Written by: Stana Luxford Oddie - Cataraqui Conservation Senior Conservation Educator.
I love winter! I love it so much that my partner and I even got married in the snow in the middle of winter. The irony is that I also love being warm. I am that person, even indoors, who has an extra sweater on, slippers and a blanket wrapped around me sitting by the fire. Why do I bother going out in the cold? My main reason is that I always feel at my best when I am outdoors, especially in a forest, no matter the season or weather.
For four decades, I have called various parts of the northern part of Turtle Island in Ontario, Canada my home. In a climate where almost half the year is cold and often covered in ice and snow, I have learned to embrace and enjoy the cold.
As a certified Association of Nature & Forest Therapy (ANFT) Forest Therapy Guide and Trainer, I have discovered the magic of slowing down enough to be in my senses to cultivate a deeper relationship with the winter.
Here are my top 10 reasons to go on a Forest Therapy Walk in Winter:
Mental Health Benefits
I feel that the practice of guided Forest Therapy Walks is needed throughout the year, but especially during winter months. Colder temperatures often influence people's choice to stay indoors. I know for myself and my family there is a shift in our mood and our mental health, for the good, when we take time in the cold winter months to get out to the forest. Research is rapidly growing with regards to the benefits of spending time outdoors. So, I don't see any reason why we should willingly deprive ourselves of the benefits of being in nature for the four or more months in the winter.
Talking about the cold and snowy weather in winter amongst neighbours, community members, friends and family seems to be a favourite topic. Many people I know are tuned into various weather apps awaiting what is coming next. What I have noticed is that many people wish the cold, wintery weather would go away. The truth is, there is nothing that any of us can do to affect the weather, meaning we can either choose to complain about winter weather or embrace whatever comes our way with curiosity and openness.
I find it’s easier to welcome whatever weather comes. I have to admit that I am fortunate to have an easy affinity for winter. Maybe it started off thanks to my mother bundling me up and taking me out in my pram for naps and walks where I was refreshed by the cold and soothed by the peaceful, gray cloud filled sky as the seasons changed from winter to spring. To this day, I welcome in the enlivening wind to touch my cheeks and make my nose run. The cold wakes me up and helps me to feel alive.
I know that cold, winter weather isn't easy for everyone. I have guided various winter walks over the years where participants have been dragged by their partners or friends. I have heard a familiar share during the introductions that they really didn’t like the cold and would honestly much prefer being inside in the winter. They decided to come because their partner really wanted their company. Remarkably, the trend I noticed at the end of most walks was that reluctant participants seem to soften. They would often express that they actually stayed warm enough, and relaxed, and noticed things that they hadn’t made space for since they were a child.
Mosquitoes, Ticks and Poison Ivy Are On Vacation
As much as I have cultivated my relationships with and have the utmost respect for beings such as ticks, poison ivy, and mosquitoes, I am grateful for the break we get from each other. In cold winter weather certain beings are on vacation. Ticks, although largely dormant, are surprisingly resilient and occasionally might pay a visit if the temperature happens to rise above 0 degrees Celsius (or above 32 Fahrenheit) during an infrequent “warm” spell. But the mosquitoes are definitely nowhere to be found, not that I leave much skin exposed anyways.
When certain beings are resting and tucked away by a thick blanket of snow, I notice a carefree, exploratory spirit awaken in me. I feel a little freer to adventure off trail with ease and a bit of abandon. I am comforted to know that many fragile beings are protected under many layers of snow and ice.
Living in snow country, and either guiding or being guided on a Forest Therapy Walk, gives me the opportunity to slow down and take notice of the passage of animals. It is a great delight for me to discover the variety of animal tracks, their sizes, shapes, and movement patterns, signs of their nibbles and scats in the snow.
I love the surprise of looking up into the open, bare tree branches to discover a nest filled with a crown of snow. It’s as if the once leaf hidden gem is now saying hello to me. It is this time of year when the squirrel dreys (nests) are also on full display.
I remember during an invitation to “notice and explore the stories of animals in the snow”, feeling as if I had a thread of connection extending from my belly and heart down through the forest as I followed a trail off the beaten path, of what looked like heart shaped deer tracks, nibbles and little clumps of dark chocolate covered raisins (of course they weren’t actually raisins … don't eat them). In winter, the snow highlights the beings who surround us all the time, making it easier to get to know them. During the warmer months, taking note of animal signs is a much more subtle way of noticing.
When the snow covers the land, there are fewer beings calling out for my attention. I recall after one walk I had guided remotely (through Zoom) in the full bloom of spring, a participant shared that slowing down and tuning into their senses in an abundant garden space was overwhelming for them - there was so much to take in. They felt that it was almost like a nature overload. They did eventually self-regulate their sensory stimulation throughout the remainder of the walk and have since continued to cultivate their relationship with the land and continued their Forest Therapy practice. In the winter, with leaves off many trees, and various ground covers buried with snow, one can find a spaciousness and simplicity in the forest and most other outdoor spaces.
My partner, who, like a beaver, is constantly building, fixing and repairing, finds it challenging to be in our beautiful yard, because he is constantly distracted with all the ‘to do’s and ‘should do’s’ that he has piled on his list. A blanket of snow covering the remnants of projects helps him to settle the mind and invite the feeling of calm and relaxation, welcoming what is in the here and now.
Some people may wonder if there is anything to experience as life appears to be dormant or even dead in winter. For me, slowing down to connect with the forest in winter feels like a surrender to the season. It’s a chance to notice and celebrate the beings that are still active. The acrobatic squirrels that bravely fling themselves along their tree branch highways, porcupines with their purposeful tree climbing and the cheerful chickadees singing with their puffed-out bodies remind me of the joy of witnessing this season. I often find myself mirroring them by shimmying and shaking myself as if I had feathers to warm up or to leap and run like a squirrel.
I also love to be with trees that have lost their leaves, and quietly sit with them while they rest. When I sit with the trees in winter, I am reminded of the times I sat in those tender moments, witnessing my son sleep as a young one.
Snow Invites Play and Creativity
On a guided Forest Therapy Walk when participants are dressed well, I’ve found that an open-ended invitation “to be with the snow with any senses” can inspire play and creativity. If you are dressed appropriately (warm and moisture proof), if you feel called, you can really roll around, crawl, and generally move as one might expect of a child … without getting dirty, which can be challenging especially for many adults.
On many walks, I have noticed myself and others returning from an invitation, sharing with big smiles how they played in the snow making snow angels, mandalas, messages, sculptures, and even snowballs and forts! Many shared that it has been years since they spent time with the snow this way. This way of being can invoke a sense of aliveness.
The Magic of a Winter Fire
There’s something magical about gathering around a fire in winter. Not only is the fire beautiful, but it can also provide warmth and a wonderful focal point while coming together to share throughout the walk. For many reasons in my area, there is no guarantee of being able to have a fire during a Forest Therapy Walk, due to local restrictions, so it is extra special when we are able to have them.
Fire can be supportive in awakening our senses, not only with heat, but also sounds and dancing patterns of light. At night, the light of a fire reflecting off the white snow can create the feeling of a room within the darkness of the surrounding space. This show of light can be even more inviting in the winter when daylight is particularly limited. When an open fire is not possible, even a simple lantern or a trail of them can offer a special ambience during the darkest time of the year for those of us in the northern hemisphere
Comfort Even When It’s Cold
I prefer to be warm while I am out in the winter. So I make sure I dress in layers. If I get too warm, I can always take some layers off. I have to admit, when I'm in a rush I sometimes dread taking the time to get multiple layers on. However, when I’m not in a rush, putting on the many layers becomes a type of ritual, a preparation of sorts, to embark on a journey. I guess like anything, it’s a matter of how we choose to look at any given situation that is unfolding in front of us. As I slide on layer after layer, I sometimes feel like a Caddisfly larva carefully encasing myself.
Additionally, I have found bringing a blanket, plus a warm drink to sip on throughout the walk can go a long way to maintain core body temperature. An insulated pad or stool to keep me insulated or up off the cold ground can help keep me warm as well. I find that large and even small movements can be used to help keep the blood circulating.
Remembering That I Am Human Being Instead of a Human Doing
I spent most of my early adult life doing things in winter. You would find me cross-country and downhill skiing, ski patrolling, tobogganing, snowshoeing and even trying my hand at winter living with an Egyptian cotton wall tent and cold winter camping. I still love to be active and continue to do most of those things, but Forest Therapy has encouraged me to slow down and just ‘be.’
Although it is possible to be present and aware while participating in winter activities, I find that Forest Therapy cultivates a relationship between the forest and myself. A focus on being in the body and noticing the senses within the forest continues to shift my perspective and well being. This slowing down for me has rippled out into all the activities I participate in while outdoors in the winter. Even now, I notice when I am out for a cross-country ski, more often than not, you’ll find me pausing to savour the moment.
I wonder what your reasons might be for getting outdoors to go on a winter Forest Therapy Walk. If you are interested in joining me, please check our website for up coming winter Forest Therapy Walk dates.Photo Credits: Lachlan Oddie