When I was young(er), I became enamored with hiking due to the columns written by Seattle author Karen Sykes. At the time, in my mid twenties I was living on Whidbey Island and pretty naive to the world in my rural life. I had a young child and was a single mother. Every week I looked forward to her Thursday Hike Of The Week, of which I often ran out to do on Friday mornings before the weekend crowd showed up. One week the paper published a large insert, and in it was an article about female safety while hiking. Her article scared me good. It was about a very uncomfortable encounter with armed drunk men that they had to hide from. Years later, when I met Karen in person and she mentored me in my own writing, I told her how much that article had woken me.
And I’d need that lesson soon enough, I just didn’t know it then.
It was the Spring of 2002. I was following the snow line melting as the weeks passed and winter was shrugging off. I woke my oldest son up early on a weekday, as I had the day off from work. He was 4 that year. We hiked 2 to 3 days a week then. We caught the ferry off the island to the Olympic Peninsula. I had a couple goals of where to go. I am sure I didn’t tell anyone really where I’d be, outside of the Eastern Olympic area. As we passed through the tiny town of Quilcene, Wa and went by the turn off to Walker Mountain, I decided to turn into the Falls View Campground area, off of Hwy 101. It had just had the gates opened for the season to do the Fallsview Canyon Trail. The parking lot was empty and we parked. I was driving a Ford Explorer I had bought the summer before – the boy and I would camp in the back to be safe, and I felt safer on rough forest service roads in it.
Backpacks on, we headed down the hillside, down to the river bottom along the Big Quilcene River. The sun was out it was quite pretty at the bottom, along the river. The trail wanders through the mostly level open forest.
And then I felt it. As long as I can remember I have had an internal voice that has told me to be aware. Too often women are told to not listen to it – as humans we should all possess this. This is what has kept us alive from predators since humans became humans. Wether or not you chose to listen to it, it’s up to you. If you choose to not, but a friend or loved one does – listen to them. I have often wondered if the reason I hear it so loudly is I have a higher rate of DNA markers for Neanderthal traits (Yes, DNA testing is fun!).
I saw a man far across the forest floor, coming down the hillside. And then he made a direct line to catch up to us. It was just very, very odd. Midweek in a remote area. My truck wasn’t visible from the highway. The man was dressed in leather loafers, a leather jacket suited for business wear, slacks and a button up shirt. He was drinking a can of pop, smoking, and had no hiking gear. I got a severely cold feeling from him. I was wearing sunglasses as I often did when hiking, and he couldn’t see my eyes. His eyes were cold and did not match the smile on his face. I have an odd habit of when I meet people I see an animal in them. I am quite often right about what I sense. I saw a predator in him, something like a weasel.
I casually (as well as I could, fighting down fear is hard) and started off down the trail. He had decided I was to be his tour guide it seemed and he stayed right on my heels. I worked my way back to the hillside as casual as I could. I leaned down to Ford, and pretended to be adjusting gear on him. Ford was still mostly mute then (he is on the Autistic Spectrum), but he loved challenges. I whispered to him “Can you beat me to the top?”.
Ford took off like lighting, up that hill. I looked at the man and screamed “Where is he going!” and took off after him. I ran as if my life depended on it. And it probably did that day. I got my keys out of my pack’s hipbelt pocket as we were nearing the top of the hill. Came over the top, and I was so damn glad I had a newer rig, with remote locks. I yelled at Ford to get in. He jumped in, I slammed the door. Jumped in, pack on. Locked the doors, threw my pack off while starting the truck. No seatbelts on. As I was backing up, the man came up over the hill, looking very sour and very angry, he was not happy. I tore out of the lot, and pulled over on the edge of 101 to get Ford’s seat belt on. I drove as fast as was safe, just to get away. I ended up pulling over miles away, letting my heart rate settle down. I tried to go hiking still, after that, in a different place. I couldn’t shake the man’s look on his face when he crested the hill.
I called it a day and went home. At work the next day the local deputy came in to get a latte and we got talking. The lecture I got from him was worse than I might have gotten from my own father. I went to Walmart after work and bought pepper spray, that was always in my backpack’s hip pocket after that. He screamed at me to get my CPL and start carrying. I hadn’t ever owned a gun personally before that, though I grew up shooting rifles. It’d be a bit. Meeting Kirk changed my views more and we took classes together in our first months of dating.
That Sarah wasn’t the Sarah now.
If you are a long time reader, you may well know my feelings on the US Constitution, The Bill of Rights and that we teach it weekly to the boys. Within a year of this event I was actively carrying on hikes. I didn’t on all hikes then, usually when it was in a remote area. That changed with a further event that was also highly odd, but ended OK as well.
I was hiking in an urban setting. As we entered the wetland area, which was a loop on boardwalk, I noticed a young man standing there by the entrance. It was odd. He was smoking, acting casual. As we walked the loop, and were about 2/3rd done I heard loud shouting across (there was woods in the center), then a couple shots fired – from a handgun. I wanted off that trail. I could see the parking area and we went cross country quietly to get there, popped out by the truck and got in. The same man was still there, but this time he was looking down the trail with a hard look. My only guess is it was a drug deal that didn’t go well. We got out of there quickly.
Another hike we came out of the backcountry and about half a mile from the trailhead there were two men standing on each side of the trail. One was young, and looked like a typical urban hoodlum, the other looked like an old Vegas rat. He was dressed in business clothing and loafers. On a trail far from the city. Just standing across the trail from each other, staring across. My hackles went up, but the other 2 women with me didn’t notice anything. They were chatting though. Just odd things and encounters where something doesn’t match up.
I carried openly at first. But I found that drew attention in ways I didn’t like. Men would ask me questions. It was very odd. They would start walking with me. Was suddenly I their protection?
I didn’t want to lose my love of hiking. Of hiking alone. Or with my children. I didn’t want to be reliant on safety in numbers, or to always need a dominant male with me. My motto became “It’s Up To You”.
I got my CPL in our state.
I often used a bag for my hipbelt called a Safepacker.
Then, I found the love of kit bags from Hill People Gear this past year.
I won’t tell you what is right for you. But I will always encourage women who love the outdoors to become independent, and find a way to ensure your safety is there. Always listen to your inner voice. If your voice says to be scared, look around. Your inner voice is there to save you!
Be it pepper spray, bear spray, a highly trained dog, or firearm, have something that you know how to use to defend yourself, be it from wild animals, 2 legged predators or even dogs without training. And invest the time in learning how to use it properly. If you are like me, and choose firearms, take classes. Start with a 101 basics class that teaches how to shoot, rules of the range, and such. Plenty of ranges offer ladies only classes, taught by women. Depending on where you live will determine if you can carry while hiking, it is up to you to ensure you are following all laws in your state. If you get a CPL (or what your state offers) take classes in concealed carry and such. It is well worth the time, in case you must ever use deadly force to protect yourself.
18 years later I hike with my eyes – and ears – open. But I don’t feel nervous as I did when I was younger. Walk confidently. And most of all, don’t ignore your inner voice.