While I’ve never really been a big ‘outdoorsy’ kinda person, I give a lot of credit to Mother Nature for putting me on the literal path to self discovery and healing this past year.
Sundays used to be spent nursing a case of the ‘wine flu,’ while rushing around, trying to tackle my weekly to-do list before the start of another school/work week. Exhausted from the weekend, and a foggy head from wine with Sunday supper, Monday night would become another write-off. This usually resulted in another pop, pour and glug, glug, plug, followed by indigestion, bloat and regret.
Rinse and repeat.
All these important little important moments were passing me by because I was too buzzed, too numb and too tired to notice that I was stuck on this proverbial hamster wheel — one that was steering me from ever having serenity, confidence or any sense of real happiness and purpose on this Earth.
A mild antidepressant helped quell my racing thoughts and over-anxious mind, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of my recovery story.
It has been through enjoying the sheer simple pleasure of just sitting with Mother Nature for a while that has proved the most therapeutic.
I’m not sure if it is the gentle breeze, the fresh air or birdsong, but something about being outdoors amid the flowers and trees makes me feel calm and centred in my own skin.
Turns out, I’m not alone.
During our recent getaway to Sooke, B.C., we were invited to experience ‘forest bathing’ on the East Sooke’s Coast Trail with our own private guide — Ryan LeBlanc of The Natural Connection and a talented local photographer named Camilla Gargantini.
As noted in Serenity in Sooke ~ Part 1, neither of us had any clue about what to expect, or whether we’d need to pack our swimsuits. Turns out, the ‘bathing’ part was more of a figurative term, explained LeBlanc, who picked us up outside of the historic Glenrosa Farm Restaurant, located in a rural community outside of Sooke called Metchosin.
“Forest Bathing, also known as the practice of Shinrin-yoku, is all about immersing oneself in the nature world, body and mind,” he said, while driving us to the East Sooke Trail.
While I was really looking forward to the fresh air and exercise with Jason, it hit me that we had come unprepared for our hike — I’m talking no water bottles, snacks or any general knowledge about hiking in Sooke. But that was just fine. LeBlanc had covered all the bases for us, which included our own backpacks filled with a delicious locally sourced lunch from Glenrosa and water bottles.
“The idea first came to me when I was bartending at a local hotel,” said LeBlanc, 31, on starting The Natural Connection.
“The hotel property was bordered by Mt Finlayson (Goldstream Park), from the parking lot you were able to count the hikers on the mountain side as they ascended the trail.”
Despite it being a well-traveled ‘easy’ trail –one marked with orange markers that had been drilled into the rocks to follow the trail to the summit, Leblanc served drinks to a number of guests who deemed it to be too risky an endeavour on their own.
Common concern he often heard were: “I might get lost” “What about bears?” “How steep is it?”
“Some did get lost (but were always found), some did not enjoy the trail conditions, some were not prepared with water or did not give themselves enough daylight to finish,” said LeBlanc, who would go on to work for the Coast Guard on Search and Rescue Ships.
There seemed to be an opening in the tourist market for guided hiking. Victoria has a lot of ‘on-water’ adventure activities for tourists, but the ‘on land’ options are sparse.”
With a work schedule of four weeks at sea, followed by four weeks of paid time off, LeBlanc used the off-time to build his business. He started by creating some trail videos on YouTube of some of his favourite local spots, and tracking every trail he could with a GPS unit to create his own database of each trail’s distance, time to complete, elevation, etc.
“This gave me a great excuse to go hiking pretty much every day, which was pretty appealing after spending four weeks stuck on a ship!”
After about three years, the job started to wear heavily on LeBlanc’s health, both physically and mentally.
“I ended up cutting the cord completely and left the Coast Guard. I had a decent amount of leave-time left, so I spent about six months on paid time off trying to get my life back on an even keel, and securing permits for The Natural Connection. I was seeing a few doctors about some digestive issues and had joined a group therapy course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It was through this course that I learned the importance of mindfulness and meditation, and why my time spent hiking a trail always brought me a sense of relaxation not found elsewhere. Through CBT, I learned to bring mindfulness, gratitude & meditation into daily aspects of life, as well as utilizing them in a focused practice.”
Over the course of three months, LeBlanc hiked nearly every day, taking time to properly warm up with a stretching ritual; stopping to enjoy his doctor-approved lunch (steamed rice or lentils, veggies, chicken or salmon); breaking to meditate and use the breathing techniques from CBT; enjoying the sights and smells at a deeper level, and feeling better at the end of every trail.
“I was treating myself well, taking time to heal my mind and body. Life was falling back into place.”
It wasn’t the only piece to the puzzle, but hiking seemed key to LeBlanc’s overall happiness.
“I still get a little moppy in the winter when Im not hitting the trail as often. There are health benefits for all of us with a little bit of time spent being active outdoors, with no shortage of scientific studies to support that point.”
The Natural Connection has evolved into a service where LeBlanc aims to show guests how to enjoy nature on a therapeutic level and walk away with a better connection to themselves and the world around them.
“Im not a master of mindfulness, I am simply trying to pass on what works for me to other like-minded individuals in the hopes that it can help them in their life somehow.”
The rainforest, thick with Douglas fir and Western Hemlock had that familiar damp earthy smell that’s common after a rainfall, offering an instinctive calming effect.
LeBlanc invited us to walk slowly and softly to better enjoy the soundscape of the forest as we moved along the trail.
“Identify the sounds you are enjoying, and also appreciate the sounds you are not hearing, like traffic, fans or noise pollution,” he said.
The route to the small, horseshoe-shaped bay was lush with mosses, ferns, and shrubs like fruit bearing Salmonberry. Along the way, we stopped to sample a few rosehips and young buds from a Salmonberry bush.
Unique to this particular trail is the presence of the Coast Salish people at Alldridge Point, which was designated as a Provincial Heritage Site in 1927.
LeBlanc pointed out the petroglyphs that had been bruised into the rock — a style particular to the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
One moment, we were in the dark forest. After turning a corner, we were back in sunlight, at the end of the Salish Sea.
“Take a seat and get comfortable,” said LeBlanc, who started to guide our meditation setting overlooking the ocean.
It’s one thing to listen to nature sounds on a CD while meditating — it’s a whole other experience to sit in one of the most beautiful idyllic settings — a feast for all the senses.
“Starting with sound, listen for the most subtle and quiet sound you can identify… Now, reflect back to a pleasing sound from your past,” he said.
I peeked one eye open to catch a quick glimpse of Jason. Meditation isn’t exactly his thing, but he seemed pretty Zen in that moment.
Next was smell, where we picked one scent to focus on, the crisp air, or salt spray, mud on the boots. Then touch, where we physically connected to the Earth with bare hands and focused on the wind on our face. Taste came later in the day with some delicious trail snacks from Glenrosa of fresh crostini, pickled beets, a variety of tasty cheese, homemade sausage, cured meats and a thermos filled with hot tea.
For LeBlanc, the act of hiking a well-known trail is a meditative practice.
“I look at the map before I go, and understand the route I am taking from A to B, ” he said.
“I put my faith in the trail, and my experience hiking the determined route, and let the trail guide me.”
It is much like walking a labyrinth, he adds.
“As long as I am on the trail, I am never lost. Just somewhere between A and B. There comes a point after about 30 minutes where my feet are acting on their own and my forward momentum becomes pure instinct and I focus only on the world around me. Sights, sounds, smells. No worries except for the next foot landing squarely on the ground.”
As more and more people practice mindfulness in one way or another, the very meaning itself can get lost in translation.
LeBlanc’s perspective is that mindfulness need not be a focused practice. Instead, it should be something enjoyed on demand at any point, whether one is sitting in traffic, eating a meal or walking a trail.
“If the sandwich you made for lunch tastes really good, chew it slowly and be mindful of the work it took you to construct it, the time it took you to make the money required to purchase the ingredients, and the effort of the farmers to grow the grain for the bread,” he said.
After our hike, it was time to head back to Glenrosa for our 7 p.m. dinner reservation.
The building, a yellow farm-house high on the hill atop Pedder Bay and near Matheson Lake, is a hot spot for tourists and locals alike.
Fortunately, our hiking attire wasn’t going to garner any stares — the family owned restaurant has a cozy laid-back vibe, welcoming foodies and not-foodies alike, hiking boots or heels.
In business since July 2015, their focus is farm-to-table meals that take advantage of the bounty of the rural location, and as we’d quickly find out, are just plain tasty.
We started off sharing a cup of black bean soup and stuffed mushroom caps, followed by the main event — Jason ordered the lamb schnitzel, while I optioned for the roasted pork dish.
Everything from the homemade bread shipped in from a local bakery and whipped butter to the appetizers and entrees tasted fresh, was cooked to perfection and came beautifully seasoned — I’m talking about farm fresh fare that nourishes your body and soul.
After our meals, Glenrosa’s owner, Jane Hammond, stopped by our table to share a bit about the farm’s rich history, which was also detailed in a large scrapbook laid out before us.
“We love sharing all about its captivating story with our guests through stories, photos and artifacts,” she said, going on to explain that the areas surrounding picturesque Pedder Bay were originally inhabited by the Coast Salish peoples and known as important hunting, fishing and battle grounds.
Jason and I learned that early colonization of the southern tip of Vancouver Island, during the 1850’s, brought English and Scottish immigrants who settled in a geography and climate reminiscent of their homeland. Arriving in 1858, pioneers Mary Ann and Edward Vine purchased and cleared the land to begin a 600 acre farm, which they named Norfolk. Mary Ann became a local legend, serving as the first mid-wife for the Metchosin-Sooke region. Fun fact: Norfolk, England is where my relatives hail from.
The history is quite extensive and fascinating. Learn more here.
In present day, the Hammonds operate as a small working farm. Local produce for the restaurant is grown on-site. The 100+ year old fruit trees are harvested every fall and the heritage variety pears and apples find their way into pies, desserts and a tasty mug of hot apple cider that I enjoyed after dinner in lieu of a night cap.
Let’s be real, not everyone (especially us moms) can quit their day job to go on a journey of self discovery like Cheryl Strayed, who chronicled her backpacking adventure on the Pacific Coast Trail in her best-selling memoir, Wild. Nor is it possible to search for all the answers to life across Italy, India and Indonesia like author Elizabeth Gilbert details in Eat Pray Love.
For myself, those two serene days in Sooke, B.C., which is just a few hours away from home, left my mind, body and spirit feeling totally rejuvenated. I left feeling more connected to Jason than I have in years, and to myself.
Planning on visiting Sooke? Make sure to check out our previous post on the Sooke Harbour House. Book your guided hike with Ryan LeBlanc at The Natural Connection by visiting www.thenaturalconnectionvictoria.com, or follow his Facebook page. For more information on Glenrosa, visit www.glenrosafarmretastaurant.com.