A trail passes through a grove of hemlock trees at Nelson Memorial Forest in Marshfield.

I used to love to walk alone in the woods. Several days a week I’d spend an hour, maybe more, exploring one of the local conservation areas. Sometimes I’d just walk and observe, other times, with a notebook in one hand and a camera in the other, I’d keep track my experiences, recording what interested me, what I found beautiful, what I wanted to share with others. I rarely encountered other people on these excursions.

I’ve written about my solitary walks before. A couple years ago, after reading one of my articles, a friend asked me whether I considered it safe to be walking alone in the woods. “You never know what you might encounter there,” she said. “Be careful.”

Her intention was to caution me, and while she gave me something to think about, her words did not bring about a change in my behavior. “If we live our lives in fear of what may happen to us, are we truly living our lives?” I asked.

Popular culture teaches us that single women must be prepared to — should even expect to — encounter danger. We are urged to avoid going places alone, but in cases where we must, we are told to walk with confidence, as simply acting unafraid could protect us from a would-be attacker. However, the magazines and television programs tell us, we’d be better off if we were more prepared. So we must learn self defense, or carry some sort of weapon. I pay attention to these warnings; to some extent I’ve followed each of them. But a defensive stance detracts from the pleasure of a contemplative walk in the woods. And when the walk is meant to relax me, if I’m concerned about my own safety, I certainly will not be relaxed.

The woods was where Little Red Riding Hood encountered the Big Bad Wolf. In myths and folk tales it is where evil dwells, where one is most likely to encounter a thief, bandit, or trickster. The forest is generally portrayed as dark and mysterious; one could easily get lost there. But what if you’re familiar with the woods? What if you’ve walked the same trail once each week for years on end? Is it still a threatening, unpredictable place? Where do you draw the line?

It’s something I’ve been struggling with lately. I regularly walk at Nelson Forest, the Norris Reservation, Daniel Webster Sanctuary and Bay Farm, often by myself. The trails in these places are as familiar to me as my own back yard; even when they were new to me, I did not regard them as potentially dangerous.

Still, these are large land parcels, intentionally remote, thick with trees and underbrush. I hate to admit it, but there have been times when I’ve been concerned for my safety while walking alone there. Although I’ve never felt truly scared, I‘ve occasionally been spooked. Perhaps it was a charging dog that got my adrenaline pumping — although I’ve learned now that they almost always stop within a few feet, only to bark. Perhaps it was a rustling in the leaves. Or maybe it was just the presence of someone unfamiliar that got me reviewing my karate lessons or considering escape plans. It’s never the prospect of personal, physical danger that concerns me when I walk alone — not the thought of spraining an ankle or tripping, falling, and bumping my head — but rather the possibility of an unsafe situation involving another person.

My concern is not irrational. A woman alone in a secluded or unfamiliar place is definitely at a disadvantage. But should all remote places be considered threatening? Are there indeed forests and open space parcels where one might feel safe walking alone? Again, I don’t know where to draw the line.

I am reluctant to give up my solitary walks. When it’s just the exercise I want — or to get outside, or to explore a new trail — I enjoy bringing a friend along with me, perhaps even introducing that friend to a beautiful place. But when I really want to be alone, when it’s solitude in the presence of a river or forest or meadow that I need, a companion, however silent, will no doubt color the experience a little differently. I might restrict my solo walks to my neighborhood or the beach, but I can’t help but feel that I’m making a compromise.

What can be done? Stigmatizing all open space areas as potentially dangerous is just as damaging as naively supposing that they are all safe for solo walkers. I may have felt comfortable at a certain place for years, but things can change. Take Duxbury’s Bay Farm, for example, where recent criminal incidents have cast it in a threatening light.

Perhaps it comes down to personal preference: if you feel comfortable walking somewhere by yourself, then by all means do it. But if you are concerned about it, if you wonder sometimes whether to be alone in a remote forest or following a trail through a fully-grown meadow is in your best interest, then perhaps you should invite a friend to go with you.

We need not walk in fear. Still, we should be aware of the possibilities, and be prepared.

by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
March 1999

Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a non-profit organization which focuses on the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of the spring newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168.