British Columbia, Canada: Forest bathing in the most pristine woodlands on Earth

Standing in the middle of Canada's remote Great Bear rainforest, hours from the nearest town, I close my eyes and let my nose touch the damp, mossy trunk of a balsam fir.

Sarah Gover, who runs the wellness program at the ultra-secluded Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort on British Columbia's Pacific coast, tells me to breathe deeply and inhale. The smell of moist soil and licorice fern shoots into my head. I can taste drops of rain falling from 100 metre-tall trees. I can hear animals moving along the forest floor.

"As you bask in the silence of the woods, what feelings are coming up just by being here?" Gover asks. "Take a moment of gratitude for this land, for these trees, for the moss and the water."

She gongs a Tibetan bowl as our group is led on a slow procession through the forest, winding around huge tree roots and under dripping rocks. Gover encourages us to stay silent and connect with the forest through our senses; grab a spongey mound of lanky moss, smell the centuries of decay and regrowth, taste the wet air.

"The mantra for your walk is, what do I see, what do I feel, what do I taste, what do I smell and what do I hear?" she says.

One of my companions whispers, "It feels like we're in a cult."

Yes, forest bathing feels unexpectedly spiritual, deeply rousing and ritualistic. But if this meditative and immersive form of nature therapy is indeed a cult, consider a growing number of adventurers full-blown converts.

The practice has steadily spread from its native Japan to many of world's great forests, luring those who want to experience these environments minus the hiking, camping, fighting off bears or, in the case of famous parks such as Yosemite, sitting in weekend traffic.

The experience doesn't require bathing either. Shinrin-yoku, as it's known in Japan, is simply a leisurely, often guided, visit to a forest to improve one's health by absorbing the fresh air, the scenery, the quiet and the healing forest phytoncides.

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The restorative benefits of nature are hardly new. Nineteenth century naturalist John Muir mused that "everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to the body and soul."

In Japan, the incorporation of forest bathing into a good lifestyle was first proposed in 1982 by the Forest Agency of Japan. A 2010 study by Dr Qing Li, published in Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine, found that Japanese adults who took part in a three-day forest bathing trip had decreased levels of anxiety, depression and anger, and increased activity among "natural killer" cells, which are critical to immune health. The increased cell activity lasted for more than 30 days after the trip, suggesting a monthly trip could reduce the risk of chronic illness. Urban walking didn't produce the same benefits. 

Li, from Tokyo's Nippon Medical School, describes shinrin-yoku as "a bridge". "By opening our senses, it bridges the gap between us and the natural world," he says.

It's hard to imagine a better place to bridge that gap than British Columbia, home to some of the most spectacular and pristine forests on Earth. Vancouver Island has the world's largest intact coastal temperate rainforest, a mild, ocean-fronting forest that thrives in a handful of spots in the world such as Tasmania, Patagonia, New Zealand and Hokkaido.

Much of the island's rainforest, particularly in the Pacific Rim and MacMillan national parks, has never been touched by logging. It's a domain of ancient Douglas firs and cedar – including one red cedar dating from before the collapse of the Roman Empire – and lush beds of huckleberry, salal and deer fern. Across the Queen Charlotte Strait in the Great Bear Rainforest, the mountains, inlets and valleys of lustrous green seem endless.

Spipiyus Provincial Park, 100 kilometres north of Vancouver, has some of the world's oldest yellow cedars and western hemlocks and is a habitat for the endangered marbled murrelet bird.

A handful of practitioners run guided tours in BC or you can grab a DIY guide online. Focus on your senses, Gover recommends, and if your mind wanders just ask yourself how many shades of green can you see? What do you feel when you touch that tree? What's the furthest sound you can hear?

I'm surprised at how my brief forest bathing foray on a cold, grey afternoon has altered my train of thought immediately. It short-circuited the usual preoccupations of travel – where should we get lunch? Did I get a photo of that? Have I got everything? – and instead prompted me to slow down and not only realise where I am, but take note of how it smells, what it tastes like, its brilliant colours. It's like a mental photograph to keep forever.

THE DETAILS

Rachel Olding travelled courtesy of Destination BC and The Ultimate British Columbia Adventure.

MORE

www.traveller.com.au/canada

ultimatebcadventure.com\

destinationbc.ca

FLY

Air Canada flies to Vancouver from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. See aircanada.com

STAY

Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort is a small, all-inclusive lodge accessible by plane or boat. Meals and activities such as forest bathing are included. From $1495 a night. See nimmobay.com

BATHE

Salish Sea Forest Therapy, Rainforest Nature Hikes and Haida Bolton run forest bathing walks on Vancouver Island and mainland BC. See salishseaforesttherapy.carainforestnaturehikes.comnaurewithhaida.ca/

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