Hiking is a soul level joy for me, I love to get out on the trail and be immersed in nature, it evokes my sense of adventure and takes me to a wonderful place of peace and contentment. Hiking always raises my spirits no matter the conditions. Even on wet days when I am out on the trail, moving my body, one step at a time, breathing in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest, lakes, mountains and wildlife, I feel alive and connected to the universal source of life.
Hiking has been my life support system and has saved me from going under with the weight of grief many times in my life. My soul soars with exhilaration when I get to a peak and I take some moments to absorb the breath-taking view. I would not be where I am today if I did not have this coping mechanism. A way to step out of the daily grind and bring me to a place of calm, connection, joy and wonder. Planning my next hike excites my curiosity, where to go, when to go, what time to start.
Loading my backpack with the essentials I need is a self-care practice for me. Nourishing food to give me energy, ample water supply to keep me hydrated, a flask of hot coffee so I can indulge in a cup in a scenic spot. Layers of clothes to keep me protected from the elements and ticks. A first aid kit of lotions and potions for survival. A solar power bank to keep me connected just in case I am stranded. And last but not least, since I started hiking solo in the US, my trusted Bear bell to make me feel empowered.
Before my move to the US, I had hiked in Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Switzerland and had always been in a group hike with a club or friends. I loved the social element and experiencing the soul soar with others added to the experience. The comradery and support of others in a group is amazing to experience, moments where you may be struggling, someone will always offer a helping hand up.
When packing up my life to relocate from Switzerland to the USA, one of the things I was most looking forward to was taking road trips to go hiking in the scenic State Parks. Back then I was in a place of my life where I was not feeling very social. I was raw from the heartbreak of divorce and resonated towards solitude as my solace. I knew getting myself to the wilderness would work wonders for my healing process. I just wasn’t ready to expose myself to the wildlife yet. Hiking came with a warning that I was in Bear Country.
Bears are beautiful creatures so I reasoned that seeing one in its natural habitat would be a wondrous experience. Except that I was scared of the situation playing out in real life. I wondered how would I react. My spirits were low and I was already feeling insecure. Would I be paralysed in fear, would I scream, would I be attacked, would I survive?
Every time I thought I was ready to go out hiking, those fears would play out and I would change my plans. I researched hiking groups and meet ups but my heart was not in it. I didn’t feel the desire to get connected with a group, I felt strongly that I needed to venture out alone. But the thought of being exposed to the danger of meeting a wild Bear held me back.
I researched how to protect myself from the dangers of Bears and found out that Bear spray was available at Outdoor stores. I went to the REI store, I loved going there to indulge my senses in the outdoor lifestyle. I picked up the Bear spray can and hesitated. The thought of being armed to defend myself against a Bear seemed upsetting to me. I couldn’t bring myself to buy it even though it was a protection strategy. In my heart I knew that it would be a fearful purchase because it catered for a close counter with a Bear, which was what I was trying to avoid.
Then my eyes were drawn to a Bear Bell. I picked it up to examine it. Just a small metal bell attached to a strap. Hikers tie single bear bells or clusters of bells to their boots, backpacks or walking sticks. The unnatural sound of the Bear bell jingling will alert the Bears to the nearby presence of Hikers. Since Bears naturally want to avoid people, the sound of Bear bells will keep the bears away.
The Bear bell felt like a win to me, a deterrent that acted like a warning signal to the Bears was exactly what I needed. It would mean that Bears would keep away and I would not have to face my fear. I bought it and felt a renewed sense of confidence. No more excuses now it is time to get out there.
I started small and planned short three to four-hour hikes on popular paths where multiple hikers traversed. My bear bell jingled loudly and always alerted the other hikers to my whereabouts. I was building up my experience and liked the comfort of having other hikers nearby. After a while I began to feel more adventurous and wanted to plan a longer distance day hike.
I planned my next hike at Minnewaska State Park in New York. It was a moderate level trail loop, that would probably take me about seven hours including a dip in lake Awosting. It was a beautiful summer day in July. An early riser, I got there when the park opened to secure the best parking spot at the trailhead. Many other early bird hikers and cyclists were gearing up in the parking lot. I felt a community of spirit with these other adventurous eager to get out there to experience the wild.
My tried and trusted Bear bell was on the shoulder strap of my backpack. I loved the melodic jangle and sometimes sang along with it. I walked along at a steady pace and felt the positive vibes of being immersed in nature elevating my spirits. The conditions were forecasted to be perfect for hiking. Not too hot but plenty of sunshine and blue skies all day. The temperatures were cooler in the forest parts of the trail and I was layered up to feel comfortable. I even brought hiking sandals to change into at the lake. It was so nice to take off the boots and free my feet.
The lake stop was about half way into my hike, I was making good time so I decided to take a leisurely dip and picnic. After a refreshing swim in the clear cool waters of the lake and nourishment of my lunch I felt recharged. By then the lake was starting to get busy with other hikers and I decided it was time to get going. I packed up and got back on the trail.
When leaving the lake area, I came to a signpost, going left would retrace my steps back to the parking lot and turning right would complete on the loop. I had planned to do the loop but for some reason I hesitated. There was no one around but my intuition was awakened. Going back the same way was familiar but I had already been there. Going forward meant being exposed to new sights and new places.
I turned right and with my senses heightened I walked towards the bend on the path. I felt a sense of apprehension even before I turned the corner and saw the Bear. I stopped in my tracks and held my breath. There about twenty steps away was a big brown Bear rambling on all fours out of the bushes. The Bear turned its head towards me and halted.
I felt a sense of wonder that it was happening to me. Time paused in that endless moment of looking at such a magnificent creature in its habitat. With a cute face, shiny fur, chubby form, this Bear looked so inviting, I wanted to reach out to it. I was drawn to the playful energy of the Bear. I sensed it was in a good mood from eating summer berries in the bushes. I felt calm yet strangely exhilarated. A rush of appreciation came over me, I understood in that moment that this was a rare occurrence to be in the presence of a Bear without the protection of a cage. Standing there immobilised in a sense of awe, I felt appreciation for the privilege of having this moment in my life. There was a sense of inexplicable connection to a larger life force.
Suddenly I felt a snap in my head. I was yanked out of that peaceful trance and alerted to the perceived danger. I stepped into activation mode. I had read up on what to do in case of this situation occurring. My hand sprang to my Bear bell and I jingled it loudly at full force. I pulled it off my shoulder strap and widely waved both my hands in the air. I made my body look larger by standing with my feet wide apart. This was meant to look imposing to the Bear and to discourage it from coming closer.
I started to take small backward retreating steps, all the while staying composed and keeping my eyes on the Bear. I sent out heartfelt gratitude to the Bear for allowing me this moment of intrusion in its day. I saw the Bear look behind it and wondered what it was looking at and hoped it was more intriguing that coming in my direction. Maybe there were other Bears in the vicinity, perhaps even cubs? I did not want to be exposed to any more Bears so I sent a silent prayer out to the universe to allow me to exit from this experience without harm.
I reached the bend in the path and slowly the Bear vanished out of sight. I continued to walk backwards but quickened my pace. Once I had a safe distance between us, I turned and ran for a few minutes and then stopped to catch my breath. My brain started to process the experience, my heart was beating wildly, I was shaking a little and I felt electrified. I started to come back to down to earth.
A group of hikers came along and upon seeing me in that state stopped to ask me if I was ok. I explained about my encounter with the Bear, along with my escape. They congratulated me on both seeing the Bear and leaving it undisturbed. They encouraged me to call the Ranger and give the location of the sighting. I did so and the sighting was recorded in the Rangers book. The Ranger told me that such a sighting was in fact rare as usually hikers are too noisy for Bears to bother with.I felt a sense of elation making that call. I knew in my heart that this was the experience that I needed to empower myself forward in my life.
I didn’t finish the loop trail that day, instead I went back the same way I had come from. Even though that way was not a Bear free zone, I knew what the terrain was like. I trusted that it was the more populated route with other hikers getting to the lake. Once I finished the hike I felt on top of the world. The heart rush came back when I sat in my car and relived the moment. I knew this was a turning point in my life story.
The encounter with the Bear taught me so many valuable lessons. To pay attention to my inner compass, when there is a crossroads, to trust that whatever way I go will be the one meant for me. To lean into my intuition, I was aware something magnificent was going to step on my path before I even witnessed it. To rely on myself to stay safe while still exposing myself to the wilds of the unknown.
I learned that facing your fears unlocks you from your own mental prison. The experience that I had when I faced the Bear was extraordinarily liberating. I did not feel in danger, I felt calm, and free to experience the wonder of the moment. Overall, I felt a sense of immense gratitude for having being fully present in the situation. I was right there on the path looking straight at the Bear and in the absence of panic I felt alive, curious, courageous and connection.
I felt the connection to the power of the universe amplifying. I had a knowing that this encounter was orchestrated for me by a higher force. I felt encouraged and my faith in the wonders of life was restored. I felt victorious to have put myself through a test of faith and belief in myself. That feeling of elation has stayed with me since and is accessible in times of need.
On another occasion I did go back to the same hike and finish the loop. I passed that same meeting point on the trail and paused for a long time in remembrance. I no longer felt afraid of having another encounter with a Bear and somehow understood that it was unlikely to be repeated. I have taken what I needed from the encounter and empowered myself. I have liberated myself from living in fear and have opened my heart to living courageously.
This experience gave me the confidence to purposefully go on other solo adventures. One of which was an intensive, eight-day Vision Quest in Sedona, Arizona, which accelerated my soul healing journey and put me on the path to fulfil my soul purpose. If you have read my about page you will know that this was where I heard the calling to start my next chapter in becoming the Life and Soul Coach. I promise I will share more of that story in a future post.
I often think fondly of that Bear and from my heart I send gratitude for the blessings of living a healthy, wonderful, wild and free life.