Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
by J “Kat” Loren ::
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.
– John Muir, 1901
If I were to choose a perfect vacation far away from all responsibilities (but still able to connect via internet), I’d choose a place where I could breath fresh mountain air, smell the scent of pine after a light rain, hike along ridges that rim the sky, picnic beside high alpine lakes, and return each evening to a gorgeous lodge where a personal chef prepares and serves my meals, and a sauna, Jacuzzi and massage therapist awaits me. It would be a place that includes small group fitness professionals and hiking guides who challenge my endurance but are mindful not to push me into the realm of pain or injury. It would be a place where I end my trip feeling peaceful in mind, fitter in body and lighter in every way.
I have found that place – Mountain Trek in the Kootenai Mountains of British Columbia, located just a couple hours drive north of Spokane, WA in the town of Ainsworth Hot Springs.
Despite the option to have Mountain Trek pick me up at the Spokane airport, I drove across the border and trailed my way through the ski town of Nelson, BC wound around the giant glacial Kootenay Lake and dipped into Ainsworth Hot Spring resort for a little soak in the mineral rich waters. It turned out that the stunning, modern-log-cabin type lodge stood just above the hot springs. The area, for some reason, looked familiar. Apparently, the movie “Snow Falling on Cedars” was partially filmed on the property, using the old farmhouse across the street as a location shoot.
Primarily a hiking-based, weight loss retreat, Mountain Trek appeals to both the fit and the fat. A couple with different ideas of a fitness-oriented, mountain vacation would feel comfortable here – she could hike in a slower group and take a day off during the week to soak in the Jacuzzi, stare out at the lake, snooze or read a novel while he joins the daily hike up a mountain trail.
According to Mountain Trek Program Director and lead guide Kirkland Shave, people come for different reasons and are placed in hiking groups according to fitness levels. “We have tri-athletes come for the challenge of hiking in the mountains. And we have those who desire to reset their lives, drop weight and keep hiking towards optimal wellness.”
Kirkland, an incredibly fit, soft-spoken man who looks 20 years younger than his real age of 60, guides most of the elite athletes. Several other guides lead groups of 1-4 hikers who migrate into groups according to their comfort level. One day, someone may want to hike higher and faster. Another day, the person might drop into a slower group depending on his or her energy level. One thing is for certain, Mountain Trek appeals to everyone. The guides are personable and motivational, attentive but not coddling. The whole lodge staff is equally impressive.
After settling into my European sized room, I met the 11 other trekkers who I would be hiking with that week – 3 men and 8 women in various stages of life. Among them, one 29-year-old, carrying an extra 50 pounds, said he came to lose weight because “I’m too young to feel this old.” A 72-year-old woman turned out to be a neighbor of mine whose husband is in my Pilates class. She came to keep up a level of fitness that enables her to run 10K races. A recent widower returning for the second time came for a reset – to get off the pastries and take a healthy time out from his own cooking and inertia. Two women were taking stress breaks from their high-stress careers – one quitting smoking just before she arrived. A couple of other women were packing an extra 10-25 pounds and wanted to drop weight and gain fitness.
And then there was me – mid-50s, overweight but semi-fit, needing a push in the right direction – up the mountain of health and wellness – before I slid into the sedentarism of age, flab, mental muddleness, and physical and mental decline. During the week, much of what Kirkland Shave and the staff of Mountain Trek said resonated with me, luring me into a greater level of motivation.
“What you believe sets you up to stay vital until your time is up,” Kirkland explained during one health lecture. “You have to be fierce to fight this gravitational pull. Work harder than a 30 year old!”
And so we worked hard. Up at 6 am for a small glass of fruit smoothie before sauntering into the gym for an hour of stretching and pilates work to wake up our muscles and stretch them out before a long day of hiking. From the gym, we traipsed back to the dining room for a wonderful breakfast. Then we packed our lunches and hydration pack, prepped our feet with preventive blister protocols that amazed me, and jumped into the cars to head out through the cool fall morning air to the trailhead of the day. We attended a thought-provoking health and wellness lecture each day and most of us hit the gym for a fun workout after dinner – if we were not too tired from the day’s hiking.
Although the Kootenai’s are called the Canadian Rockies, they are actually in the Selkirk Range and elevations of around 7,000 feet are perfect for easy trekking. Our first day we did a checkout hike beside the lodge – an 800 vertical foot climb up Detox Hill that took about an hour and a half. It became immediately apparent which hiking group I fit into – Group 2. The first group had been here the previous week and was much fitter. Group 3 was a bit slower. One gentleman, who had some cardio concerns, opted into a group of his own, with his own guide.
As the week went on, the hikes became progressively more difficult, longer and more beautiful. But this was no leisurely stroll in the woods kind of hiking. This was fitness trekking – take up your poles and march onward and upward, sweat, breath, engage your core, and burn calories.
Each step in the program was designed according to purpose and the program honed over more than a decade. Kirkland’s background as an anthropologist gave insights into how we have evolved from fit Neanderthals to flabby, stressed moderns. “We used to be exhausted physically from hunting and gathering our food. But now we’re exhausted mentally,” he said. “We’ve become sedentary and sitting creates bio-waste stored in our fat cells is all this bio-waste and bio-chemicals making us unhealthy.” Exercise and healthy eating move the toxins out of our body, energize us, alleviate stress and make us feel more alive and joyful. Exercising via hiking in beautiful mountain air and scenery puts us in touch with the healing benefits of nature that nurtures our souls. The additional detoxification benefits of the sauna and massage help to release toxins as well. And the lectures enabled us to understand how we became the way we are and how to become the persons we were meant to be – without any psychobabble or spiritual philosophy muddying the waters.
On day 2, we climbed the Idaho Peak Lookout, a 1200 vertical foot hike of 7.5 kilometers with the reward of lunch with a 360-degree view of the mountains. We displaced a group of local public school kids who have hiked up for a geology lesson.
On day 3, we hiked 9 kilometers across beautiful granite beaches and roaring rivers. My guide was a Cathy Grierson, a former Park Ranger and Outdoor Education professional who is now Mountain Trek’s Head Guide and Fitness Program Director. She pointed out the cedars and explained the process of flagging – where portions of boughs have turned brown as a way of self-trimming to allow winter snow to slough off rather than break off the whole limb. And she kept a lookout for lobster mushrooms – the only edible mushroom I know besides the ever present Shaggy Mane’s rising out of the soil like solid columns.
On day 4, we tackled Mt Buchanan, a 10K, 1250 vertical foot hike above the lake and were rewarded with the sight of two cougar cubs scurrying up a fallen tree 15 feet from our trail. Fortunately, the mother fled in the opposite direction, never to show her face.
We hit the famous Kokanee Lake Trail on the fifth day of hiking. Winding through pristine forest to the high alpine lakes, we gingerly picked our way across the rock landslide that resulted in the death of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s youngest son Michel in 1998. Eleven kilometers and 1500 vertical feet later, we plodded back into the cars and returned the lodge for our evening rewards – a fabulous dinner (dinners included steak, salmon and lots of veggies), Jacuzzi, sauna and a massage (the all inclusive price includes 3 massages during a one week stay).
By the end of the week, I had lost 6 pounds and several inches, felt more relaxed and fit. Hiking develops a core strength that no amount of sit-ups could engage. I felt wonderful inside and out. I felt ready to take on the rest of my life with a real resolve to stay vital, be fierce in my willingness to work harder than a 30 year old. And I felt like I wanted to return, every year, to the Kootenai’s or some other mountain to trek my way into a higher level of health and wellness.
For more information please see www.mountaintrek.com.
By the way – Kirkland and Cathy lead Mountain Trek’s Rancho La Puerta Resort hiking program in November and in February, just outside of San Diego as well as a post-Christmas snow shoe adventure trek in B.C. called “The Turkey Burner”. Check out their website for more information.
J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com
As is common in the travel industry, the Mountain Trek sponsored this week-long program. The opinions of the writer, and the “Aha! moments” she experienced, are her own.
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