Strapped into a harness like a fly tangled in a spider web, I was perched high, ever so high, in a tall fir tree in the depths of the forest. I clung to the edge of a small platform with a rope connecting me to a steel cable that stretched 60 metres far down the slope. "Go ahead and jump," encouraged my instructor, "you have to trust the equipment." Easy for him to say, I thought, with my heart pounding and every muscle in my body resisting what my brain was asking it to do. I closed my eyes and ever so gingerly pushed off. Instantly I was in free fall. Then the rope attaching me to the zip line jerked tight and sent me hurtling down the slope at an alarming speed. I careened down the line until the slope flattened and, thankfully, slowed my speed.
I oscillated back and forth a few times until the instructor raised a ladder. Gratefully I descended and kissed terra firma, vowing never to part from her again. But the instructor paid no heed. "If you thought that was bad, you'll love rappelling," he said leading me toward a sheer, hulking cliff.
I was sampling but a small part of the smorgasbord of activities offered at Strathcona Park Lodge. Located in the centre of Vancouver Island on the eastern boundary of Strathcona Park, British Columbia's oldest, the Lodge is surrounded by peaks soaring over 2100 metres, sparkling alpine lakes, dense forests of fir and cedar. It is the perfect base to enjoy outdoor activities, explore nature and, as I learned, test your personal limits.
The Lodge, a rambling collection of log cabins and chalets sprawling on a slope down to Lake Buttle, is home to students, visitors and about 70 instructors. During my stay the laughter and enthusiasm of about 240 young students bubbled through the forest like a heady froth.
Started by Myrna and Jim Boulding in 1959, the Lodge continues today as a warm, family operation where people and human values are more important than the bottom line. The original offerings grew into a comprehensive apprenticeship program (Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training Program) for those embarking on a career in outdoor education and leadership. It is considered the premier training centre in Canada and is recognized worldwide for its excellence. About 800 young leaders have received their training here. This is a good thing for adventure tourism is booming across the globe, and Canada, and especially British Columbia, is well positioned to take a large bite out of the pie.
In the face of enthusiastic demand the Lodge widened its horizons and now offers adventure, nature or just plain relaxation to all ages at all skill levels. One morning I watched a 67-year-old lady and her 9-year-old granddaughter deep in an animated conversation as they paddled a canoe out to explore a small island. Part of the grandparent-grandchild program that the Lodge pioneered with Elderhostel, it is one of many examples of how the Lodge focuses on character development rather than offering all-you-can-consume hedonism. The Lodge is also a favorite vacation place for families.
As I quickly learned, outdoor activities are at the heart of any vacation here and one can select from rock climbing, kayaking, canoeing, natural history, wilderness survival, orienteering, mountaineering and more. The challenge is what to choose from the enormous selection. And it's not about boring classes; instead it's all about participation that ranges from a quiet paddle to pulse-thumping rappelling to scaling a snow-capped mountain. I watched a group of grade-eight students negotiate the high-rope course, carefully working their way across sections called Leap of Faith, Ninja's Crossing and Burma Road. Their initial nervous giggles and apprehension turn to confidence as they progressed. At the sheer cliff where they were rock climbing and rappelling, I saw the students encourage and support each other, even when the occasional one could not conquer their fear.
One morning, I met Myrna Boulding, the founder of the Lodge, who strolls around the dining hall welcoming guests and providing helpful suggestions. Although over 70 she is fit, articulate and brimming with enthusiasm. "The Lodge is all about building character," she exclaimed. "I want every guest and student to leave as a better person. Our philosophy is aimed at people getting to know themselves, having them gain confidence, having them come closer to nature and the environment, and having them bond with and understand others. We have succeeded in this, and that's what gives me the greatest satisfaction."
Myrna is particularly proud of the instructors, who she considers the Lodges most valuable resource. Later I watched an instructor preparing a group of eighth graders for rock climbing. She explained that here there is no competition against others. "But," she added, "I want all of you to test your own personal boundaries." She repeated a kind of mantra: "First you'll do what's necessary (learn safety procedures). Then you'll do what's possible. And then, just maybe you'll do what you thought was impossible."
A gentleman from Portland, Oregon, who was visiting with his family, told me, "I'm impressed with the emphasis the instructors place on safety. We need more programs like this in the USA, but there aren't many because of the numerous lawsuits in our country."
Brian Gunn, Myrna's partner, explained how he (age 69) and two friends (age 68 and 70) hiked for six days in the wilderness culminating in climbing Mount Haig-Brown. With a sparkle in his eye he described the thrill of coming on a herd of elk, hiking along snow-covered ridges and camping amongst wild flowers high in an alpine meadow. He said that next year they were hiking to Della Falls, the tallest waterfall in Canada at 440 metres (Niagara Falls is a paltry 57 metres).
Although Strathcona Park Lodge keeps a low profile (with almost no advertising budget), it has not gone unnoticed. The Lodge has received several education and environment awards, but perhaps the most meaningful recognition is the prestigious Heaslip Award for Environmental Stewardship that Jim and Myrna Boulding received in 1986 from the United Nations Environment Programme.
Sitting on the porch of my cabin, I watched the sun set over the lake with the mountains forming dark soft shadows against the mauves and pinks of the sky. Only two days had passed, but I already felt a better person.
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's
Parliament Past & Present. His work is often featured in Osprey and CANWEST papers.
If you go
To book a stay or learn more about the Lodge, including its chalets at Mt. Washington Alpine Resort and sea kayaking and ocean canoeing in Nootka Sound, visit:
To learn about or enroll in the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training Program:
For information about Strathcona Provincial Park:
Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel
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