Never Alone: Hiking the Adirondack High Peaks as an Indigenous Two Spirit
written by Ionah Scully, Cree-Métis and Irish—Michel First Nation
Content Note: contains mentions of sexual assault, domestic violence, and colonial violence
Aren’t you scared to hike alone?
I am often asked this question when people hear of the mountain summits I hike to—almost all of them entirely on my own. I have hiked nearly all of the 46 high peaks of the Adirondacks, a range of mountains in Mohawk lands that have rugged, remote trails to subalpine forests. Climbing over rocks and roots, in thick mud and waist-deep bogs, scaling up boulders and steep rockslides, I have hiked over a thousand miles in the Adirondacks and in mountains across Turtle Island—often spending ten or twelve hours at a time getting to better know the lands—nearly all on my own.
I used to take pause when asked this question. Why would I be scared to hike alone? What dangers lurk in the woods that I do not already encounter as someone who runs errands alone, lives alone, takes strolls in my neighborhood alone? A working-class, Indigenous Two Spirit with multiple chronic illness disabilities, the dangers in the woods and mountains are nothing compared to those I fear simply heading out to get groceries, trying to access appropriate healthcare, surviving colonial capitalism and racist violence, and—especially—violence from cis-het white men.
I have never been able to take a stroll in my neighborhood without being catcalled, honked at by a car leering as they pass, or approached and sexually harassed by some cis-het man. On a walk many years ago, I was also sexually assaulted. As an Indigenous Two Spirit person that most of the world sees as a cis-woman, there is often not a single place where I am safe. I have been followed at stores and had to hide in aisles from cis-het men who would follow me to my car, have had stalkers for whom I’ve had to get restraining orders and many more for which that was not possible. I’ve been raped and sexually assaulted and—even in my own home—had to endure domestic violence for a number of years.
When I hike alone, there is distance between myself—my body—and that which would try to invade it: the impositions of capitalism to exploit my time, labor, and even my trauma for its own benefit; from medical gaslighting; from racism that bars access to appropriate medical care and more; and from cis-heterosexism that would exploit my body—like capitalism does—for its own benefit.
Not merely distance however, the land holds me. The Adirondacks hold me.
I am Cree-Métis and Irish of the Michel First Nation. I’ve been displaced from our Treaty 6 lands in Alberta, Canada to what is now known as New York State. I am displaced to Mohawk lands, lands of the people in my ancestry and namesake of our nation. The land has always held me through these traumas. Balsam fir and cedar fronds wafting under my nose and brushing against my arm as I climb are medicines. The ground underneath firmly carries me higher to the summit. Sharp thorns that scrape my knees and fallen trees both warn of dangers and of spaces the land does not consent to me visiting. Wind at the summit cools my skin and calms my nervous system so that I can see better what the mountaintop can see and sense better what the land has to share.
The land communicates and teaches—this we know as Indigenous people. To hike alone allows senses that are otherwise taken up in service of fear of colonialism to better pay attention to how the land communicates. I pick up on sensory feelings—the wind on my skin, the smells in my nose, the snap of a branch or fallen log or sharp thorn—that all provide information. The more time I spend in the land—the more hikes I go on alone—the better I am at understanding the way the land communicates and the more meaning I make from the knowledge the land imparts. I learn better skills to mitigate the risk of fall or injury, to pay attention to the way the land demands I ask for its consent to enter a space. A fallen tree, a sharp branch scraping my leg, steep slopes, and extreme weather are usually signs that the land wishes to be left alone either on that particular day or in that particular area. The land teaches me how to pay attention and be aware of possible animals around me that would also prefer to be left alone so that I do not harm them and, in turn, possibly put myself in danger as well. The more I hike alone, the more I am able to pick up on these teachings and practice safer hiking with each subsequent mountain climb.
This is my birthright—to hike alone, build this relationship with the land to be reciprocal to it and learn from it. To learn consent and to heal. The Adirondacks and all land holds me.
One time when I was hiking, a cis-het white man bounded up and asked where I was headed, proclaiming that he had never hiked alone and was missing his companions. Without asking my consent, he hiked alongside me. I tried to lose him multiple ways—slowing down, speeding up, dropping hints that I prefer solo hikes, and more, but he insisted on reaching the summit with me, helping me up a challenging slide when I was fine navigating it on my own (albeit with a bit more thought and time than he had patience for). He did not learn the land’s consent. He did not recognize how I was expressing it.
I had thoughts to be more direct with him, but as an Indigenous Two Spirit who he assumed to be a woman, directness does not always mean safety. This is something I know from experience. The land also tells me how to express consent to maximize my own safety—sometimes fighting, sometimes fleeing, sometimes fawning. So in this case, because I feared this man would not respond well to directness, I fawned. It worked for a time. So too did my desire to stay on the mountain summit for an hour getting to know the space, give back to it, and learn from it—something his cis-het, white male frame of view could not understand. Thus after five minutes on the summit, he bounded on to “bag” the next peak like every explorer seeking to tame, explore, invade, and conquer bodies of water, lands…and Two Spirit or cis-het women’s bodies.
An important caveat here to note is that am a white-Native coded as white or “racially ambiguous” and thus the way I navigate remote mountain hikes is vastly different than those who are not coded as “white.” This undeservedly affords me a level of safety that kin and community who do not “pass” for white are undeservedly denied despite that safety being their birthright. And still no matter where I am, I am not safe from cis-het white male harm and that has been my experience 41 years earthside.
And usually when people ask me “aren’t you scared to hike alone?” they add a qualifier that they would be worried about injury, falling, getting lost, being mauled by a bear, or some other act of nature. It is usually only people like me who live on the margins of colonialism that recognize the harm I may encounter from cis-het white men on the trail.
I am not afraid of the land. The land only helps and holds me. It only teaches me. I am not denying that I could get hurt by the land and the more reciprocal I am to it, the less likely that is to happen. I have anxiety each time I start a hike and, by the end, a bit of that fear is chipped away more and more. Climate catastrophes enact danger because globally, white supremacy and colonialism have not been reciprocal to land, have not listened to land, have not learned from the land. Harm and dangers befall when that occurs. Capitalism only adds fear where there should be none and masks real fears—healthy fears, if I may call them—of land that allow us to approach it with curiosity and respect rather than with a desire to conquer, tame, and control it.
What fears lurk in the woods and mountains have I not encountered tenfold elsewhere?
Yes, but you are far away and … alone.
Am I? When I traverse the Adirondacks, I feel ancestors moving with me, curiously admiring the land as I do. I try to be the senses for the ancestors—my body a vessel for them to see, hear, smell, feel the balsam fir wafting in the air and brushing against skin or the wind whipping around my braid and cooling the sweat when I finally reach the mountain summit, admiring a scenic vista of slopes and valleys and lakes and everything quiet but the voices of the land.
And in the city, trees engulfed in sidewalks, wilted grasses growing in parking lot cracks, or squirrels and birds along street edges and in dumpsters nod to me as I pass by and say, “I know.” They have seen all of the trauma I and others like me have endured for over 500 years. They have endured it too. They have much to teach, but they are tired and traumatized. They do not want to have to be resilient all the time. “Go to our kin in the mountains,” they say. “Bring back their medicines to us,” they ask me.
When I traverse the mountains, I feel all my kin—human and other-than-human—curiously and joyfully moving with me. I imagine my body a vessel of communication between the rocks of the mountains and valleys and the gravel of city trees and sidewalks. Alone, the land tells me what it desires because everything is quiet but the multiple sensory experiences I share with the land. It misses me. It misses its city kin. It tells me which medicines to bring back to them.
You hike ALONE? Aren’t you scared?
This question has always given me pause—often for many reasons.
I cannot answer the question directly because yes, I suppose I am scared, but also I have never really hiked alone. The land is always there, my companion and friend and kin who I do my best to listen to and support and who in turn, protects me from harm. So I am scared, yes, but not in the way most think and I may be the only human with whom I hike, but I have never really hiked alone.