Red Crater of Ngāuruhoe. I left my hut dark and early to catch this special sight, all by myself. It was glorious.
A friend of mine and I like to joke that if you’re buying women’s athletic gear (that is, workout or sporting gear targeted toward women), your only colour options are turquoise and berry, a certain shade of sort-of-pink-and-sort-of-purple. On a good day, you might be able to find something in lime, too, but that’s it! Those are your options! Whenever we see any gear in these colours, we send photos of it to each other.
Here are some ski helmets she showed me:
And some socks I got for free with a recent hiking boot purchase:
And look at the huge range of options on these Vasque hiking boots. I would go for the turquoise, but there’s always berry if turquoise isn’t your thing. (Admittedly, the berry option here is more purple, but the colour is actually called “Blackberry,” so I think it technically counts.)
And some maximally lady-suitable Dachstein hiking boots, if you don’t want to decide between turquoise and berry:
And some ski jackets, available in both lady colours! (“Silver/teal” is highlighted in this photo, but the other option is called “Berry/coral”.)
As with most gendered things, the problem isn’t the options themselves. It’s the restrictions. With women’s athletic gear, the problem isn’t the colours themselves. If you like turquoise (which I do), great. If you like berry (which I do), great. If you like lime (which I do), great. The problem is in the limited range of options, as though all women (and only women, as it’s hard to find men’s gear in these colours) will only like these colours. Where is the burnt orange? Olive green? Smoky grey? Dark red? Of course, sizing and fit and assumptions about women’s bodies when it comes to clothing are another issue altogether!
Here I am in my most turquoise/berry workout outfit, complete with berry backpack and turquoise shoes, with socks that are berry and turquoise and lime. (I’ve also got a turquoise iPod for working out. But I did that to myself.)
And another of me on my turquoise mountain bike with berry shorts, with a grey helmet with turquoise and berry stripes, and a grey shirt with turquoise accents.
How about you, readers? What do you make of the colour options available for women’s gear?
Since damaging my knee, I can’t run. That was my go-to exercise when camping. I’d throw on my running shoes and hit the trails. No more, never again. That’s over. But with my knee brace on I can still cover lots of territory. I’m gradually coming to think of walks as exercise. Cate put it much poetically in terms of giving your body the exercise or needs. Me, I’m just working on changing my attitude about all exercise needing to be intense
Last weekend Sarah and I packed the tent up and zoomed off in the car for a night of (unusual for us) car camping. I was anxious to sleep in a tent at least one night this year. So hello, Pinery Provincial Park. And hello Sunday morning beach walk. We covered more than 5 km in 84 minutes. Lots of it was along the beach. It felt like fun and it felt like a fitness activity. Glad I’m gradually shaking the idea that if it’s not running or biking it doesn’t count. I’m hoping to work up to carrying a pack so that next summer we can do some back country camping by foot as well as by canoe.
I’m 48, I have a phenomenal seven-year-old girl, I’m a Western science student, and my boyfriend of 2 years dumped me via email in October. The day after Christmas he tagged me in a Facebook post stating that he hoped I got coal for Christmas, quickly followed by a post announcing his new relationship (complete with loved up pics).
What did I do, you ask!?
Did I send a poisonous rebuttal? Cry in my ice-cream bucket? Call my girlfriends and formulate a plan to photo shop hearts around a pic of me and my super cute 38-year-old guy friend – who has a crush on me – and post it on my Facebook page? Nope. None of the above.
I threw on some lipstick, packed a light lunch, a big bottle of water, my iPhone, and… my snowshoes. My German Shepherd cross, Kyah, was down for the adventure so we dropped my girl off at her dad’s house, and drove to FanshaweConservation Area. It is there in the wilderness, trekking the 21k loop around the lake that I always find me. My independence. My strength. My love for myself. And I lose the marionette strings that those who hurt me have attempted to control me with – including social media passive aggressive shots.
The first 5 km found Kyah and I taking selfies amongst the many snowy footprints of other hikers. The scenery was a massive contrast to urban London, and the sun painted the snow silver. I was still frustrated but felt the anger begin to drift into apathy.
The second 5 km saw my spirits lift considerably. I saw far less signs of human life along our path which made me realize that not many people can walk this far. I am one of the elite winter hikers. I shout out, “I am woman”. My best friends are my strength and my loyal canine. Hear us roar.
When I reached the 10 km mark (which means I continue the 11 km to my car, or turn around and trek 10 km back to my car) I had been hiking for 2.5 hours. I was committed either way. I thanked my fitness level, the mental endurance I learned from 10 years of adventure racing, and the fact that emotional pain drove me to this awesome place of a natural endorphin high. I found myself singing “Let It Go” as I trekked amongst a long corridor of evergreens. I was the Snow Queen of the Fanshawe forest.
The third 5 km discovered the power within me. I found no prints in the snow, was forced to load myself onto my snowshoes, and my dog lead the way with her keen sense of smell. She guided me through the woods sniffing out the trail with her 300 million olfactory receptors. She became my compass as well as my social support. My strength was waning but my spirits were jubilant. “You’ll never see me cry… the cold never bothered me anyway.”
Sadly, everything but my strength fell apart after that. My water bottle was plugged with ice, my phone died, my dog began to limp from the ice between her toes, my snack was a cold solid rock (I totally forgot that everything outside freezes at -15 – and I am outside), and I was still 5 km from my car. I began to think.
Remember what happens when you work out? You tear your muscles, just a tiny bit, all over and this is what makes them stronger. Your tiny muscle fiber tears heal, and you get larger muscles. So, when you heal – you are stronger. So maybe in order for us to become emotionally stronger, we have to hurt a tiny bit all over. So maybe we need to think of emotional pain as the post-workout-aches, take an ibuprofen, and in a few days we will actually will be stronger, look fitter, be healthier, and be a better version of ourselves.
As I was thinking, I cut off the trail opting to take a country highway back to my car. I didn’t want to die in the woods as darkness was quickly approaching and my time in the cold was nearly up. A silver Audi pulled up alongside my popsicle self and that of my icicle dog. The man and his fiancé that I had spoken with an hour earlier in the woods recognized Kyah and I and recalled that I had told them where our car was. He jumped out and told me that I was a million miles away from my car. He helped me with my backpack, threw it in the trunk, and like a big brother, escorted me to the front seat of their toasty vehicle. We are all Facebook friends now. He has since told me that his motto is “leave no hiker behind”. Wow. There are amazingly helpful and unselfish men out there. My faith has been greatly restored by this one.
Kyah and I gratefully welcomed the warm drive back to our car. She was curled up on my lap licking her paws as the angel-couple and I chatted about our hikes.
Sure, I didn’t do the whole 21k trek, and I didn’t do it all alone. And yes, the powers-that-be had to send me help when I needed it. But guess what? I’m smiling. I made new friends. I’m healthier. I’m leaner. And I have a great story to tell. All because I channeled a bit of emotional pain and used it to fuel adventure, kick-start fitness, and promote a healed mind.
Get out there and tear some muscles.
Wendy is currently a student at Western University and studies Biology and Psychology. Her passion is ecology, animals, and outdoor fitness. Summers are spent mountain biking, paddling, backcountry camping, and hiking. Winters are spent snowshoeing and bird watching. Wendy has a seven-year-old daughter who helps keep her young and fit at 48.
It’s a rough time in the world. For those of us for whom this is new, this recent rough time, we also get to realize what an incredible position of privilege we occupy given that it’s only now that we’re worried. In other countries, in other places around the world people worry all the time about what their governments will do.
But privilege or not, I’m not sleeping and having to work on my breathing. Sometimes I joke and say I am holding my breath until the real grown ups wake up and fix everything. (What everything? The climate, the future of human life on the planet, nuclear war, restrictions of rights and liberties, raising tides of racism and Islamophobia. You know.) And yes, I know. There are no real grown ups in charge. That’s terrifying. Deep breaths. I’m not sure I’m joking.
I’m not normally the kind of person to make statuses with the hashtag “blessed” and the idea of a gratitude journal has sometimes rubbed me the wrong way. But maybe these days lists of things that bring us joy are sometimes needed.
This week I’m on holiday with my daughter. I’m taking a break from work and we’re visiting with a friend in Victoria. I’m making more effort than usual to make sure I get to do some of my favourite things. Here’s some things that made me smile this week and for which I’m grateful.
Hiking with dogs and friends: That’s Audrey, friend and an occasional guest on the blog, her dogs (good and bad), me, and my daughter Mallory at Thetis Lake.
2. Visiting the tops of mountains
3. Dipping my toes in the ocean
4. Playing in playgrounds
5. Playing games–cards of many different kinds, Balderdash, Scrabble!
6. Spending time in the woods, in particular, this time, in Goldstream Park
How about you? What’s making you smile and keeping you going in hard times?
So before I started traveling around New Zealand, I knew I wanted to do many (possibly all) of NZ’s Great Walks. (There are 9 of them although one is a canoe/kayak trip not a walk.) This is a short blog post about tramping (hiking if you’re not a kiwi) the Abel Tasman Coast Track.
Why this one? First off, it’s gorgeous. Secondly, it’s easily accessible- water taxis will drop you off at various points and you can walk back, plus my bus picked me up from a campground 100 m from the end of the trail. Thirdly, last time I was there it was June and cold and wet and I wanted to see it in nicer weather. This time I was there in the summer which had much better weather!
So, I planned on it being a five-day trip. However, my watch didn’t realize it’s was a leap year and skipped Feb 29. So I woke up on my “planning day”, saw the date, panicked, packed in twenty minutes and rushed to the water taxi only to be told I was a day early. Oops. (I’d already separated from technology and turned my phone off for the week) Luckily the water taxi people let me go a day early so my five-day trip turned into a six-day trip.
To be honest, this was not one of my better planned trips. I had planned on a day to plan/pack before I left but instead packed in twenty minutes. Mostly this was fine, I’ve done enough tramping that I know what to pack pretty quickly/easily. And the Abel Tasman track is very accessible, water taxis are coming/going regularly from most of the beaches. And the track is clearly marked and I wasn’t walking huge distances. Where my quick packing was an issue was food.
Normally when tramping I carry a small backpacking stove (if anyone is buying one I love my MSR Whisperlite). And in fact, I brought mine with me. However, I didn’t bring a fuel bottle (airline travel restrictions) and they are almost as expensive as the stove itself (once you buy them the fuel is cheap though). Plus I didn’t have a pot, utensils, lighter, any of the usual cooking gear I have at home. So I had decided to not cook any food on this trip and to cook food in advance. However, when I “lost” my planning day, I simply shoved any food I had that didn’t need cooking into my pack: bread, a jar of peanut butter, OSM bars, carrots, chocolate, dates, nuts. Not bad food but I ended up eating some strange meals.
Over six days, I traveled around 80 km. The track itself is only about 60 km but I did one section twice plus detoured to a few lookouts and waterfalls. I carried all my own gear- tent, mattress, sleeping bag, food, clothes. The weather was gorgeous and I was able to swim everyday. I was surprised both at how many people I saw and how empty it was- water taxis come/go regularly to many of the beaches but once you leave the main beaches it gets empty fast. I was also surprised by the range of experiences of the people I met camping overnight in the park- some people had all the gear, were cooking fancy meals over their stoves, were clearly prepared. Others were traveling without proper gear- a guy with a hammock (with no covering) instead of a tent and hoping it wouldn’t rain, a girl carrying a bag of (uncooked) pasta but no stove, pot, dishes or even a fork to eat it with hoping someone would have pity on her. But again, this trail is clearly marked and if you get into too much trouble, you can just wait on a beach until a water taxi shows up.
The first 4 nights I tented in the designated campgrounds along the trail. I say campgrounds but all they had was a sign, drinking water and a toilet. Nothing else. I bought a tent here in NZ which I’ve fallen in love with, it will likely come home with me and join my collection. (It’s a Kathmandu Mono tent if anyone is interested). I brought a small sleeping bag and my mattress with me from home since I knew I’d be camping. Camping gear is one of the hardest parts about backpacking since anything I buy has to either get left behind or carried with me for the next six months. At home I have a growing collection of gear to choose from depending on the trip whereas here I really have to limit myself.
My last night I stayed at a floating backpackers, Aquapackers, in Anchorage. BBQ dinner and a night onboard the boat before my last day of hiking.
The weather was fantastic, the views were unparalleled, everybody I met was friendly. The trail was easy to follow, and relatively flat (for NZ which means it really wasn’t flat!).
Would I do this trip again? Absolutely! But first I’m already planning which of the other Great Walks I can do while I’m here in New Zealand.
Academics travel a lot to give talks, share our work, attend conferences, discuss our ideas. It’s part of what we do.
(Conference travel is written about in the campus humour novel, Small World, by British author David Lodge, though it’s set several decades ago. The Guardian book club discusses it here. Norms of behavior while traveling an academic have changed since then.)
I’ve written before about exercising on the road. (See, for example, Finding my inner Arnold in Peterborough.) Mostly though these have been individual solutions. But lately a new thing has been happening. In part, thanks to the blog, I think, and our growing community.
I love that my reputation for physical activity now precedes me. The first inkling something was changing was last fall when I was invited to keynote a conference, with short notice. Perhaps the result of the gendered conference campaign, I don’t know. I couldn’t do it but the organizer tried to make it more attractive with the offer of a bike ride. I wouldn’t even have to miss my long weekend ride. And I needn’t bring my own bike on the plane. I could borrow his wife’s road bike. Tempting. (Though I did wonder what his wife might think of the offer. What bike would she ride?) A beautiful part of the world where I’d never ridden before. But still, I couldn’t do it. Bike ride possibilities didn’t make the conflicts in my schedule go away.
Last week I was in San Diego for the Pacific Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association and the conference bike ride idea finally worked out thanks to guest contributor Sharon Crasnow. See Guest Post-Cycling after 60. Sharon generously arranged me for to borrow her daughter’s road bike. I packed cycling clothes and my helmet. Off we went! We had a lovely bike ride around Fiesta Island.
Great spot for riding and racing. You can do loops, which I love. Ocean view and no snow! Just perfect. Also, flat!
Last month I was in the Los Angeles area giving a talk and I was happy to be taken on a hike on the beach the day of my talk. Later that weekend I got to go hiking in the hills and canyons of LA. I hadn’t thought of LA as a great hiking city. But I was wrong.
Sharing physical activity, hiking and biking, with fellow philosophers is terrific. We can talk while moving. I get to see a new part of the world. And I don’t feel like I need to sneak off on my own to exercise.
I’m organizing bike rides for friends attending the Canadian Philosophical Association conference in May also for philosophers coming to the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy conference in Waterloo in August.
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]
When Sam recently asked if I would write a guest post for this blog, my first response was, I don’t work out that much. Then Sam pointed out that I hike in the woods most weekends, and I realized that I’m probably more fit – and fit in non-traditionally female ways – than I give myself credit for.
Raised a city kid, I’ve been hooked on being out in nature since I was about eight or nine years old. I grew up in the suburbs, near a conservation area – my first elementary school backed onto it, as a matter of fact – and I loved regular class expeditions down the ravine and into the woods where we might see snakes, frogs and turtles, as well as Ontario’s provincial flower, the trillium.
One of my best friends lived right beside the ravine, and we would play for hours among the trees, making up stories, building makeshift forts out of dead branches, and concocting pretend meals out of tree leaves and wild plants.
When I was about 12, I had the chance to take a guided hike with a naturalist one weekend at a family camp-out. I was fascinated by the different species of trees and birds – many whose names I’d never heard of.
Fast forward about 17 years; I’d moved from my childhood home and was now living near a river. I’d just lost my brother to suicide, and I was devastated and suicidal myself in the aftermath of his passing.
That first summer after my brother died, I made a point of visiting the woods along the river every night after work, slowly pacing the winding footpaths and wading through the shallows to a small island in the middle of the river where I would sit and cool my feet in the rapids, away from the prying eyes of the world.
I saw herons and swallows, in addition to the ubiquitous mallards and Canada geese. I picked up smooth round stones along the riverbank, and occasionally found worn clamshells or driftwood that I took home with me to remind me of my hikes.
After a few months, I realized something miraculous was happening. The woods and the river seemed to be healing me. I didn’t know why or how – to this day I still don’t – but no matter how crazed or anxious I felt during the day, being in nature every evening calmed and restored me. I felt like I reconnected with my true self on every one of my hikes.
Fast forward another 17 years to the present day, and I still hike through the same woods of my childhood, or along the river paths of my young adulthood. I’ve learned the names of most of the trees and plants; if I’m lucky, I still see snakes and frogs. I know where the river bass spawn, and where the ducks nest. I know where there are wild apples, tart and hard.
As woo-woo as it sounds, the trees have become my familiar friends. I touch them when I pass; I notice where beavers have gnawed at their trunks. I know where to find a firefly show that would make you believe in fairies. I lie on the forest floor on perfect autumn Sundays every October, and weep at the fleeting cathedral canopy of red and gold overhead.
A couple of years ago I read about something called “forest bathing” on Mark Sisson’s Primal living blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. Suddenly, my miraculous forest healing had a name.
“Time in a wild setting, studies indicate, unleashes a powerful cascade of hormonal and cellular responses. Salivary cortisol, for example, dropped on average 13.4% when subjects simply looked at a forest setting for 20 minutes. Pulse rate, blood pressure and sympathetic nerve activity decreased as well. Even more remarkable is the significant – and lasting – impact on so called “natural killer” cells, powerful lymphocytes known to fight off infection and attack cancer growth. A longer three day trip in the forest with daily walks resulted in a 50% rise in NK activity as well as an increase in the number of NK cells! The forest exposure, researchers found, also resulted in increased anti-cancer protein expression.”
Are we hard-wired to respond positively to nature? I have no idea. But it works for me.
I love that my hiking gear needs are few: a sturdy pair of rubber boots (I like to go where there’s water, and I hate wet feet), and a sturdy pair of pants are all I need (I’ve been known to go off trail – shh! – and sweats or yoga pants can’t take the assault of grabby undergrowth or thorns). Layers on top, that peel on and off quickly, keep me warm or cool enough. I’m also usually never without a camera or few (including a waterproof point-and-shoot for rainy days or river wading), because I love photographing what I see.
I hike in nature because it’s the one place where I feel most like myself. I hike because it’s never boring. I hike because it gets me away from city life and my daily worries. I hike because I’m addicted to the smells and the sounds and the exquisite beauty I see everywhere. I hike because when I leave the woods, I feel better than when I entered. I feel, dare I say, like I’ve been home… and leave regenerated enough to bear the “real world” once again.