I work with a lot of women who are really fearless. They reach across to students who struggle with self confidence and they give them what they need to feel good about themselves. They coddle, nurture, push, support, chide, encourage, engage, and whatever else is necessary to ensure that the students develop the prowess they need to do what it takes to accomplish the goals of the courses that they are in. At the same time, these same women take up some of the most challenging intellectual tasks that any person would brave.
While they hold down full-time or more than full-time teaching or other professional jobs, they also present at academic conferences and publish in their disciplines. Lots of times, they simultaneously raise children and tend to parents while being solid partners or spouses. Even still, they engage in graduate degree programs without missing a step in their busy schedules. But when it comes to getting outdoors to hike a challenging trail, they hesitate, whether for doubt or fear, I cannot say, but probably reticence to step outside their realms of experience.
Why do these strong women second-guess themselves when it comes to being outdoors? How can they wield such force in so many circumstances, but not in this one? I don’t know exactly, but I suspect it has to do with the responses they get from others when they share their plans. Aren’t you scared? What if you see a wolf? What will you do for a shower?
After all, I am a guide, and I heard unvarnished doubt from other hikers when they heard I was going to solo the Minong Ridge Trail. I planned and prepared to hike from McCargoe Cove to Windigo in 2.5 days after a half-day boat ride to get to McCargoe. Their concern caused me to reassess why people think that way and what they are afraid of for me.
People I had known for a long time–and who knew I was a very experienced hiker– shared their concerns, even though I had hiked the island more than two dozen times already and that particular trail four times. I was dismayed by their well-meaning concern. And I was confounded, too, especially because none of my friends were concerned when I was hiking with Duane, but a woman alone was suddenly a woman at risk. This concern may be what women perceive, willingly or unwillingly, even in this time of post-liberation when we have been doing what we want, or at least thought we were, for the last half century, but were we?
I think the fears are vague and not fully thought through, like being afraid of the dark or worrying that something might happen, but not grounding in the actual issues. But unfounded fears carry a lot more energy than do fears grounded in specifics that we plan for when preparing a particular trip on a designated trail during a specific season. As soon as I returned the question, the fears where set aside: What are you concerned about? Are you concerned about me specifically? Let me share with you my plan.
Self-doubt never stopped me when I raised my children alone while I earned my Ph.D. It has not stopped my friends and colleagues either. Yes, we have worked and juggled to accomplish all the tasks in front of us. Yes, it was tough, but we did not wilt, and that attitude is what we take with us to the trails. It is proactive and can-do. Sure, we fail sometimes, but we don’t fail forever. We analyze and adapt to bring our talents to fore in creating solutions. We do not internalize the fears that others have for us, whether in our professional lives or in our recreation. Instead, we assert ourselves in ways that challenge and affirm our senses of strength and accomplishment. We find ways to facilitate our success and we work together.
Did I experience self-doubt with backpacking? Sure, early on, but it’s not self-doubt to plan carefully for every contingency and to have my gear well in hand. Isle Royale is a remote wilderness without access to help. But I am connected with my Garmin, with back-up batteries, and on the ridges I have cell service. At one time, the island was uncharted territory, but it isn’t now. I have hiked every trail multiple times; I anticipate her moods and whims.
My first experiences with backpacking with Duane were challenging, not because of self doubt, but because of learning what I needed. When I hike with Duane, I tend to be influenced by what he thinks he needs for food and gear, which is not what I need. Our needs are different. I had to learn to read my own needs separate from his. I eat more often than he does, but I each much less than he does. I am colder at night than he is, I prefer trail runners, hate tee-shirts, and must have sun block and opportunity to swim.
On my own, I like to hike hard. Duane hikes at a more leisurely pace, like he has learned how to walk. I’m not trying to walk. I’m pushing. It’s like going toward a goal. I don’t meander. I go. I feel the efforts I generate from somewhere far within. I mete out the energy, I drive forth. I push myself forward, arms pressing on poles and legs thrusting me upward onto the ridge. Then you find me sitting on my pack, my boots off, watching goshawks or eagles soaring overhead. Then I’m eating strawberries on the ridge, and then I’m crouched over the trail, checking the wolf scat, easily distinguishable from that of the fox. I identify every flower and berry I know.
Women don’t fail. We try, we learn, and we persevere. And we reflect on the trades we’ve made. We are marked by our stretches, those long reaches from where we started to where we are going. We know ourselves. We’ve earned our time. This self-awareness serves us well on the trail. Really. When I soloed the Minong, I overestimated my needs by one 100-calorie pack of nuts. Accurate, indeed.
When I hike, I am listening inward. I want to hear my energy as I gain my rhythm and move efficiently. Sure, I listen outwardly to the light crunching of gravel or the splish of a loose boardwalk into the water of the beaver dam. I hear the rasping of the sandhill cranes, but I listen to myself, too. While I hike up the switchbacks toward the ridges, I am thinking about whatever it was that needed solution that day. And I think about my breath, the placement of each foot. As I traverse from rock to rock quickly, I hear the regular rhythm of my legs and feet, step, step, step; I make good time on the ridges. The descent is harder than the rise, for me.
We want to assert that we really can do it. We can walk into this place that men think of as their own, and we don’ t want their chaperone. Just as we do in domains that we have already owned, we want to own this experience, too. We want to dig deep down and pull out the strength that we know we possess. We want to work hard physically and share the comraderies that we build through shared sweat. As we have excelled in our work lives, we want to flex in our play. We want to know what we are made of.
When I hike, I also think through my muscles of how good it feels to move. I revel in the sense of strength I feel, even when I am breathing hard and straining. Then from the ridge, there is Sleeping Giant in the distance, Lake Superior between us, and an inviting rock that beckons me to sit and take off my hiking shoes. I do and marvel at everything and nothing. Goshawks wheel overhead, wind bends the spruce trees gently, wasps pollinate the wildflowers. I notice the blueberries eking out existence on the rocks are not yet ripe, nor are the juniper berries.
When I go alone, I get into my own rhythm, with my idiosyncratic way of moving, fast going up the hills and slow going down, stopping just before the crest to stand, then emerging at the apex with energy to feel the vastness of the vista before me.
Women sometimes ask me why I hike, and I answer simply: Because I can. Sometimes the question doesn’t mean why I hike, but more why anyone would hike, or would it be possible for her to hike. My answer is even simpler: Yes, you can hike, and the more you hike, the more you are able to hike. Today, you might hike for a half mile with an empty day pack. In a few weeks, you can do more, and in a few more weeks, you can do even more, and so on. Next summer you can have a pack and stay overnight at some fine campground that you pick for yourself.
There is another question women ask, and that is a more complex one that takes on the baggage of being a woman in this world with its overdetermined expectations that often make it harder to do what should be easy to do. Being a woman hiker is something. Giving yourself permission to do what you can is something more. Join us on a woman’s-only hike and embrace what you are made of and for. Check out our women’s-only 2023 itineraries.