Please tell me I’m not the only one! Please reassure me that you, too, let out a yelp or a screech when you are startled by something out in the woods. I’ve done this forever, even when a moment later I KNOW there is actually nothing to be afraid of. But, when I’m leading other folks on walks to more deeply connect with Nature, I’m going to have to change this pattern of screech-first-think-later. Let me explain…

As a guide, I am learning to use language very carefully. It is important to let our guests know about possible challenges without causing fear. As part of our standard practice, in our introduction to the guided Forest Therapy Walk, we talk about “awarenesses” rather than “hazards.” A great majority of the time, simply being aware of our surroundings and of how to avoid problems is all we need to stay safe.

photo by Anabell O'Neill

However, they didn’t talk to us about controlling the involuntary screech when startled. I wonder why this didn’t come up in our training classes? After all, I suspect this reaction might scare the walk participants far more than using the wrong words in my introduction! (Please tell me I’m not the only one who does this?!)

Here are a few examples. I’m not sure I will believe you if you tell me you have never let out a screech (or at least a little whimper) when you unexpectedly face critters like these:

We used to live on a farm. Most evenings I walked out to the barn before bed, making sure the sheep and chickens were safely settled until morning. Some dark, moonless nights I would open the door and almost drop my flashlight when a glowing-eyed, pointy-nosed “demon” was sitting on top of the feed bin, hissing at me like a crazy thing. I always let out a loud, high-pitched “SCREECH!” followed by a muttered “Stupid possum!” And that furry creature sauntered away, snickering at winning round number 372 in the scare-the-critter game… (Photo taken by a friend when a possum was on their roof. I wonder what game it was playing?!)

photo by Susan Heino

Daughter Andowen and I take weeks long backpacking trips on the Appalachian Trail. All hikers need to be very aware of black bears. (Read a story HERE about the trials of hanging food bags to keep our supplies away from bears at night.) We tend to talk or sing while we walk, so we rarely see bears during the day. (They prefer to avoid humans, if possible.) Last fall, however, daughter was standing silently under a large tree, waiting for me to catch up. She heard the noise of a hiker coming up the trail, then was started by twigs, leaves and a young bear falling out of the tree, landing right at her feet! She let out a “SCREECH!” and the bear took off running into the woods. She wasn’t sure who was more startled, her or the bear!

please don't screech and scare the bear!

When we are backpacking, the first one hiking down the trail has the pleasure of seeing scenery with no other humans in view. However, they also have the “joy” of clearing the spider webs that were built across the trail during the night. On beautiful crisp, cool, fall days, that front person sometimes finds a snake, warming itself in the sun. It really isn’t a problem when the reptile is just sitting there. It is easy to see what type of snake it is and what type of response is needed. (Often, if it is sunning itself on the trail, just banging trekking poles together will cause the snake to mosey on its way.) But sometimes, as the first hiker is walking along quietly, mind wandering, there is a rustling in the leaves beside the trail, and a long black slithery-snake darts across, almost under one’s feet. After a loud “SCREECH!” the hiker laughs, knowing the snake was harmless. (We actually like the non-poisonous snakes which keep the mouse population under control at shelters.) It still takes awhile for the heart to start pounding though!

actually black rat snakes are harmless

Most of the time when we sleep in the open fronted shelters along the Appalachian Trail, we are happy to see spiders sitting in webs high in the rafters. This usually means there are fewer pesky bugs to bother us. But one rainy night, there were tiny glowing eyes every direction we looked. Our headlamps highlighted what felt like a million spiders who had us surrounded. We could ignore the critters keeping to their own private corners, but when one walked toward us and couldn’t be scared away, the other hikers and I convinced my terrified-of-spiders daughter to kill the intruder. She shuddered, flinched, and let out a few yelps of fear. (Okay, so it wasn’t full-fledged SCREECHES! But I’m still counting it as a similar reaction.) She unsuccessfully tried to swing at the spider several times. Finally, she gathered courage, yelled “For GONDOR!” and flipped the spider with her shoe. Lord of the Rings to the rescue yet again!

sorry, I have to screech!

Fortunately, the most common hazard (ahem, “awareness”) along the woodland trails in Ohio is poison ivy. I am confident I can help participants become more aware of this plant—both how it is high energy food for deer and other animals and how to avoid touching it as humans. Whew! No worries about inadvertent screams when I unexpectedly see this plant!

biggest hiking hazard

So what’s the point of these stories (beyond entertaining you)? I’m reminding myself that I need to curb my instinctive tendencies to SCREECH! I’m working to finish my certification as a Forest Therapy Guide and it is apparently not professional to scare your walk participants. Wish me luck!

(Wondering about our encounters with wild animals while backpacking? You can read a summary of the real hazards of hiking HERE. You can see photos and descriptions of critters we see HERE and HERE.)