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Published September 15, 2012, 11:40 PM

Hiking her way: Women find spiritual solace on the trails

FARGO - When Heather Guttormson hikes, she sees the intricacy of nature: sun shining on the grass, the shadows trees make in the forest, how moss looks on a rock.

By: Sherri Richards, INFORUM

FARGO - When Heather Guttormson hikes, she sees the intricacy of nature: sun shining on the grass, the shadows trees make in the forest, how moss looks on a rock.

Guttormson has been hiking for five years. She likes to take in the fall colors in Minnesota’s North Shore area, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest. In early June, she heads there alone for a five-day spiritual hike.

She starts in the morning, hikes all day, and returns to her tent in the evening. Each year she chooses new trails to explore.

Some people tell her it’s odd she goes on this sort of trip, especially by herself. Others tell her she’s more adventurous than they are. This year, when her hikes took her into Ontario, she saw a black bear.

For Guttormson, a 35-year-old marriage and family therapist in Fargo, it’s catharsis.

“I spend hours every day listening to others’ struggles. Often these are stories of great pain and often trauma. Going on my hikes gives me time to cleanse my soul and renew my spirit,” she says.

The first day of the hike she thinks of people she’s been in contact with and prays for them. “From the second day on, it’s just the Lord and I. It’s time for me to pour out my heart to him,” she says.

Women approach hiking differently than men, say some enthusiasts of the sport, who’ve also noticed more women taking to the trails.

Gail Lowe, of Lowell, Mich., has made DVDs about hiking and backpacking through her company Nature Nymph, LLC. She’s hiked the Appalachian Trail twice, as well as the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. Now 63, she has plans to hike the North Country National Scenic Trail, which extends 4,600 miles from New York into North Dakota.

Lowe says when she first through-hiked the Appalachian in 1991, she met very few women. When she hiked it again in 2011 as a 20-year celebration, she says the trail was “flooded with single females” of all ages.

“It was very rewarding to see women have taken up the reins and realized this is an OK thing to do,” Lowe says. “You have to be careful, but you don’t have to be so afraid that you sit on your couch.”

Diane Spicer who lives in Seattle (and whose great-great-grandparents were from Fargo) runs the website Hiking-for-her.com, with the goal of encouraging more women to hike. She got into hiking at age 14 with her Girl Scouts troop. She’s now 56.

She believes more women her age and older are getting out and hiking.

“I think it’s a nonthreatening way to be an athlete,” Spicer says. “You don’t have to have a lot of gear, you don’t have to be on a team, you don’t have to compete with anybody. You’re in your body; you’re as strong as you want to be. You go as far as you want to go.”

In her 40 years of hiking, Spicer says the hiking gear available for women has changed “substantially, amazingly.”

“When I started out, gear was all for big men,” she says. “They finally realized we have hips,” she adds laughing.

Lowe says there has been a shift in attitude that has made hiking more acceptable for women. She says when she first started through-hiking, the expectation was women covered their skin, or they were “asking for it.” She wore a wedding band even though she was single.

Spicer says she sees women look very feminine when hiking, wearing skirts and beautiful headscarves.

But women may still face unique challenges in hiking. As women are generally smaller than men, they aren’t able to carry as much weight when backpacking. Lowe says a rule of thumb is to carry one-fourth of one’s body weight in their pack, with one-fifth being preferred.

Women typically would have smaller strides, too, but Lowe dismisses that as being an issue.

“I’ve seen women who are 4-foot-8 who can do just as many miles as a 6-foot man,” Lowe says.

Spicer receives many emails from women asking how to handle their periods when hiking and devotes a page of her website to the topic. She suggests three approaches: taking hormonal medication to suppress the cycle, packing wisely and carrying out the feminine products in a sealed plastic bag, or using a reusable, internal menstrual cup.

But one of the biggest hindrances women who want to hike face is themselves, Spicer says.

“Our lives as women revolve around other people,” she says. “If you can carve out time for yourself, I think you come back from your hiking trip far more balanced and centered.”

A different approach

Spicer says women approach hiking differently than men.

“Women are more about the experience, and I think men are more about the destination,” she says. “I think women pay attention to the details.”

Lowe describes a connection to the earth when hiking. “When I’m going to do a long-distance hike I tell friends I’m going to be in church for the next six months,” she says.

Kerry Conlin of Fargo also says she feels closer to God when she hikes.

“Hiking brings me to a place where I can focus on the beauty of creation. Much of it I take for granted when I am buzzing around in a car,” she says.

“It gives me time to pray and think and breathe fresh air. It also is a great way to exercise and something that I can do with my kids.”

Conlin grew up in Wolverton, Minn., on a farm along the Red River, and would hike next to the river and through the woods often. Now, she and her kids, ages 11, 10 and 4, will hike near their country house in the Sheyenne River Valley. In June, they hiked in the Badlands of South Dakota.

“I go on all kinds of hikes, short or long,” she says. “I end up getting too ambitious and end up cutting my hikes short because my kids freak about how far I want to go. … I hope as my kids get older we will be able to do more adventure hiking.”

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