During months of lock-downs and closures, uncertainty and isolation, time spent outside has been a lifeline —a bright spot in an often unchanging, never-ending loop of real-life Groundhog Days. By :: Kristin Schnelten
A simple walk in the woods is often all it takes: a change of scenery; a breath of fresh air; a laugh with friends; if you’re lucky, even a deeper connection with the natural world.
Free Spirit Tours has been harnessing the restorative qualities of nature for more than twenty years, offering wilderness experiences and tours around southern Georgian Bay. Pandemic restrictions put a damper on tight-quarters caving trips and shuttle-serviced tours, but socially distanced adventures continued—most recently, forest therapy walks, snowshoeing and Apple Pie Trail wine tasting.
Eager to dust the cobwebs from my own news-drenched brain and interact with real, live humans, I laced up my boots and donned warm layers to join Free Spirit on two pre-Christmas adventures.
In the lane leading to Georgian Hills Winery, a mittened Tim Sproll directed me around the bend to a weathered, low board-and-batten barn. I warmed myself by the fire and met my masked companions for the afternoon: four friends and a couple, all visitors to the area, embarking on day trips to retain their sanity.
Tim arrived and delivered a quick snowshoe primer: There’s a trick to pressuring your feet while walking up a steep hill, and do make sure your bindings are tight. But otherwise? Just take a walk. You got this.
Free Spirit’s snowshoe locations vary, based on current snow accumulation. One of the favourites is Metcalfe Rock, which typically sees more of the white stuff with its higher altitude. But Georgian Hills happened to boast a fresh blanket of snow this day, so we headed straight out from the barn.
Down the hill and across a bridge, we crossed the creek and headed to an older, fallow orchard. The chatter was about snowshoeing—I was the only participant for whom it was old hat—and orchards. Had anyone ever visited one before today? It sounded like I was the lone hand in the air for this one, too. Add “do something new” to that list of pandemic mood-boosters.
We wound our way through the orchard, pausing when Tim found a notable tree or berry, stopping for selfies in the wide, deep rows. Meandering through the countryside, up and over a hill or two, we glimpsed farm fields, barns, knotted old trees and the crisp, new vineyard. We grinned at uncertain, wobbly steps in deep snow, and shared belly laughs at a slow-motion wipeout.
Warmed by exercise and ready for a rest, the tasting room portion of our adventure was the perfect après: delightful Georgian Hills wines, tasty charcuterie and fresh conversation in a charming, open space. As I knelt to receive an extended farewell from Vedder the resident malamute, I was struck by the restorative power of a simple walk in the snow with strangers. (The few sips of Notty Bay Blanc may have played a supporting role, as well.)
For a connection with nature and self at an even slower, quieter pace, the following weekend I joined Free Spirit’s Tamara Fournier for a guided Forest Therapy walk.
Meeting at the Collingwood Arboretum on a frigid, grey day with icy, biting winds kicking up from the bay, I silently fretted about my numb fingers and toes as Tamara, a certified Forest Therapy guide, welcomed the group, most of them seasoned veterans of these walks.
As we stood in a distanced circle at the shore, an angry swan glaring us away, Tamara helped us connect with the present—with our surroundings, with ourselves—through calm questions and suggestions. “Feel the cold air as it reaches your body. Acknowledge the sensation, understanding its temporary nature,” brought me and my aching toes into the moment, bringing me out of complaint mode and sheepishly into the now.
Forest Therapy walks follow a prescribed pattern, and as we departed our shore introduction, we embarked on the second phase of the afternoon: connective invitations. An invitation may be as simple as moving slowly through nature, another may suggest you sit for a time and observe, or perhaps an invitation is a question: What do you hear?
We didn’t walk far, no more than 50 metres. A Forest Therapy walk is not about covering ground, but about opening your senses, making connections. Being present with nature. A guided meditation with nature and self.
A tea ceremony closed our walk: a Thermos of hot cedar tea made from local foraged plants, surrounded by tiny glass jars on a soft linen towel. We shared our feedback on the experience, thoughts on the invitations, gratitude for our time together. The quiet circle and the sweet tea warmed me, gently wrapping up a quiet afternoon. An afternoon that reminded me to put in the work: to create and nurture a deeper connection with the natural world in which we play.
Free Spirit Tours owners Jennie Elmslie and Joel Dawson have been at this work for two decades: sharing the outdoors, encouraging adventure, teaching new skills. That they’re finding ways to make it happen, exactly when we all need it, is yet another reason for gratitude. Cedar tea or pinot noir, I’ll drink to that!
Learn more about available activities in the area check out Bruce Grey Simcoe.