Women of the Wild

grizzly sign

I didn’t get a picture of the actual grizzly because I was busy getting the hell out of there. So here’s a sign.

“Where’s your boyfriend?” a man asked me on the summit of Slide Mountain, the highest peak in the Catskills. It’d been a bad week, so I’d left work early that Friday and escaped to the mountains, my go-to move when the world’s feeling extra heavy. This was my third summit of the day, and I was still feeling great.

The man wasn’t alone. Both him and his male friend were in their late 40s and donned expensive hiking gear. They went on trips together as frequently as they could. The Presidential Traverse, Devil’s Path, most of their hiking was in the East, but they hiked out West and abroad when they could.

“Who do you hike with normally?” one asked as we hiked down the mountain together.

Sometimes my dad, I answered. Occasionally friends. Mostly myself.

“Someday you’ll find a boy who can keep up with you. Shame you live so far away. We’d invite you to hike with us once and a while. Take you under our wing, you know.”

Men and women approach my outdoors aloneness differently. Women are instantly supportive. Even if they don’t understand why I want to forgo showers and porcelain toilets for several months, they are excited and proud that I’m doing it. Good for you! cheer the older women with a nostalgic gleam in their eyes, thinking, perhaps, how this reality wasn’t available to them 40 years ago.

Men approach me with questions. Why are you here? Why are you alone? They see my aloneness as an aberration, a question in need of an answer. They look for explanations when I don’t offer one. Maybe I’m a slow hiker. Maybe I’m really fussy and no one wants to put up with me. Maybe I’m running away.

I’m not sure why women alone in the wild makes men uncomfortable. But I have a few guesses.

Flash forward a year from my encounter with the two men in the Catskills and I’m hiking alone in Glacier National Park. Copious signs warn about bear activity in the area. Hiking alone is something they strongly advise against, but besides that, I’ve taken every other precaution. I carry bear spray in the side of my backpack. I clang my poles together. I sing the new Harry Styles’ song as I walk. Noise, the signs and videos and brochures tell me. Make noise.

So I do.
And then something stirs on the path ahead of me.
It’s small and brown. But then it moves and it gets bigger and bigger.

A grizzly!

It had been sleeping with its head on the trail and its body in a copse of bushes. I know it’s a grizzly because of the distinctive hump between its shoulders. I also know it’s a grizzly because I’ve seen black bears before and ohmygod this is not one of them.

It’s massive.

I keep making noise and backing away slowly, not taking my eyes off it as it continues moving. My entire body has gone cold and my heart races. Slowly, slowly, I creep back the way I came. Not running. Never running. I walk ten minutes until I encounter the family of four I’d passed earlier. I tell them about the grizzly. We decide to approach it together and see where it has moved to. We’re only three miles into an 18 mile hike, and neither of us wants to turn around and call it a day. Between the five of us we have two cans of bear spray. Just in case.

The bear has moved off into the bushes, but we can still see it from the trail as we approach. The little boy in the family threatens tears. We make noise and can hear it moving through the undergrowth. Toward us or away from us, it’s hard to tell. All of us keep our eyes peeled for cubs. No sign.

Eventually it disappears completely.
We hike onward.

I’ve been on the road now for a month and a half now and my encounter with the grizzly was the scariest moment I’ve had so far. But it’s also the one that makes me feel the most pride.

There are countless valuable lessons for girls and women to learn from the wild, but there’s something unique to be learned by being alone. To feel empowered by your own mind and within your own body. To believe you can survive no matter what the world throws at you. To taste, even if only briefly, what the world is like with no fear, only strength.

There is no shortage of things to be fearful about—spiders, darkness, creepy campsite dudes—but we can’t let that stop us from exploring and getting our hands dirty. It’s OK to be scared, and there’s a fine line between actions that are bold and actions that are stupid, but instead of teaching girls to be afraid, we need to teach them to be brave. To face the darkness, the grizzly, the guy who tells her she shouldn’t be here alone.

Toward the end of my hike in Glacier, I meet a park ranger who is guiding a private backpacking trip for a family of three. The girl isn’t older than five. Her parents carry all of her things.

“You did the whole loop by yourself?” the ranger asks me as we make small talk.

“I did.”

“I’m very impressed,” he says.

As I turn to finish the last three miles, I hear the ranger say behind me, “See that, Mariana? You’ll be just like her someday.”

I beam.

In Their Own Words

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With over 2,500 acres, Mendon Ponds Park is the largest park in Monroe County. It’s only 25 minutes away from downtown Rochester, New York.

“One of the things I think that Rochester is lacking tremendously is a connection to the multitude of green spaces and natural gems in the bioregion that we have here. We have over twenty public parks that are all within fifteen, twenty minutes driving distance; we have the Adirondack Park, which is a state park that’s bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined; we have the Finger Lakes region; and that’s just going outside of the Greater Rochester area. There are so many places to enjoy and so few people understand them.” —Lindsay Cray, Co-Founder and Executive Director of EarthWorks Institute

EarthWorks Institute

earthworks institute

Kids running wild, as they should, during one of EarthWorks’ summer programs. (Photo courtesy of EarthWorks Institute)

The quintessential American childhood is built upon exploration. We see it time and again in children’s literary classics, such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Bridge to Terebithia, and the Little House on the Prairie series. More often than not, the freedom of exploration is linked with the outdoors. Even when the kids are housebound, they often find a way to circumvent their situation—say, via a secret garden or an enchanted wardrobe—and hidden, natural worlds once again are theirs to pursue. Nature is the most accessible landscape for—to borrow a line from Dumbledore—the flighty temptress adventure.

I don’t need to tell you that kids spend a lot of time in front of screens these days. If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, then you’ve definitely been bashed with a dozen or more headlines about it. Like the debate on artificial sweeteners or millennials choosing avocados over houses, screen time for children is a hot-button issue that never lacks in “news” coverage.

It’s something Lindsay Cray has noticed, too. Lindsay is the Co-Founder and Executive Director for EarthWorks Institute, a nonprofit that focuses on connecting residents in the Greater Rochester, New York, area with the world and community around them. Typically this is done through developing a closer connection with or a better understanding of the outdoors. Although EarthWorks offers classes for a variety of ages, its emphasis is on kids.

“Kids are lost,” Lindsay told me in a phone interview. “I’ve met children who literally don’t know how to climb trees, or don’t know how to cross a creek. And I’m not talking a raging river creek. I’m talking a creek that’s five or six feet wide with stones to step on. I’ve worked with children who have stopped dead in their tracks in front of a small body of water and looked at me like, ‘what do we do from here?’”

Before dedicating herself to outdoor education, Lindsay worked as a research scientist studying facets of the human condition, knowledge which influences her work today.

“We’re not as far away from our primitive ancestors as we like to think we are,” said Lindsay. “Doing things like climbing trees increases your balance and also helps you become good at math. Being outside and learning how to push your physical limits helps you to control your mental limits as well. Kids who are constantly dealing with sensory overload don’t understand how to process information and that information can either be schoolwork, or it can be social emotional learning, or it can be critical thinking skills. They’re losing that because they don’t physically challenge themselves in ways that are healthy.”

EarthWorks has many programs designed to get kids reacquainted with nature. They offer courses in tracking, foraging, primitive tools, zombie slugs, and even a Jedi-themed summer program where kids will learn “the true power of the FOREST AWAKENED.”

And the programs are working.

Lindsay says that the response from participants—both kids and adults—has been overwhelmingly positive: “A lot of people tell us that the work we’ve done with them or their children has changed their lives, that the children have become people that the parents didn’t even realize they could be, or that it’s brought them out of their shell. Kids beg to come back, especially for our forest school and our summer camp program.”

In 2016 alone, EarthWorks reached 2,180 participants. They conducted around 700 hours of programs, 620 of which were oriented at children.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would’ve been a very different story if Huck had been given an iPad in the beginning. Forget building a raft. He could have rented a kayak and booked Airbnbs along the way. But where’s the rip-roaring adventure in that?

We need adventure in our lives, especially the wilderness variety. As adventurer and indie vanlife god Chris McCandless once wrote, “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong. To measure yourself at least once. To find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions.”

So let the kids run wild. A little bit of mud never hurt anybody.

(Interested in learning more about EarthWorks? Click here!)