Enjoying a guided hike in Squamish with the Sea to Sky Adventure Company | Hubert Kang

Finding The BC Effect: Places in British Columbia That Inspire Purpose & Connection

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In BC, one doesn’t just discover new sights, but new sides of themselves. Here, you can immerse yourself in a culture and way of life shaped in harmony with nature that is deeply transformational—what we call The British Columbia Effect. Discover some of the places that are deeply meaningful to those who live here.

Nature is more than just landscape, more than just the backdrop to a holiday. Nature is therapy. It’s been shown that time spent in nature is an antidote for stress: It calms the fight-or-flight impulses, can lower blood pressure, and can even elevate your self-esteem. The science of ecotherapy supports what thousands of years of Indigenous wisdom already puts into practice, and helps explain that intuitive spark and nourishing mind-body experience that’s compelled countless expats to relocate to British Columbia and so many others to stay or keep coming back.

“Guests always ask me if I still appreciate the magnificence of BC after 20 years here,” reflects Marg Leehane, manager of the Great Bear Lodge, located in a pristine swath of rainforest along BC’s north and central coast. “I do still see all the beauty here, but I think what happens after a while is that this environment just sinks into your bones and you’re connected to it all on a much deeper level.”

What she’s describing here is The British Columbia Effect, a feeling she’s come to know intimately since moving to BC from Australia —and one that is available to not only those who choose to live here but also those who choose to visit.

Great Bear Lodge & Northern Vancouver Island: Like Pure Oxygen

“There’s a freshness here I can’t quite put my finger on,” says Leehane, who spends her days surrounded by lush, temperate rainforest at the Great Bear Lodge, a luxury floating lodge at the edge of the Great Bear Rainforest, fifty nautical miles from Port Hardy on the northern tip of Vancouver Island. “There are so many trees here that the only way I can describe it is that it feels like pure oxygen, fresh and clean.”

And swirling through that oxygen are terpenes, the distinctively astringent, naturally occurring organic compounds that are released from trees and when inhaled, can promote brain function by decreasing mental fatigue, inducing relaxation, and improving overall mood. This fresh, “green” scent is what makes forests smell so good and is what makes BC such a healing place.

“People always say they’re tired after being outdoors all day,” says Leehane. “But I wonder if it’s just that they’re getting a lot more fresh oxygen than normal and adjusting to it. It takes half a day before guests start to slow down and begin connecting with the forest. By the third day, though, it’s as if their pulse slows down and it starts to match the pulse of the rainforest.”

Learn more about Northern Vancouver Island, including ways to access the Great Bear Rainforest from there, and follow @greatbearlodge on Instagram.

Salish Sea & Southern Vancouver Island: Coastal Resiliency

From her vantage point on a whale-watching boat working for Prince of Whales, the seasons are significant for Captain Valérie Messier, one of the few female captains in the industry. Sailing from Victoria through the waters surrounding Southern Vancouver Island and east towards the mainland across the Salish Sea, Messier measures the passing of seasons by wildlife activity and teaches visitors to appreciate nature’s rhythms.

“During September, October, and November, it’s wildlife galore. This is peak feeding season before winter so we get a lot of active wildlife in this area then.”

And while the main and most obvious attraction might be orcas, grey, and humpback whales, Messier has seen an incredible diversity of animals here, including pelicans, seals, sea otters, sea lions, dolphins, bald eagles, and even the occasional puffin. “We’re not just trying to show whales, but the whole ecosystem and talk about how everything’s connected.”

Messier knows how both fragile and powerful nature is, how delicate a balance is required for it to flourish—and how important it is that everyone, including visitors, appreciate this too. The Salish Sea may seem invincible but humpback whales only recently started making a comeback after enormous efforts were made to end whaling and return balance back to their natural feeding waters.

“They were gone for 80 years and only started returning about 20 years ago, and now we have over 400 of these gentle giants that come into the Salish Sea every year. We’re connected to the ocean and the ocean is connected to the land and the land is where we live. It all comes back to us.”

Learn more about Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea and follow @princeofwhaleswhalewatching and @valbmessier on Instagram.

Northern BC: Small Towns, Big Hearts

Smaller, off-the-beaten-path towns, like many found in Northern BC, offer visitors a chance to explore the iconic scenery of the region at a more congenial pace, with opportunities to chat with residents and get to know local cultures. These picturesque towns dot along BC’s Highway 97, gently interspersed between provincial parks, waterfalls, and sweeping mountain terrain, with some having been developed in the ‘60s as compact, walkable communities. Sharing in this unique environment creates close-knit communities that offer opportunities for visitors to explore a more neighbourly side of BC.

As a long-time resident of Northern BC, Cathy Johnson’s been shaped by the area’s natural affinity for outdoor adventure. “Northern British Columbia is such an untapped resource of goodness that a lot of people don’t realize,” says Johnson. It’s why she is glad to be raising her two young children there.

“My kids are not bored. They are not afraid to explore. They do not stop when faced with a challenge,” says Johnson. “But also, they are good caretakers and are growing up with a sense of responsibility to the environment.” Small towns in the Peace Region offer opportunities not just for recreation but for developing life skills in a diverse and welcoming community.

Mackenzie, like other small communities, welcomes everyone. “It doesn’t matter what your cultural background is or where you come from. They welcomed me with open arms. You don’t get that everywhere in the world and it’s why I stayed for 20 years,” she says.

Learn more about Northern BC and follow @travelnorthernbc on Instagram.

Columbia Valley, BC Rockies: Reconnect with Your Senses

“The three-day switch is 100 per cent true,” says Chris Skinner, outdoor guide and owner of Playwest Mountain Experience in Invermere, nestled in the panoramic Rocky Mountains in eastern British Columbia. From one edge of the province to the other, the effects of BC’s great outdoors are undeniably transformative.

“I’ve seen full changes in guests’ mental states, in their awareness of their environment, and it’s happened on every multi-day trip that I’ve done.”

Chris Skinner taking a group on a hike

Chris from Playwest Mountain Experience guiding guests to Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park (Chris Skinner)

In a region of BC where people come to try everything from hiking to waterfall ice climbing, the physical challenges are limitless, but Skinner also recognizes the profound emotional impact that being in a vast, remote landscape can have on people’s psyche. “There are physiological changes that happen when you spend time outdoors. After a while, it’s not just about reconnecting with the outdoors, but reconnecting with yourself.”

Cozy yurt | @radiusretreat

For a complete physical and psychological experience, Skinner recommends shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing” at Radius Retreat with Pat Bavin in Radium Hot Springs, just north of Invermere. Originating in Japan, forest bathing encourages intense, mindful engagement with the immediate environment and shares a lot in common with meditation.

In response to the growing body of scientific evidence supporting nature as therapy, Parks Canada has even recently started offering free passes to national parks and attractions, which BC healthcare practitioners can “prescribe” to their patients, a program called PaRx. This makes it crystal clear that policy makers and the medical community believe that spending more time in nature makes us happier and healthier.

Learn more about the Kootenay Rockies and follow @playwest on Instagram.

 

View from North Vancouver toward downtown Vancouver | Reuben Krabbe

Vancouver's North Shore: City Living in West Coast Wilderness

Nestled at the base of Vancouver’s stunning mountains is the North Shore, where Brent Hillier and his family have the best of both worlds: access to near-limitless wilderness as well as all the conveniences of a world-class urban centre located just 20 minutes away, across the picturesque fjord that is the Burrard Inlet.

“We’re on the edge of raw, rugged wilderness.”

While the North Shore mountains offer year-round activities for locals and tourists, they also serve as Hillier’s “office” where he teaches mountain survival and navigation courses in the summer and avalanche survival skills during the winter at Canada West Mountain School.

“Sometimes I wonder if my son even understands any alternative way besides growing up outdoors,” says Hillier. “I’m always amazed by his ability to come up with a plan that in my own childhood would have been absolutely ludicrous. It could be July and he’ll want to go skiing—because he knows he can. He knows we don’t need a chairlift to find snow. For him, growing up here on the North Shore, it’s all opportunities.”

Hillier moved to BC from Ontario after coming for the first time on a holiday. And like so many before him, a visit just wasn’t enough. Even after 15 years, Hillier still never takes his new home for granted. “Growing up, it wasn’t common for kids to be outside and active. But here, it’s totally normal. Any outdoor activity you can think of, you can do.”

Learn more about Vancouver and the North Shore Mountains and follow @brentskibikeski on Instagram.

Squamish: Healing with Plants

For Leigh Joseph, viewing her ancestral home of Squamish through a cultural lens is her way of preserving her Indigenous knowledge. As an ethnobotanist, Joseph took an academic path that combined Western science with Indigenous plant science. “It allowed me to connect my love of being outdoors with my childhood memories of spending time with Elders while enabling my own exploration of culture and identity.”

Despite being only an hour north of Vancouver, Squamish features a uniquely distinct environment, sitting on the edge of the new Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region. Part of the Sea-to-Sky Corridor, the scenery here is panoramic at every turn, with towering granite mountains, prehistoric glaciers, and vistas of open ocean all within immediate vicinity.To help locals and visitors learn more about the local flora and their significance in Indigenous culture, Joseph recently worked with a group of Squamish youth in partnership with the BC Park Foundation to create an Indigenous plant story trail around Alice Lake. They identified and labelled plants that were culturally significant to allow visitors to download more information and hear personal anecdotes from the students about traditional medicinal plants.

“I hope that people come and feel that this is a place that’s been in relationship with Indigenous people since the beginning of time and that this has a real depth of cultural history.”

Joseph also puts her knowledge of botanicals to use through Sḵwálwen Botanicals, her line of skincare products that combines plant benefits with Indigenous science. To honour her special relationship with plants, she gives thanks to them during harvesting. As learned from her Elders, “You introduce yourself to both the landscape that you’re on and the plants that you’re harvesting and say thank you and acknowledge their life. That’s a way of remembering the relationship that we’re in with the natural world.”

Learn more about the Sea-to-Sky Corridor and Squamish, and follow @skwalwenbotanicals on Instagram.

Chief Mike Willie Sea Wolf Adventures | Tourism Vancouver Island/Jordan Dyck

The Waters of Johnstone Strait: Power of Place

Towards the tip of Northern Vancouver Island, as populations thin out and old-growth rainforests edge forefront, it becomes easier to see and feel the presence of Indigenous communities, people who have a special connection to the land, water, forests, and spirits that have informed the evolution of what is known today as British Columbia.

Mike Willie, a member of the Kwikwasut’inuxw Haxwa’mis First Nation and Hereditary Chief, is also the founder of grizzly bear viewing tour company Sea Wolf Adventures. There’s a palpable reverence for nature here connected to, as Willie puts it, the “power of place”.

“I believe that energy flows and connects me to this environment,” Willie says. His business not only helps shape the development of Indigenous tourism in BC but brings awareness of his region to a global audience.

“Grizzly bear viewing has allowed us to create an economy while protecting bears and connecting with them. I wish for guests to know that they’re helping us build capacity, to provide training and employment to our own people, helping to preserve our territories, the forests, and the water.”

Having travelled extensively through the Great Bear Rainforest and Johnstone Strait, Willie recognizes many of the bears there, some whom he’s watched grow from cubs to adults. “There’s definitely a connection that’s hard to explain. Our ancestors used to be able to communicate with animals and I feel like we’re just touching the tip of that iceberg again,” says Willie.

It’s not uncommon for visitors to be moved to tears, having seen and felt this unexplainable connection to the land and all its inhabitants. “It’s a different paradigm,” explains Willie. “We never separated ourselves from the environment. We’re humans among all this energy from every living thing around us. We are a living culture.”

Learn more about the Johnstone Strait and Northern Vancouver Island, and follow @seawolfadventures on Instagram.

Taylor Green on the Chilcotin Coast | Connor Stefanison

Cariboo Chilcotin Coast: Awaken Your Senses

“A lot of people come to BC to see grizzly bears,” says Taylor Green, a wildlife conservation advocate and bear-viewing guide who has spent six months every year over the last six years in the Great Bear Rainforest, a 16-million acre area in the region of BC known the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast. “But it really ends up being so much more about fostering this awakening of how we’re connected to nature and to wildlife.” 

It’s a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the coastal temperate rainforest ecosystem — to engage your senses and come away with a fresh perspective.” 

And these profound connections can be a catalyst for a critical shift that stays with you long after you return home from your wildlife viewing excursion in BC. “The Great Bear Rainforest isn’t just a provincial treasure, it’s a global treasure. It’s one of the wildest places left on earth. And wild places like these, they take you back in time, reminding you of the magnificence of nature and make you realize that we have this ancient beauty right here on the coast of BC.”

Learn more about the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast, book wildlife tours in the Great Bear Rainforest, and follow @ta_green on Instagram.

A Grizzly bear catching a salmon at Knight Inlet | Sean Scott

Knight Inlet & the Great Bear Rainforest: Blueprint for Healthy Ecosystems

The Great Bear Rainforest, the largest intact tract of coastal temperate rainforest in the world, gives visitors a chance to escape into the wild—into a land that’s cared for by land stewards who value their physical and spiritual relationship with their environment.

“First Nations have stewarded and managed the landscape here for millennia,” says Dr. Melanie Clapham, a conservation biologist who has spent 12 years conducting research in the rainforest. Her research often bases her at Knight Inlet Lodge, an Indigenous-owned ecotourism floating lodge at the southern edge of the Great Bear Rainforest, where she employs non-invasive facial recognition technology to study bears and other wildlife through Bear ID Project. “The fact that these species and these ecosystems, while remaining under threat, are still here is a real testament to that stewardship.”

“This is a place with such abundant wildlife and ecological diversity. With so much focus on other nature-depleted areas trying to re-wild, trying to bring nature back to places where it’s been lost, I hope people come here and see what a healthy, functioning ecosystem looks like and think about how they can contribute to rewilding projects when they return home.”

In February 2016, the Government of BC, First Nations, environmental groups, and forest industry representatives announced the final decision to conserve 85% of the forest and 70% of old growth of the Great Bear Rainforest over time, achieving a high level of ecological integrity through an approach founded in science as well as traditional, local knowledge. Access to such a place is precisely the tonic that many are intuitively seeking for their burned-out, industrialized sensibilities.

“I hope visitors see that the Great Bear Rainforest is where nature and people can coexist and that maybe it could be a blueprint of what’s possible.”

“This place is so different from what I knew before I came to spend time here,” says Clapham. “But now it feels like it’s more familiar than any place I know. When I go back into town with all the pressures of modern life, they’re just distractions. The rainforest is more than just a place I work and do research, but a place I consider home. I hope that other people can come to appreciate that this kind of place still exists in the world, and it’s here in BC.”

Learn more about the Great Bear Rainforest and follow @bearid_project on Instagram.

BC is an adventure for all the senses and a magnet for people attracted to a lifestyle largely informed by BC’s unique environment. From the resilient Pacific coastline to the majestic Rocky Mountains in the east—including the networks of accessible trails, rivers, and creeks that weave in between— opportunities for adventure or education or just a spontaneous conversation are never hard to find.

Feature Image: Enjoying a guided hike in Squamish with the Sea to Sky Adventure Company | Photo: Hubert Kang