British Columbia's Wilderness Detox

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Great Bear Rainforest

Australian writer and editor Rachelle Mackintosh reaps the well-being rewards of British Columbia’s autumn transformation.

Autumn’s alchemy scatters gold across the forest, but the brown bear’s gaze never strays from the water. She’s waist-deep in the river, scanning for a flash of salmon: one last feast before she retreats to her den. She knows I’m here—after all, grizzlies can smell interlopers as far as 30 kilometres away. I’m watching from mere metres away, but I’m so calm I’ve almost blended into the Great Bear Rainforest around me—and it’s blending into me.

It’s my last day on Vancouver Island, and I haven’t felt this centred in months. This autumn wilderness has cleansed me. As nature strips itself back to prepare for its winter rest—and afterwards, vibrant new growth—my headspace has followed suit. Some scientists call it Vitamin N (for nature), while the locals here call it the British Columbia Effect: the power of nature to bring clarity and to improve well-being.

Victoria | Tanya Goehring

Wild City

Before arriving in the Great Bear Rainforest, I spend a few days exploring the Island, starting in BC’s capital city of Victoria. I make myself comfy at the Fairmont Empress and visit Fisherman’s Wharf, The Butchart Gardens (the Japanese Gardens in autumn are jaw-dropping), and the Royal BC Museum, where First Nations artifacts showcase the connection the Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Gitxsan, Haida, and Nuu-chah-nulth peoples have to the wilderness here. It’s a bond that celebrates Nature as the ultimate force, uniting every creature on the land, in the sea and the skies above; where humans are but one thin thread in the endless tapestry of life on Earth.

But on morning walks in Victoria’s picturesque harbour, I gaze out over the Pacific, dreaming of seeing orcas. Large pods live in these waters and the fall season brings transient orcas here—incentive enough to book a three-hour cruise. As we slowly sail out of the Inner Harbour and into the Salish Sea, the autumn sunset creates pink wispy clouds and turns the calm ocean lilac.

Soon, we find a small pod of orcas in the distance, mini puffs of fairy-floss appearing as they come up for air. I’m holding my own breath watching them, enjoying the almost-silence as the swell laps against the hull, when I hear a whoosh-pah! at the back of the boat; two whales exhale and come in to look at us. Right then it hits me: the whales are just as curious as we are. Maybe most living things feel this need to connect, at least at some point? Either way, it’s life-affirming. BC in full effect!

Humpback whale | Steven Fines

The Power of Vitamin Sea

Relaxed, and ready for more ocean action, I take a short flight to Tofino on the rugged west coast of the Island—an iconic surf town where the big waves start rolling in from mid-autumn, the beginning of storm-watching season and, of course, surfing.

Research shows that breathing in the sea’s salty air can cleanse away stress and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, putting us in a mindful state. And, as I stroll along Cox Bay Beach, I get it—I’m 100 per cent present in this scene. Behind me, Pacific Rim National Park’s forests stand like sentinels shrouded in mist; in the white wash, a giant sand dollar shines; the crisp air makes my cheeks tingle, while the crash and crack of waves blocks out every other sound.

While a handful of dry-suited locals take on the pounding three-metre surf, I’m otherwise alone, invigorated by the electric energy of Big Nature working its magic.

Grizzly near Farewell Harbour Lodge | John Lehmann

The Great Bear Effect

For the final leg of my “detox” I fly into Port Hardy at the northern tip of the island, en route to the Great Bear Rainforest. Here, depending on where you’re staying in the area, you’ll connect with a domestic flight, seaplane, cruise transfer, or a combo of these to get to your lodge. I’m staying at Farewell Harbour, so I get a road transfer to Alder Bay and a water taxi to the lodge. Too easy!

I do my best to absorb this epic wilderness. Sprawling along the coast at almost twice the size of Belgium, Great Bear is one of the last remaining temperate rainforests on Earth and, while most folks come to see grizzlies and Kermode (Spirit) bears, as the months wear on and winter nears, there are fewer and fewer stragglers around, tucking into last-minute meals before hibernation.

I’m visiting late in the season so I hadn’t expected to see a bear at all, but as I sit here watching this female grizzly with my Farewell Harbour guide, Chris, I’m entirely comfortable—even with an apex predator mere metres away. I feel part of this forest. As we watch her patient concentration, the world feels so slow-mo that time’s almost stopped ticking entirely.

This dreamy effect helps me tune into the scenery around us, too. I marvel at how life lives upon life here in rich layers—decaying branches become “nurse logs” covered in vibrant lichen, fungi, and shrubs; towering spruces sway alongside 1000-year-old cedars; Old Man’s Beard is draped over moss-garnished hemlocks; and, in the delicate hum of the forest, bald eagles, mergansers, kingfishers, and goshawks sing out their stories. Here, the earthy scent of the forest combines with the salty aroma of “The Great Bear Sea,” its estuaries and fjords curling between towering peaks speckled with snow. Big, BIG Nature.

 

 

Suddenly a staccato of splashes brings me back to the bear. She’s bouncing through the water, and, with an explosion of claws and jaws—success!—she’s scored herself a salmon feast. As she holds it in her mouth and steps out of the river, she casts a micro-glance towards us then turns away, disappearing into the forest behind her.

The effect of BC’s big, wild nature has reconnected me to that jaw-dropping, tracks-stopping awe of life. No wonder I’m buoyant for months afterwards.

This scene embeds itself in my mind’s eye and becomes part of my bigger BC story—the one that’s changed the way I perceive the world. Now, I see it as a series of connections between living things—and for all of us, autumn is a time to look inward and cleanse, to prepare for growth.

To learn more about this incredible part of the world, check out The Great Bear Rainforest film on IMAX and giant screen theatres.

Header image: Great Bear Rainforest |Ted Hesser

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