On the South Pacific island of Rarotonga is a 72-year-old elder named Pa, who hikes barefoot across the island every day, famously dropping seeds of wisdom. Among those that sprout in my memory are his thoughts about the healing power of nature.
"If someone is not well, physically or mentally, just put them in a natural space, and leave them alone for 15 minutes," he tells me.
I wonder if this is what the founders of Parks Canada were thinking 100 years ago, when they launched the world's first national parks service, which continues to govern our 42 national parks. Anyone who spends time in these vast, open spaces is bound to feel something: a sensory appreciation for the natural beauty; achievement for a physical pursuit such as hiking, climbing or biking; a reconnection to the forests, mountains, rivers and plains that existed long before cities, cellphones and e-mail.
As an urbanite, camping and hiking were never as natural for me as visiting a mall or museum. In South Africa, where I was born and raised, we would spend vacations in national parks, staying in self-catered bungalows, enjoying the wilderness of the bush. But the insects terrified me, as did snakes, spiders and lions sometimes roaring in the distance. Nature seemed harsh and dangerous. I liked the freedom of the outdoors, but not the monsters waiting in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Then three things happened: I grew up, moved to Canada and embarked on the 75-kilometre West Coast Trail in Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park.
It was my first real hike, stretching over a week across terrain known to challenge even the most experienced hikers. While I had backpacked around the world, I had never carried my pack for eight hours a day across slippery logs, up 25-metre wooden ladders and along muddy beaches. Taking everything in and everything out, my pack was especially heavy, as if it contained every guilty sin on the planet. Every year, about 100 hikers are rescued from the trail, mostly because of sprains, injuries and hypothermia. It often rains for weeks, turning the path into a difficult, mucky quagmire. Yet the weather doesn't stop hikers coming from around the world, and it wasn't going to stop me.
Walking sticks, gaiters, tents, waterproofs, backpack covers, Therm-a-Rests, sleeping bags, storm-proof matches - I was prepared for anything. Starting at Port Renfrew with the hardest section first, every step was a potential hazard. Between the snarled roots, slimy logs and jagged rocks, it didn't take long before my muscles burned and my knees buckled. At five kilometres in, my friend Andrew slipped and sprained an ankle, but bravely continued, walking like a stepped-on spider. Soon afterward, I met a lone hiker, coming the other way. "Hiking alone in these parts is scary, if only for the bears in your mind," he tells me. The fact that bears, cougars and wolves were among the wildlife I might encounter fuelled both fear and excitement.
Over the next seven days, I lunched on GORP (granola, oatmeal, raisins, peanuts), swam in ice-cold streams, built huge driftwood bonfires on the beach and engaged in hearty banter with fellow hikers. The rain blessedly held up and the beach sand hardened so that it felt like walking on Oreo cookies. Magical sunsets rewarded every day's hike, which got easier as meal loads lightened and muscles got stronger. The cold water of the Pacific flushed tidal pools full of bright anemones, purple starfish, crabs and urchins. A sense of camaraderie ran up and down the trail, uniting friends and strangers, while Andrew's doggish determination to limp along was inspirational. We did pass wolf tracks, but the bears stayed away from both our tents and imaginations.
My muscles were stiff and sore, and - truth be told - I did enhance nature's healing power with several extra-strength painkillers. But as I strode past the trailhead Bamfield, I felt baptized by the power of the challenge, the friendship and the pristine coastal forest of Vancouver Island. Clean and excited hikers were just beginning their journey. I wished them luck, because they really would need it.
Since then, I've been lucky enough to explore other well-known Canadian national parks. The view of the Rockies, from Banff National Park - Canada's oldest - and nearby Jasper National Park, has long been an understandably powerful sales tool for foreign travel agents. On the East Coast, I can confirm that walking along the Greenwich Dune Trail in Prince Edward Island National Park at sunset is a surefire recipe for goose bumps.
National Geographic has called the 640-kilometre coastline of B.C.'s Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve the best national park in North America. I'd love to get to Ontario's Bruce Peninsula and Point Pelee, Quebec's Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, New Brunswick's Fundy, Newfoundland's Gros Morne, Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Highlands and Canada's largest national park, Wood Buffalo, to name a few.
Some Canadians might forget the effect these massive spaces have on us immigrants. Of course, you don't have to travel to these star attractions. Chances are there's a national or provincial park closer at hand. This spring weekend, if you're feeling a little stressed, consider taking Pa's advice: Surround yourself with nature, breathe and see what happens.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is oderngonzo.com.