Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Forest hikes, and Shinrin Yoku or the medicine of being in the forest

Coastal rain forests and Provincial Parks see an increase in hikers at the Christmas season. Every day of the year, I take my daughter who is on the autism spectrum for an eight to ten kilometer hike up and around the hill. It is a Provincial Park with a little remaining old growth in one area. Our regular journey enables us to observe the habits of the most invasive species on the planet-humans.

The first hiking type, the regulars, are on the hill at least two or three days a week. They are generally above 50 years old and differ from others of that age because they are rarely over-weight and their skin is tight on their faces. Sometimes a hefty person will join the regulars for a while, loose some weight and disappear from the hiking trails. Occasionally a very hefty person barely able to walk will join the regulars and hike with much puffing initially and manage to persist as a regular. They usually loose much weight and although they may not get as slim as they wish, their speed and mobility and probably their health much improves.

Mid winter brings new hikers trying to burn off excess calories from feasts. Early January and New Year's resolutions brings a whole bunch of potential new regulars.  Sometime they are out more than the regulars in the first week, but the staying power is not there, and by week four they have disappeared.

Days of extreme heat, cold or rain will reduce the number of hikers. Hiking groups that visit different parks may descend like a tribe in the park on a day that they have arranged. Then there is the extreme mountain trail running group that visits different parks on Sunday mornings. Of all the tribes, this one is the most serious. They wear what appears to be a uniform of spandex with water bladders on their backs with a drinking tube that runs to the face. The route is pre-marked with wheat flour arrows that are intended to biodegrade. Other fanatic groups that engage in radio or global positioning geo-caching or some other nonsense sufficient to spoil a good hike also show up on occasion.

Perhaps the most interesting days are the lemming days. Throughout the year perhaps once every couple of months and always in the spring there are these lemming days when all kinds of people, families, and other assorted collections show up in the park for a hike. Usually there is nothing different in the weather, holidays that would give an explanation. The only rational explanation is that lots of different people for many different reasons have decided to go for a hike on that day. However, these lemming days bring out such an unusual pulse of increased human use that one is convinced that some unexplained force has got folk out from under their flat rocks. Lemming days remain a mystery.

There are some joggers on the trails. A few of the middle-aged ones are airline pilots hoping to keep up their health to pass strict medical tests.

Going for a hike in the forest, especially if you have to climb a hill is probably good for you because it gives you exercise. The Japanese have a tradition of Shinrin Yoku or the medicine of being in the forest. They think that the environment of the forest adds to your health on top of the exercise. It is known that exercise boosts the immune system, but the Japanese have done science to show that stress hormone levels and other physiological markers improve by being in the forest.

Do we feel more comfortable or at home in the forest? I grew up hiking on raised beaches or sand dunes on the North Sea. The sand dunes were stabilized by Marram grass and the environment was a natural ecosystem or plant community. It had much less bio-diversity than the temperate coniferous rain forests of British Columbia. The Marram grass did its ecological function of binding blown sand. It was in a sense an environment on an extreme edge. The North Sea and wind was there. Even on a calm day there would be waves. In a storm or gale the sea would boil, the wind would howl sometimes driving sleet horizontally at your face and forcing freezing cold through layers of clothing to your skin. It was a penetrating cooling that the Canadian prairie in winter cannot match. Blown sand would sting the face, eyes and hands to add to a feeling that nothing was intended to survive there. One of my earliest memories was a night when a gale screamed with a horrendous noise that lasted all night. I can pin the date to January 31, 1953 because it was the night that the dykes on the North Sea in Holland failed causing considerable loss of life. The first golf courses in Scotland were established on raised beaches because the Scots would not waste good land on a game otherwise described as a "good walk spoiled". The bunker or sand trap was not just a tricky feature designed for the game but a natural hole in the sand blown out by the wind. This feature has been artificially created all over the world to satisfy golfers.

While the Pacific Coast of British Columbia is not free of the hazards of nature, the coastal rain forests enclose the hiker and act as a buffer against the elements. On a hot summer day the forest will retain its early morning cool much later that the open and it will be warmer at night. Winter rains are often mild because the moisture has come from some where south on the Pacific Ocean. The rain is wet and heavy but it falls on and through the forest canopy as a peaceful white noise. There is a sense of being enveloped in a comfortable environment. Forests withstand earthquakes but may suffer from the secondary effects of tsunami or landslide. Dating from tree rings put the last major subduction earthquake on the Pacific Northwest after the growing season of 1699. Precise dating of the earthquake to January 26th 1700 was achieved from Japanese records of the tsunami that hit Japan from the earthquake.

Our lives are a fragile circumstance but they are probably helped by regular physical exercise and a forest is an interesting and peaceful natural environment to get the exercise of a good hike.

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