Growing up as a young woman, you’re taught to always be on guard.

Even at a young age, you learn habits that could potentially save your life. I remember being 14 years old walking on the side of the road and seeing two men on the other side of the street that were making me uncomfortable. Without even thinking about it, I pretended to be on the phone and waved at nothing in the distance saying, “yes I see you” to the fake person on the phone.

More than anything, you learn to trust your gut and to always listen to your instincts.

No Longer a ‘Safe' Haven

As a Portlander, I have spent my summers cruising through Casco Bay and spending days out on Peaks Island. Sometimes with friends but mostly alone. It’s a safe space away from the fast-paced mainland where I can just walk among the fields of flowers, sit on the beach, meditate, and ground myself in peace.

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When I went out to the island with friends, it was always to spend countless hours sitting on top of Battery Steele; that would be the whole point of us going.

As soon as the fall season reached us last year, we made a plan to go to our safe haven, a true haven since the summer tourists had left. Strangely enough, I woke up that morning with a sour feeling in my stomach and told my friend, without understanding why, “I can’t go to Battery Steele today.”

All three of us were confused but I couldn’t shake it. They didn’t understand my reasoning but all I could explain was there was something in my gut telling me not to go and to just spend the day on one of the local area beaches instead.

So that is what we did.

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We spent nearly eight hours on the rocks on Picnic Point when the sun started to set into the golden hour. Exhausted by the “can we go to Battery Steele” questions, I finally let up and we compromised on a trip to Battery Steele for our last hour before the ferry ride home.

I should have kept listening to my gut.

The Battery Steele Stranger

We typically take a lovely walk through a field of flowers, trees, and plants that soar above our heads so we are truly lost in the island’s nature. All around you, you’re surrounded by wildlife taller than you are and it feels like a mystical children’s book.

Due to lack of time, we took the dirt road to the fort.

It had been a long day, so we walked in single file not saying a word to one another. We passed by a family of four and smiled kindly. Strolling a little farther back in the family pack was a teenage boy around the age of 17-18 years old that I shared eye contact with.

One friend was way far ahead of us out of hearing distance, so I turned to the friend behind me and said, “I don’t trust him” and her eyes bugged out of her head exclaiming, “dude, I was just thinking the same thing.” We shivered at the shared thought.

The family was walking in the complete opposite direction and the only other way to the top of Battery Steele was a long trail on the other side. Yet, somehow, once we reached the top of the fort, the strange boy was standing there, dirty and heavy-breathing.

He was not part of that innocent family.

The friend that was walking in front and hadn’t noticed him with the family turned around and looked at us with a weird face, shrugged, and walked by him to sit on the top of the fort.

He was standing in front of an empty tent with nothing inside of it except for dirty rags.

We walked by, and he got into his tent and zipped it up.

At this point, I was paralyzed. It was one of those nightmares where you want to speak or yell or scream but nothing comes out. All I could do was stand on the top of the fort staring at the back of my friends head thinking, “we need to leave, we need to leave, we need to get out of here.”

She sat down, hung her legs off the side, and I just kept looking back to the tent and back down to us thinking, “we are trapped. We are trapped between this nut job and a cliff.”

Still unable to stutter out even a sound, my friend turned around, stood up, and said, “we need to leave.” The look on her face told me she was starting to get the gut feeling I had had all day.

We grabbed each other's hands and ran by the tent, finding it unzipped and empty. Panic set in.

We were on a small trail not even a foot wide surrounded by fields of plants that were multiple feet taller than us, giving the strange boy the opportunity to run out from any side, any angle, at any point in front or behind us.

We got to a fork with two options, so we banged a right and the next thing we knew the dirty, greasy, stranger was sprinting toward us with a sick smile on his face, evidently thriving off of our extremely apparent fear.

He disappeared into the forest.

The sun was starting to set faster.

We started to sprint.

The fields of flowers, trees, and plants were no longer a mystical children’s book but a living nightmare. We sprinted into the field away from him and toward a flat trail that has always been, for years, plied wood on solid ground to avoid mud when it rains. We ran across the wood like normal until our scene kicked into a full-blown horror movie.

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I tripped on a piece of wood, fell off into what looked like just a mud puddle on solid ground, until my entire body disappeared into 5+ feet of mucky, murky, pond water.

I threw my bags up to my friend while trying to grab onto her as she balanced on the wood trying not to fall in herself. I was gasping for air as the already-brewing panic attack fully set in until they were able to pull me out. Sopping wet, smelling like a swamp, and unable to breathe, we turned around and looked back toward Battery Steele.

We couldn't go through the swamp. We had to turn around. We had to head right back to him.

We felt like we were being hunted.

We had to run in a single file because the trail was so narrow, with me in the middle because of my absolute and genuine panic. Even though he hadn’t technically harmed us yet, the fact that I had woken up with a guardian angel telling me, “do not go to Battery Steele”, and my gut had avoided it all day, I was nauseated at what I was experiencing at that moment.

As a young woman, worst-case scenarios raced through my mind. We were in the middle of a field, nobody was around, the sun was setting, there was a swamp behind us, he could get away with anything at that moment and we all knew it. And based upon that creepy smile, he knew it, too.

All I kept thinking was, “this is what my mother warned me about. This is being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can picture the headline now.”

The fear in our stomachs knowing he could pop out of the field from any direction at any moment kept us sprinting. We ran our hearts out until we got back to the dirt road, caught our breath, checked in on one another, and kept sprinting until we reached town.

My throat was dry but I couldn’t stomach the thought of anything. For some reason, the only thing I could possibly find comfort in was a vanilla ice cream cone. We stood in line waiting to order and without even realizing it, I was sobbing so hard I couldn’t catch a breath.

Losing a Sliver of Peace

I started to laugh at myself for standing in the middle of an ice cream shop bawling my eyes out when technically nothing had happened to me. My friend reassured me that it was okay to cry, what we had just experienced was traumatic.

I was also just sad. Plain and simple, I was sad.

I crave solitude and bask in the glory of being alone. I love solo trips, I love being alone in nature, I love finding a little corner of the woods or a rocky beach where I can be with myself. But that day on Peaks, I lost a sliver of the peace I felt in those moments before.

When I’m walking alone on Mackworth Island, I can’t help but picture that lunatic sprinting toward us with that sick smile on his face. When I’m sitting on a beach alone at sunset, I can’t help but look around every 5 minutes scanning my environment to make sure I’m safe.

What was once the safest place in the world to me is now the home of one of my most jarring memories.

I understand nothing happened to me that day. I understand he didn’t touch us or do anything but the pit in our stomachs, the fear in our chests, and the scenarios that flashed through our minds as we tried to get out of that field is a feeling I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.

As a young woman, you’re constantly aware of the worst-case scenarios. You’re taught to be on guard, to be aware of your surroundings, and to trust your gut.

For some reason, my gut did not want me at Battery Steele that day and the moment I sensed we were in danger, there was no calming me down. It felt like I was living out my worst fear, I’m just thankful nothing happened.

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