Guest Post

A Woman Hiking Alone (Guest Post)

Image: trail warning sign

(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 Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.

Guest Post

Forest Bathing (Guest Post)

The beauty of the forest

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.


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 Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.