Anxiety, fear and indecision are staples of modern-day life whose remedies often include pills washed down the throat or an hour spent on a shrink’s couch.
But what if more effective therapies were free and as simple as a stroll in a park, the watering of a plant, a hike in the woods … or a multiday paddle into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness?
Such nature-based pleasures often are considered time-fillers or even time-wasters by many Americans whose multi-tasking, staccato-paced lives are punctuated by cellphone calls, social media notifications and endless work, school and family obligations.
But detachment from the sights, sounds and smells of trees, rivers, forests and lakes can stress the brain, neuroscientists say, while increasing heart rates and fraying nerves.
Benefits of the wilderness experience
John Schiefelbein, owner with his wife, Kathy, of Pine Point Lodge on White Iron Lake near Ely, Minn., knows well one symptom of Americans’ too-busy syndrome.
“We’ve been in business 38 years, and in that time we’ve seen a significant drop in the lengths of canoe trips people take into the BWCA,” John said. “The norm for BWCA paddlers used to be seven days, and it wasn’t unusual for trips to go 10 or 12 days. Now we get as many requests for four-day trips as we do for seven days, and a lot of clients want three days.”
While any amount of time away from a person’s day-to-day life can be rejuvenating, recent research confirms what writers dating to Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and before have espoused: That while some nature is good, more is better — perhaps especially in today’s hectic world.
“We have good scientific evidence that supports heart-rate reduction and other positive physiological changes in people even after simply looking at rich, green images of nature for just 60 seconds,” said Jean Larson, who teaches nature-based therapeutics at the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing and manages a similar program at the Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. “But to have significant positive physiological responses, scientists have found you have to unplug yourself from your regular life and its anxieties for at least three days.”
Larson worries that as Americans become further detached from the natural world, fewer people will strive to conserve the lands, waters, forests, parks and other wild places she says are vital to society’s well-being.
“Connecting us back to the earth relaxes our mental fatigue long enough to be present in the moment,” she said. “For many people this leads to environmental awareness.”
Mandy Huskey manages canoe outfitting at Gunflint Lodge along the Gunflint Trail on the east side of the boundary waters. More BWCA visitors, she agrees, are seeking “instant gratification” experiences that keep them tethered close to their technology-dependent comfort zones.
“Some people even ask for one-night trips into the BWCA,” Huskey said. “We try to explain that the experience requires more time than that. When clients of ours who take longer trips, say a week or more, come in from the woods, they’re excited about their trips. The trips might have been physically demanding, in fact many paddlers will say they were. But they were also mentally rewarding. Which is the ideal BWCA experience: physically demanding but mentally rewarding.”
David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, studied Outward Bound backpackers. After three days on the trail, the adventurers boosted their problem-solving skills by 50%, Strayer found, while also improving their short-term memories, creativity and feelings of well-being.
Bear Paulsen of Chisago City once paddled solo for 4½ months in the BWCA and beyond. Even three-day trips, he said, can be too short to shed the baggage of everyday life.
“Make sure to take a longer trip at least once,” he said. “It’s all about the rhythm — the ‘flow state’ you settle into. It’s about being fully immersed wherever you are.”
Achieving Paulson’s flow state, Larson said, once experienced, is replicable anywhere, whether walking along a lakeshore, feeding birds, tending a garden or otherwise interacting with the environment.
“When you recognize that engagement in nature is hugely beneficial, you become more mindful that nature is all around you, which becomes its own reward,” she said. “It can be as simple as parking farther away from an entrance to a Target store so that while walking the extra distance, you’re more aware of trees that are nearby or birds that are overhead.”
Buddhist master Shi Heng Yi of Germany describes as “clarity” what Paulsen calls flow.
People, Yi said in a TED talk last year, can tell other people about climbing a mountain, but they can’t share the experience of clarity that comes from standing on the peak themselves.
“When you see more clearly, there is no need to believe anyone or anything,” Yi said. “You can distinguish for yourself which is the proper direction for you and which decisions you have to make to go in that direction.”
Arctic explorer Will Steger of Ely regularly travels alone to the Canadian bush during spring ice breakup. For six to eight weeks he pulls a specially made canoe sled while skiing, snowshoeing or paddling, depending on conditions.
“It takes a good three days to get the body used to the new surroundings,” Steger said. “In the city or in your home, your mind isn’t free. You have too many outside influences. That’s the thinking world. And if you’re in it long enough, you’ll think it’s the only world, the real world.
“But it’s not the only world, or even the real world.
“Rather quickly when I’m in the bush, my intuition comes back. The intuitive, that’s the real world, and as it overcomes me, the stress in my body goes away. The sense of it is really quite strong. I’m no longer thinking a mile a minute. It’s quite natural, and a very pleasurable experience.”
The late Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) of Ely experienced similar contentment on a spring canoe trip with his son, Sig Jr.
From Olson’s book, “Runes of the North”:
“By late afternoon we were at the landing at the south end of the lake where our cruise had begun. We unloaded, went back to the water and stood looking down the lake. White flecked combers and blowing drift were out there. Then the sun burst through a rift in the gray, scudding clouds and for a glorious instant the waters were blue again and the shores dazzling with silver and Nile green. We looked at each other and laughed. We had won, found what we had gone in for — the feel of spring — and had some trout as proof. We had known the thrill of exploring forgotten country together, and had seen it at its best.”