11 Feb Sickness & Health
It was a former guest who helped me join the dots. For a couple of years now I have been thinking about the therapeutic value of what we offer at the ranch: high alpine hikes, rainforest walks, encounters with bears and other wild animals, and rafting on a wilderness river.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the sights, sounds and rhythms of nature are a powerful antidote to pain and trauma, a welcome relief for those who have spent their working lives amid conflict, suffering or even flying bullets.
And so it had proved for me. When I first arrived at the lodge fifteen years ago I was a burned-out war correspondent, with a string of front-line campaigns behind me that ranged from Bosnia to Afghanistan, who slept poorly and was haunted by the images of what I had seen.
But with time, as I breathed in the raw vitality of the western Canadian wilderness and the steady rhythms of nature, I slowly began to recuperate, my demons retreated and the nightmares that were plaguing me became less vivid. Their garish immediacy began to lose their hue and eventually faded into grey.
If it had worked for me, I got to thinking, surely it could work for others. And eventually I settled on the idea of supporting injured military veterans who need a boost on their path to recuperation. For a while I toyed with the idea. Could I give them what they needed? I wondered.
And then, skimming through an article in the New York Times a little over a year ago about a certain Laila Haidari, a Kabul restaurant-owner, I read a sentence that hit me like a hammer.
Laila had set up a rehab centre in the Afghan capital for drug addicts and was relating how she had one day taken in a severely-disabled youth she found left in a rubbish dump, who could neither speak nor hear.
He wasn’t an addict but was clearly in need of help and she insisted that back at the rehab centre the addicts look after him, feed him, wash him and take him to the toilet.
“It’s good for them to have someone to take care of,” she said simply.
Of course, I thought, that was the key. It’s not about treating people in need like victims or requiring charity and pity. It’s about allowing them to find a way to participate again, each according to their own abilities. About finding a way to facilitate their return to being a contributing member of society.
I had always believed that it was not only adversity that laid people low with mental trauma, although I am far from being an expert in trauma, but the sense that they had no valuable role left to play in the world.
And then, as luck would have it, during a dinner in London last winter, I explained my idea to Alex and George, two former guests at the lodge. And George said he knew someone who might be able to help me put my plan into action.
I was put in touch with one person, then a second, and then a third. And soon I was talking to Naomi, herself an injured veteran, who runs the Endeavour Fund, an initiative set up by Prince Harry to help rehabilitate wounded and traumatised military veterans.
I explained that my idea was to try and bring a group of just such veterans to the lodge. But I didn’t just want them to get a jolly or a freebee, I wanted to ask them to contribute something in turn. I would pair them up with me and my guides and each of us would teach the other something new.
“So what do you want from the vets in terms of skills?” Naomi asked.
I put together my wish list. A sniper or observation officer to talk about how to use cover and how to observe without being seen, a survival expert to teach us survival skills, a marine to teach us boat handling, and a dog handler. (You can thank Katya, our three-year-old German Shepherd, for that last idea.)
And what could we, in turn, give? We would teach the vets all we know about animal tracking, flora and fauna identification, ecology, biology, and even wilderness rafting. Perhaps, I speculated, these new skills might serve as a few steps on a bridge from wounded soldier to wilderness advocate and possibly even professional wilderness guide.
Naomi loved the idea, presented it in due course to the board of the foundation, and, late last year, we got the go ahead. We would contribute about a third of the costs from our Wild Bear Fund, collected from our generous guests, as well as contributions made in kind, and the Endeavour Fund would pick up the tab for the remainder.
The dates have now been set and, assuming all goes to plan, half a dozen former soldiers with mental trauma and physical injuries will arrive at the lodge in the second week of August. And Graham, Sage and I will be there to meet them.
On a less positive note, Kristin, my wonderful wife and my partner in building and running the lodge for the last fifteen years, is seriously ill. It all happened this year during our trip to Europe. And she is going to need several months off work to recuperate.
I know Kristin would hate my expanding on the medical details – she greatly values her privacy and dislikes fuss more than anything else in the world – so I will leave it at that.
To make up for that, when I am not with her, I will be working doubly hard to ensure that her high standards at the lodge are maintained. And I will be helped by Nina, one of Kristin’s closest friends, who lives in Vancouver and has more than 40 years experience in catering and logistics, and will be filling in as lodge manager.
You’ll be pleased to know that the rest of the team – Graham, Sage and Kim – are all coming back this year. And, even better, after a few fairly low years, the number of bears in the valley is once again on the rise.
As I write this our valley is still blanketed in several feet of snow. But soon that will begin melting and a new spring will be upon us.