Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hiker Safety

The Appalachian Trail crosses the busy Bear Mountain Bridge in New York State

Just recently the hiking forums received the disturbing news that the body of a thru hiker "Stonewall" had been found near Cow Camp Gap shelter in Virginia. The authorities deemed it "suspicious" but nothing else has been brought to light yet. And so I was in church today and several came up to me, asking if I knew the hiker (I had been on the trail southbound through in May, though, so did not run into him as he was hiking southbound in July). They then asked how I could ever think of hiking by myself. That it's too dangerous. That life is at risk.

I recall when I stayed with my hosts in New York while hiking the AT southbound last year that they, too, worried. There are predators, nasties out there, etc. And for a few days afterwards, I was really dealing with fear, and that is not good when one is supposed to be out enjoying this wilderness experience.

Like everywhere, the AT is not immune to crime. I recall with great sadness Meredith Emerson who was kidnapped and then killed while hiking near Blood Mtn (she was also hiking with a dog). In the past there have been hikers killed at shelters and tents (several where hikers in pairs). And now with this new discovery, it brings to home the fact that nowhere is safe it seems from those who wish harm upon their fellow man. We live in an evil world. And evil, unfortunately, even finds its way to God's great earth where the Appalachian Trail goes. It makes it all the more sadder that evil has to infect such pristine places. 

What are we to do, then? Are we to live in a bubble and never experience the wonders of creation? Or are there a few things we can do to safeguard the experience but yet enjoy the beauty around us?

I recall during my journey through New York State on the trail that I was hiking through heavily populated areas, alone. I realized I had to hike it smart. One cannot hike unaware of their surroundings, even if it's far off in the woods. Which is why I do not hike with an IPOD or MP3 in my ears so I don't appear oblivious. I am conscious of my surroundings. I have a whistle on my person, and I carry maps in case I need to stealth camp somewhere. I hike with purpose, with long strides, and my hiking poles in hand. If there is someone on the trail who appears to be following (and this did happen in New Jersey) I got off trail and hid for a time until they passed. I never camped near roads. I never shared my itinerary and was very careful even in talking to fellow hikers I met. And if I happen to be on my own in a section, I never let anyone know that I am alone. Of course, in essence I am never alone, as I believe that God is with me. But I do play it safe. I have also received warnings of ill-acting hikers and hiked way over my limit for that day to avoid encounters. I trust warnings given to me. The trail grapevine is great for this kind of "hiker intelligence" - as I call it. As for hitching, I have been known to hike 3 miles to my destination to avoid hitchhiking. But one time, near Manchester Center, Vermont, town was over 5 miles away and I had to hitch. I got pointers from a fellow hiker while at a hostel on just how to do it. Such as don't get rides from pick-up trucks and vans. You can always refuse a ride. Etc. And so I hitched for my first time, along with saying a few prayers that the right person would pick me up. A car drove by, made a U turn, and a nice older lady came back to pick me up, even taking me to the post office before dropping me off at the outfitter. Thankfully it was the only hitch I ever did alone.

It is sad when tragedies like this affect the trail. It makes one realize nowhere is really and truly safe. Alone, paired with other hikers, even with a dog, you still have to trust to your instincts. If it doesn't feel right, move on. Use your brains and common sense. Be in good physical shape and know what you are doing. And it doesn't hurt either to say a prayer, which can go a long way. 

I like this quote from John Muir -
…it is safer to wander in God's woods than to travel on black highways or to stay at home. 


Sarah said...

Thank you for this post. I've been at war with myself over the past few days after reading a particularly sensationalist post on white-blaze about serial killers on the trail.

This blog post has helped me focus that fear into ways I can hike smarter and be able to protect myself (without a gun).

Again, thank you.

Lauralee Bliss said...

Thanks, Sarah. Unfortunately one can die these days doing just about anything and anywhere. The point is we can't live in fear. We can take practical steps - yes, but it is better to focus on the beauty we are seeing on our journey and the good friends we make in the process.

afqh said...

Thanks, I've got much more information from this post. And I'm absolutely agree about the content. Hikers should aware of their safety while enjoying the nature.
Dear Bliss, I'm Malaysian. Still a student and love hiking but I haven't go hiking overseas yet. Budget limitation.:)
It's nice to see people sharing their experience and picture. Feel like I'm there.
Have you come to Malaysia either travelling/hiking? If yes, share with me.
Look forward if you could visit my blog. Not much. But something to share.
Regards. Thanks.