The Healing Power of Nature on Vancouver Island

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How long does it take to fully relax, disengage, and let go of stress? Take a deep breath and clear your mind—here comes the science behind how long your vacation needs to be for you to truly relax. Journalist Florence Williams coined the phrase the “three-day-effect” in her book The Nature Fix, which delves into the science that shows that at least three days in nature is the magic number needed to change your brain and reset your body. We call that the British Columbia Effect, and there’s no better place to find nature in all its glory than on Vancouver Island.

The Island stretches for 460 kilometres, from the capital of Victoria in the south to Cape Scott’s windswept beaches at its northern tip. Along with the Gulf Islands, this rugged paradise combines old-growth forests, snowcapped mountains, and untamed shorelines to create one of the planet’s most diverse ecosystems. Experience world-class whale watching, birding, and fishing, or just let your worries drift away in the waves of the Pacific.

BC Map 200 km 124 mi Vancouver Island Vancouver Island

The Formula—Restoration Through Connection

How does the British Columbia Effect work? The Nature Fix explores the work of American cognitive neuroscientist David Strayed, who was himself inspired by the work of psychologists in the 1980s. They identified our human urge to “affiliate with other forms of life” and introduced Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which found that spending time in nature can help us focus and relax. Strayed expanded this concept to examine the effect of spending a specific amount of time in nature. He found that exposure to nature for three days or more can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated processes such as selective attention, problem-solving, inhibition, creativity, memory, and multitasking, to create a relaxing reset effect on the brain.

Cathedral Grove | Sean Scott

When it comes to discovering space to relax, Vancouver Island is home to awe-inspiring natural experiences that can be found just minutes from The Island Highway, making an overnight road trip the perfect way to reap the benefits of the British Columbia Effect. Fall is a magical time to explore since you’ll have fewer distractions than over the summer. With more space and time, you can feel the effect of diverse big-nature experiences—from wildlife watching to mountain adventures, Island beaches, old-growth-forests, and gushing waterfalls that are easily accessible.

Wildlife Watching

Nothing beats the anticipation of spotting British Columbia’s epic wildlife. Whether you’re scanning the horizon looking for the splash of a mighty whale tail, or you’re silently waiting for the salmon run, wildlife watching can help distract us from the stresses of everyday life. Attention Restoration Theory shows that nature helps reset the brain by being “softly fascinating” and providing stimuli that encourages the brain to reach a restorative state.

Take a whale-watching trip from Campbell River to meet the migrating grey whales or resident orcas or explore grizzly bear territory to experience the iconic sight of these mighty bears feasting on spawning salmon in the fall.  A Elk Falls Provincial Park you’ll find spawning salmon in the Quinsam and Campbell rivers in the cooler months. Fascinating and incredible in equal measure, the hypnotic sight of these colourful fish helps bring a calming sensation to our often-over-worked minds.

Vancouver Island’s visually colourful concentrations of wildlife provide viewing opportunities for visitors who want to tune out and focus on the region’s natural wonders. Fall brings a splash of colour to the foliage around the vibrant wetlands of Somenos Marsh, which is home to more than 200 species of wild birds. Sit still and mindfully wait to see the huge trumpeter swans, which can still be seen in the fall feeding in this provincially protected area, located just outside Duncan.

Elk Falls Provincial Park | Jordan Dyck

Forests and Waterfalls

It’s not just passive wildlife watching that can help relax your body and brain: Active immersion in nature also provides the benefits of the British Columbia Effect. Old-growth forests often conceal majestic waterfalls, reminding us of a deep, biological connection to water. In fact, the mere sight and sound of water can induce a flood of neurochemicals that promote wellness, increase blood flow to the brain and heart and induce relaxation. At Elk Falls Provincial Park, easy walking trails lead to a cascading waterfall surrounded by old-growth Douglas fir trees, where you can see and hear the raw power of the falls.

Simply being surrounded by trees can also help to energize us, thanks to the aroma compound (terpene) pinene, which is found predominantly in pine and has been shown to have an invigorating effect on mood. Standing amongst the potent pines and ancient cedars, experiencing the thick silence of the forest, is a humbling experience for us humans.

Just a short walk (but a world away) from the highway, you’ll find the majestic 800-year-old trees of Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park. Visitors can immerse themselves in another world and breathe in the reenergizing woody aromas of this ancient forest Douglas fir and red cedar trees.

Nearby are the fast-flowing falls of Englishman Falls Provincial Park and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, which includes Little Qualicum River and the southern shore of Cameron Lake. Hike through the peaceful forest to find impressive waterfalls that cascade down a rocky gorge and offer a place to cool off on a warm fall day—delighting all the senses in one scene.

Salt Spring Island | Reuben Krabbe

Beaches and Islands

Being close to the ocean induces relaxation by tapping into our innate association of water with life. Marine biologist Dr Wallace J. Nichols’ book Blue Mind talks about the state our mind goes into when we feel the relaxing effect of gazing at water with a soft focus, providing our busy brains with a much-needed rest. Ocean air is also rich in regenerating minerals such as sodium chloride, iodine, phosphorus, magnesium, and sulphur, which all help the body feel revitalized.

Vancouver Island’s beautiful coastline of hidden beaches and small islands provide an easy respite from big-city life. From Nanaimo, BC Ferries travels to the Gulf Island of Gabriola, where artists take inspiration from the landscape of sculptured sandstone rocks at Malaspina Galleries and Sandwell Provincial Park. Alternatively, leave the car at Nanaimo and take the 10-minute foot ferry to Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park. Known as Saysutshun by the Snuneymuxw First Nation people, this fascinating park’s sparse sandstone cliffs and sandy beaches are a sharp contrast to the lush old-growth rainforests of the mainland. Soak in the breathtaking views of the Coastal Mountain range across the Strait of Georgia and take in a lungful of ocean air to feel your mind and body truly relax.

Strathcona Provincial Park | @chasingthewildcoast

Mountain Heights

Taking a deep breath can help shift the body and mind into relaxation mode and mountain air is some of the freshest around. In addition to the feeling of achievement that is unlocked by scaling a mountain (even driving up one), the fresh higher altitude air helps flood the brain with feel-good chemicals.

Mountain views (and air) are easily accessible across the eastern side of Vancouver Island. Feast your eyes on the fall colours of Mount Washington, as the changing seasons lights up the mountainside with streaks of red, amber, and yellow—a boardwalk trail offers hikes for all abilities. Panoramic views can also be found at Mount Benson Regional Park, where a hike through the mountainous terrain produces sweeping vistas of Nanaimo, the mainland, and central Vancouver Island’s epic mountains. Take a moment to absorb the mountains, forests, and ocean laid out in front of you from this vantage point.

Whether you choose the ‘soft fascination’ of wildlife watching,  the ‘blue mind’ state of being by water, or the energizing aroma of being immersed deep in ancient forest, come and feel the British Columbia Effect this fall on easily accessible big-nature experiences on Vancouver Island.

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