"Wait, you hike ALONE?!" With one eyebrow raised, a look of shock floods the woman's face.
"Sure do. I prefer it."
"Well.... you bring bear spray or a gun right?"
*Sigh* Here we go again...
Judge me. Tell me I'm out of my mind. No. No, I don't.
But let me take a moment to explain to you why.
I am more likely to get assaulted by a random HUMAN than I am a wild animal while walking the streets of our lovely city than I am exploring the woods.
To this many people would say, well then you should carry pepper spray and a license to carry.
To this, I also say, no. This is the thing, I don't want to live my life in FEAR of WHAT IF. If I lived that way, life would be a lot less adventurous. A lot less enjoyable.
I've pictured the moment before. A bear approaches me on the trail.
"Oh hold on bear....let me get my bear spray...Wait, one more second, I know it's in this hiking backpack somewhere....Okay got it! Now let me figure out how to use it real quick...."
SJ sprays herself in the eye. Bear laughs and wanders off...
"Stupid human. I bet you taste just as bad"
I'll let you imagine what I'd be like with a firearm.
That's only one reason, though.
I'll never forget the moment. I was in first or second grade. Running barefoot and shirtless (I was convinced I could pee standing up and hated all things pink or doll related) through the woods behind the government housing my family lived at on the reservation. The boys and I were tailing a bobcat through the wildflowers and brush. I remember the way the dirt smelled, dried by the sun. The way the pine needles felt as they stuck between my dirty toes. I remember the belief...we were sharing this land with the wild. Therefore we would be one with it.
My Dad worked as a silviculturist...he called himself a tree doctor. He spent his 25 years with the Bureau of Indian Affairs making the forest healthy. He came home every night with stories of bear and cougar and eagles flying high. He had a shared respect with the inhabitants of the woods he worked in and cared so deeply about. And he passed that respect on to me. The Native American culture I was raised around was tattooed on my heart.
I was raised fearless. I would lay in the sun talking to the trees and the butterflies and praying mantises. I'd pet the bumble bees and find myself mesmerized by the gopher snakes. We would create our own campsites and leave no trace of our visit unless it was a sap-covered kiss or dirt-filled fingernails.
I learned at a young age to share. To share those magical places with those who ultimately came there first. I was a guest in their home. Not the other way around.
So my answer to you is no. I do not carry bear spray or a gun. However, I do take precautions.
You could get in a car accident by driving to work, right? But that doesn't keep you from commuting each day. Instead, you wear a seatbelt.
Bear spray and firearms aren't my seatbelt. But the following are ways I stay safe during my explorations.
1. Be aware of your surroundings. I don't wear headphones or listen to music on the trail. I make sure I can hear what's going on around me...which truly enriches your experience anyway. Take in Mother Nature's music. The birds. The way the trees creak and sigh as the wind blows them back and forth. The pika singing from the rocks. The insects buzzing from flower to flower. The babbling of the creek. No sweeter music has ever been made.
2. Leave the fragrance at home. You don't need perfume, scented lotion or deodorant on the trail. Nature could care less what you smell like, but wild animals may confuse you for something sweet...
3. Make yourself known - without disturbing the peace. My hiking backpack has a bear bell. It's obnoxious. But it lets my presence be known without causing interference with the beauty of the sounds around me.
4. Let your location be known to those at home. Admittedly, my spontaneity gets the best of me sometimes. But I'm doing my best these days to let my family know where I'm hiking and when I plan on returning should something happen that keeps me from getting home.
5. Listen to your gut. And your dog. And the forest. This is me saying I HAVE encountered danger. And I typically know of it far before it becomes a threat. Gut instincts are 99.9% of the time CORRECT. If something doesn't seem right, it probably isn't. And this doesn't just go for looking like dinner to a wild animal. Trail seem too steep or narrow? Weather getting a little too wild? It's always okay to call it a day and go home. Cricket, my pup, is great at sniffing out danger. She led me to fresh big kitty tracks in Morton, Washington this spring. Luckily for us, the tracks also led to the bunny tracks that the kitty cat was stalking, which gave me time to make the decision to go the opposite direction. I will always let her take in the smells and always acknowledge the way her demeanor changes. Same goes for the sounds of the wild. Birds have warning calls. And silence can be just as alerting....LISTEN TO IT.
6. Have no fear. It’s very natural for women to feel afraid because that has been ingrained in our minds from a very young age that we should be, especially if we are alone. And this fear holds us back. Let go of the fear and see where life takes you.
I look at it this way. If I die being attacked by a wild animal, I sure as hell hope the world tells of my story for years to come. Let it be one of stupidity or one of bravery. I can tell you one thing is for certain....I died doing what I was meant to do. I died LIVING.
Leave the bear spray at home.