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The Joys of Forest Bathing

Finding Peace and Discovery in Pacific Spirit

Despite living within five kilometres of the UBC Campus since 2004, I really discovered Pacific Spirit Regional Park until the COVID-19 pandemic and public health advice on social distancing.  

During these long, bleak days, I was one of the few walking the wide Salish Trail. I would nod to the few others I passed as we both tried to get as far away as possible from each other. At the same time, I think we realized we could not cope with being locked in every day.  

My forced introduction to Pacific Spirit led to a deep affection that remains today. I still enjoy the park at least once a week. 

Pacific Spirit was established in 1989 and is part of Metro Vancouver’s park system. It exists at the heart of Canada’s third largest urban area, covers over 763 hectares overlooking the Georgia Strait, and includes over 50 kilometres of trails open to walkers, runners, cyclists, even horses.  

On many weekdays during the winter months, I can feel the park is totally mine, often encountering fewer than 10 other souls in a two-hour visit. In sharp contrast, warm spring weekend days attract a multitude of visitors. Despite this, the park never feels crowded. 

As I use Pacific Spirit often, I now recognize several regulars. It has become a little like my local coffee bar or exercise class; familiar, warm and welcoming. The characters I often encounter include a couple in their 80s with walking poles who always nod but do not smile or make eye contact; the single man who wears the same dark blue rain jacket whatever the season, who walks fast and with purpose, but whom I only encounter in the early morning on Salish Trail. We never chat and after we pass I wonder who he is—where does he live, what work did he do, does he walk every day.  

There are kindergarten children out with their teachers, digging holes in the undergrowth with sticks, each child in brightly coloured all-in-one rain gear and boots. There are power walking, Lululemon-wearing women, carrying Starbucks coffee cups, intent in each others company and totally oblivious it seems to anyone else around. There are the dog walkers wearing luminous vests, coping, often unsuccessfully, with an eclectic collection of dogs of various sizes, running in different directions, ignoring the trails but attracted to the puddles.  

All the park users add to my enjoyment of the space and create subjects for my recreational walking daydreams. Since COVID I have watched as the trails have been improved to accommodate the new patrons and who, like me I believe, now regard a visit as an integral part of their week. 

Considerable research suggests the mental and physical health benefits of outdoor activity—an immune system boost, lower blood pressure, reduced stress and anxiety, improved mood and self-esteem, and increased energy levels, to name but a few. Recently, the term “forest bathing” has been added to the lexicon, and occasionally Pacific Spirit Park advertises classes on the subject. 

Writer Jayne Seagrave. (Photo: Supplied)

Forest bathing comes from a 1980s Japanese practice known as “Shinrin yoku” when it was thought that living in the modern world was leading to an increase in depression. Simply put, it is the practice of being calm and quiet among trees, observing nature while at the same time paying attention to one’s breathing. The practice is said to promote mental and physical health by absorbing the atmosphere of the forest. 

While aware of the research and identifying with the findings, I question whether my fellow park patrons are thinking about this. I must admit my attraction to the outdoors is somewhat more selfish and practical. As the Pacific Spirit trails are well-maintained and consist of broad groomed paths of gravel, I can walk in whatever weather knowing I won’t slip in the mud or loose a boot. I can easily find parking, washrooms are available, and I feel safe by myself. I know several women and men who regularly meet friends in the park for exercise and a verbal catch-up.  

Wesbrook Mall is an ideal destination to break the walk and have coffee. I now know all the trails, the whereabouts of the red-headed woodpeckers, the location of the tree frogs, and the number of steps and the time it will take me from my start at Marine Drive to Wesbrook Mall and back.  

If I am forest bathing, I am not aware I’m doing so, and it is certainly not taking any conscious effort. I do know my time in the park is an enjoyable experience. 

As I get older and find some activities prohibitive, or when my time is short, and the West Coast rain annoyingly persistent, walking in Pacific Spirit Regional Park always remains a pleasurable constant.


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