SPOKANE — The hustle and bustle of the everyday can gnaw at a person’s psyche.
The deadlines. The chores. The expectations.
For many, the best way to shut out the noise is to escape to the woods. For Kate Rau, it’s also a return to home.
Rau grew up in a cabin in the woods in southeast Idaho. Her father was a game warden, so he raised his family in the backwoods while he also kept watch over the forests and their wildlife.
“We lived in a log cabin until I was 10 or so in Garden Valley,” Rau said. “Playing in the woods was all I had to do. We didn’t have TV, we didn’t have anything. So my life was spent exploring the woods and learning about trees and plants and birds and all that stuff.”
Today, whenever she gets the chance, Rau escapes the city of Spokane and heads for the woods with her two American Staffordshire terriers, Mac and Ivy.
“It really is just where I go to clear my head and recharge my batteries,” she said of hiking the hills around Spokane and North Idaho. “I totally want to be out here in the fresh air. I would much rather be outside than inside.”
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Rau prefers hiking solo with her dogs.
No, not prefers — needs. She needs to hike solo with her dogs.
At one time, Rau said, she thought she wanted to do more hiking in groups, seeing the opportunity to share her love of the outdoors with like-minded women. She and a friend even founded a Facebook group called “Broads with Dogs.”
“I met (MonaLisa Ruder) at the dog park on the South Hill and we just started talking,” Rau explains.
Ruder mentioned she had moved here from Washington, D.C., because she wanted to hike more with her dog.
Ruder, who had a pug named Tyson, belonged to a women’s hiking group back east and wanted to start a similar one here.
“We wanted it to be for women and to support women getting out on the trails where they felt safe to do so,” Rau said. “We started it and it was really fun. I met some really wonderful, interesting people.
“But I quickly realized that for me, working full time and a single mom of a teenager, I needed to be out in the woods by myself to recharge.”
Rau started skipping the group hikes and going off on her own again.
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Rau is never completely alone, of course.
Mac and Ivy are always in tow. Or rather, leading the way.
“They’re attached to me,” she said, pulling at the leashes attached to a waist belt just before embarking on a trek up to Mica Peak. “Literally!”
Mac is a somewhat shy guy, maybe a little skittish around new humans, thanks to an abusive life before Rau found him. Ivy is a super friendly lovergirl, almost the silvery gray of a Weimaraner and with all the exuberant bounce of a bully breed.
The bond Rau has with her dogs has deepened since she returned to solo hiking.
“You get to know them in a different way when they’re in their natural element,” Rau said. “In town, they bark at squirrels and cats, but they’re different in the woods, especially Mac. My daughter and I joke that he doesn’t know how to ‘dog’ or play because of the abuse he suffered. Ivy will want to play and romp around and he’ll just stand in the middle of the room, frozen and not sure what to do.
“You get him in the woods and he comes alive. He jumps over logs and wades into the creeks and runs up hills. I don’t think I’d ever see this side of him if we didn’t hike together.”
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The idea of hiking alone can be intimidating.
For women who want to venture into the woods, Rau has two pieces of advice: Get a dog and pay attention.
The dog has added bonuses, like undying love and affection and a foot warmer at night, but it’s key to stay aware in the woods.
As an experienced solo hiker, Rau said women should leave their headphones at home and keep their heads on a swivel.
“You have to be extremely aware of your surroundings,” she said. “I’m always paying attention to the sounds in the woods. I was out (at Mica Peak Conservation Area) last weekend and … when we came back down a short trail, there was bear scat in the middle of the road that hadn’t been there when we went up.”
Rau is confident Mac and Ivy will deter any beast either four-legged or two from approaching.
She carries bear spray for extra protection against the wildlife but she feels safer with Mac and Ivy at her side, especially in areas where she may not have cell reception.
“I definitely fear humans more than animals,” Rau said. “I’ve been fortunate that I’ve not come across anybody wanting to approach. But at the same time, as a woman alone in the woods, you have to be aware of those things. Men don’t have to think that way and I hate that we do. But we do.
“So it makes sense to have a dog with you or some kind of protection.”
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Tips for hiking solo
Plan ahead. Map out your route and keep it handy. All Trails Pro is a great app for this. Too often, I don’t map my route and my dog Bella and I end up wondering where we are.
Tell someone. Make sure a friend or family member knows where you’re going, what trail you’re on and when you expect to return. Check in with them when you leave and when you’re done.
Bring lots water. Enough for you and your dog.
Start small. Find some of the shorter trails that are well mapped on a good trail app and work your way up to the tougher ones.
Know your limits. If you reach a section of trail that is too daunting at the moment, it’s OK to find your bag of nopes and turn around. Better safe than searched for.
Push your limits. It’s OK, too, to silence the voice in your head that says “can’t.” Just be safe about it.
Keep your cellphone charged and carry a battery pack. This is a lesson well learned on my part. Bella and I got lost at Dishman Hills, thanks to a dead battery and vandalized trail markers.