Bears, Trees, and Zero Coffee: What a Week-Long Wilderness Retreat Is Really Like

On a retreat with the wilderness outfitter Mountain Trek, one writer hikes through some of British Columbia’s finest wilderness—and, finally, hugs a tree.

A lone hiker looks out at fall colors in Monica Meadows, British Columbia, one of the many Mountain Trek retreat hikes.

On a week-long retreat at Mountain Trek, travelers spend hours among the trees.

Courtesy of Mountain Trek

I wasn’t nervous until the van started moving.

It was early on a Saturday in late September. I’d just arrived at Spokane International Airport and met the contingent of people I’d be driving north with—all of us bound for Mountain Trek, a wilderness retreat in Ainsworth, British Columbia. We chatted idly as we swabbed our noses for the predeparture COVID test and loaded our suitcases into the van, making introductions and sussing out who was new (myself, along with two others) and who was a veteran (three of my fellow van-ers). And then, as we began the four-and-a-half-hour drive north—crossing over the Washington border, into the southeast corner of B.C.—our group of six began to talk in earnest.

Immediately, the veterans started to swap stories. The good: “It’s so gorgeous!” “The soups are amazing!” The scary: “We got so hungry, we started talking food porn on the trail.” “It was grueling.” And then—the cherry on top—a story about how one former Mountain Trekker, allegedly, ordered a pizza each night to his room and stashed all the empty boxes beneath his bed like a guilty teenager.

That’s when my excitement transitioned to a more nervous what-have-I-gotten-myself-into flutter of doubt. To be fair, I knew the weeklong program would be a physical and mental challenge. I’d first been introduced to Mountain Trek—now going into its 32nd year—in 2021, when I attended a three-day virtual retreat. The retreat offered a taste of the outfitter’s wellness-based programming: We were introduced to the concept of nature immersion, hiking on our own for a set amount of time each day. We took nutrition-based cooking classes, attended talks about sleep hygiene, and joined Zoom fitness classes. I liked the concept, and the people running it, so much that I vowed to visit its lodge the moment I could.

That moment arrived in September 2022, the end of the lodge’s first open season since the pandemic hit. In the weeks leading up to the retreat—during which we would be expected to hike upwards of 8 to 10 miles a day through high alpine wilderness—Mountain Trek’s guides had encouraged us to increase our step count to as close to 10,000 steps a day as possible. They also encouraged us to wean ourselves off of caffeine to help lower cortisol in the body. (I bravely tackled both.) A few days before we arrived, they had recommended cutting out sugar and alcohol. (I may have ignored this.) They’d sent a packing list with all the gear we’d need, like moisture-wicking shirts and proper hiking boots, and reminded us of the lodge’s remote location (bad cell service, limited Wi-Fi). We had signed up for Thai and sports massages and requested additional treatments, from acupuncture to naturopathic visits that would look at our bodies in a holistic fashion.

As I was about to discover, though, there’s no amount of planning that can prepare you for the real Mountain Trek experience. The outfitter’s goal, if you had to boil it down to a single phrase, is to restore your vitality. It does that through a seven-day program that has you hiking three-and-a-half to four hours a day in fairly intense terrain; working out every night; detoxing in the steam room, sauna, hot tub, and plunge pool; eating roughly 1,600 calories of high-quality food a day—and cutting out sugar, gluten, most dairy, alcohol, caffeine, and all the other junk we routinely pour into our bodies. (You can also opt for a two-week version of the program.) Despite my interest, I admit I dragged my feet a bit when it came to actually booking it. I mean, I kind of like that junk. Coming out of the pandemic, I was perhaps not the healthiest I’ve ever been: I was attached to my much-too-regular cocktail hour, and it had been a long time since I’d climbed more than a small hill in our neighborhood. As my week neared, another problem loomed: My family had discovered that my father is seriously ill. So ill that I’d even considered canceling my trip. My family, however, encouraged me to keep the reservation, and so—with a few lingering doubts—I decided to go for it.

That night, as we settled into our small but comfortable rooms, I had no idea what was to come. All I knew is that—far from light and noise pollution, work, and the anxieties of real life—I began to relax in a way I hadn’t in a very long time. As I drifted off, I reminded myself that my van mates wouldn’t have returned if the experience wasn’t profound enough to willingly choose to suffer, right?

Epic-Trips-Sunset-at-the-Lodge-Med.jpg

The cozy Mountain Trek lodge overlooks Kootenay Lake.

Courtesy of Mountain Trek

Mountain Trek occupies 35 acres of the K’tnaxa and Sinixt ancestral land high in Ainsworth, perched over Kootenay Lake, with the magnificent Kootenay Mountains rising in the distance. Established as a mining town in the 1880s, Ainsworth became a popular tourist destination in the early 1900s, thanks to its natural hot springs—only a few minutes down the road from the lodge—which travelers can still soak in today. It became known as a place of healing for both locals and tourists passing through.

Healing is Mountain Trek’s main goal, achieved in large part through nature immersion. Douglas firs, old-growth western pine, aspens, and more radiate out from the lodge, an undulating green carpet that extends for miles around the property and beyond—into Nelson, B.C., 45 miles away, and into the various provincial parks that dot this region.

When day one dawned with a 6 a.m. knock at my door, those trees were visible in sharp relief. The week before, smoke from a fire miles away had shrouded the entire region—so much smoke that even the lodge’s lake view was obscured. But a heavy rainstorm had washed the land clean, and when we embarked on our first day, there wasn’t a hint of fire.

After a morning tonic of ginger water and a small smoothie, we were ushered into the yoga studio, an airy, multi-windowed place. I’d worried that the yoga would also be intense, but instead it was a gentle class, focused primarily on stretching and preparing our bodies for the week ahead. An hour later, we traipsed back into the dining room for breakfast—zucchini fritters with poached eggs and a healthy take on a hollandaise sauce—while Katya Campbell, Mountain Trek’s program manager and fitness director, filled us in on the hiking plan for the day. We were to hike straight from the lodge, on a hilly, wooded trail that would take about an hour and a half to complete. There would be four self-selecting groups. Group 1 would hike the fastest, Group 4 the slowest. They encouraged us to start faster than we think we’d want to go, because it would be easier to drop back than to catch up.

Once we were hooked up with a backpack and Nordic trekking poles, we hit the trail. I’d planned to hike with Group 2, but one of the guides egged me into going with Group 1, and suddenly I found myself flying up a mountain—or at least attempting to. I’ve backpacked with poles before but I’ve never done Nordic trekking and the action is . . . not intuitive. The idea is that you hold your poles at a 45-degree angle and push the tip into the ground as you lift the opposing leg, to both help move your body more quickly and get a full body workout. It is not as easy as it sounds . . . especially on rough terrain, and especially on what feels like a completely vertical incline when moving at jackrabbit speed.

At the first possible stop, I wheezily begged to hang back and join the next group, which would become “my” group for the week. Group 2’s pace was challenging, but not impossible. According to the Mountain Trek philosophy, you want to work at 65 to 85 percent of your maximum effort for 40 minutes to perform what they call a “fat flush.” While the wording might suggest an ’80s-era fad diet, this flush is grounded in science. Part of restoring vitality is increasing circulation and metabolism. This 40-minute fat flush does just that—and Mountain Trek was encouraging us to have three of those a day.

But on the trail, a “fat flush” was the last thing on my mind. It’s an interesting proposition, moving through the woods at a good clip, trying not to fall on your face as you simultaneously watch your posture, keep an eye on both your heart rate and the trail in front of you, and try to observe the scenery. This is why Mountain Trek places such an emphasis on quiet as you move. The goal is to get a workout, yes, but there’s a reason we were doing this in the woods behind the lodge and not in a gym.

Trees release phytoncides, volatile organic compounds—or essential oils—that help plants fight disease. Turns out these chemicals help our bodies fight disease, too. When humans inhale these chemicals, we increase the white blood cells known as natural killer cells (NK), which attack cells with viruses and tumors. Researchers have discovered that spending time in nature—ideally an hour or more—has the power to reduce inflammation, boost immune response, calm our nervous system, reduce blood glucose levels, and enhance mood and sleep.

Despite my panting and fatigue, I could feel the difference. The air was crisp, and while I couldn’t exactly smell the trees, there was an energy in the air that energized every cell. The hike felt nearly entirely vertical, passing through a wooded area damp from the recent rain and carpeted with needles and underbrush. There were no views to speak of, but I could feel my shoulders and cortisol drop. There was sheer joy in the freedom of moving swiftly and quietly through the outdoors. Halfway through the hike, we stopped for lunch, pulling out little mats to sit on and thermoses full of pumpkin chili.

After the hike, we had a lecture on detoxification, followed by dinner, and our first workout class. This was the part I was, perhaps, the most nervous about. Working out after eating has always seemed counterintuitive to me: How could you possibly move when so full? Turns out, that’s only true if you just ate a mountain of pasta bolognese (another of my pandemic habits!). Mountain Trek encourages people to eat the first two-thirds of their calories in the morning and at lunch, eating a light dinner to encourage better sleep—and to make it easier to move afterward. So after a supper of Moroccan-style beef, into the gym we went for a strength-training and cardio class that, thankfully, caused no dinners to reappear.

Then it was free time: Some of us, myself included, had massages; others spent time doing a detox rotation in the hot tub, sauna, steam room, and plunge pool. As I drifted off that night, my body tired but feeling wildly alive, I wondered two things: How had I forgotten how good this feels? And how the hell am I going to do this again tomorrow?

Epic-Trips-Yoga-at-Mountain-Trek.jpg

The on-site yoga studio is the best possible place to begin your day.

Courtesy of Mountain Trek

Nine hours of quality sleep and a little gentle yoga later, I was ready to go again. As I looked out at the lake, rippling gently in the morning breeze, I wondered what adventures lay ahead. The highlight of the program, of course, is its immersion in nature: Over the course of the week, we would take a ferry to Pilot Bay Provincial Park, hiking through trees threaded with sunlight as the glacier-fed Kootenay Lake winked at us in the distance. After a stop at a nearby artists’ village, I—along with a few other brave souls—would dunk and swim in the lake, which was as glacial as it sounds. We would hike through the magical, almost fairy-tale-like landscape of the True Blue area near Kaslo, B.C.

One of my favorite days was when we tackled the high alpine slopes in Kokanee Glacier Park. It took an hour-and-a-half through twisty mountain roads to reach the trailhead. We’d been warned that this would be one of the toughest hikes of the trip. While not as steep as previous hikes, we would be constantly climbing, with no flat breaks on which to catch our breath.

We’d also been reminded of our place in the animal kingdom. Fall is bear season, when the black bears that call the region home are plumping up for winter. I knew, too, that we were mere guests in their home: There was the stubborn teenager who liked to snack on the lodge’s blackberries and had to be shooed away occasionally, lest he get too comfortable with humans. The day before, as we had clomped down the trail, we’d paused at the sight of a mama bear and two cubs, raiding a bag of trash someone had dumped. We gave the family space as they scurried into the brush, noticing that one of the cubs had, sadly, managed to wedge its face into an empty white cup. (Our guide—equipped with bear spray—reassured us that the cub’s parent would likely be able to remove it.)

But on this day in Kokanee there was a different energy in the air. We knew that the trails criss-crossed with bear corridors—and it felt so much more remote, like we were the only people on Earth. Kirkland Shave, Mountain Trek’s owner and program director, was my group’s guide that day and he shared that the lake we were hiking toward was the very lake where Michael Trudeau—the brother of prime minister Justin Trudeau—lost his life in an avalanche in 1998. We weren’t in any direct danger, but I felt the reality of the wilderness grip me.

As we began to ascend in that wilderness, my group of four immediately began to huff and puff (well, with the exception of Kirkland). Low clouds obscured the peaks, heavy enough that we were occasionally misted with moisture. The higher we climbed, the more vivid the scenery. We smelled the dank, woolly stench of valerian, and gazed out at gray rock dotted with dark evergreens and bright spots of yellow arnica and red fireweed. As we hiked, our legs occasionally brushed up against huckleberry bushes. Some time later—it felt like hours, but was likely less—we reached the glacial lake. We pushed on, tracing a path around the lake over small mountains of treacherous boulders and rocks, some with unnervingly high drop-offs. At one point, Kirkland told us a story about the mules that had, during mining times, ferried materials around the lake. One mule was so terrified of heights, the team had to blindfold her so that she’d walk around the very points we were currently skirting.

When we reached the north point of the lake, Kirkland’s radio crackled. There were two groups behind us on the trail that day, and the third, we discovered, had been blocked by a meaty black bear determined to get every last huckleberry off a bush. After some back-and-forth, Kirkland told us we’d need to meet up with the second group so that we could hike back down the trail with a noisier, hopefully bear-terrifingly large pack of people.

Back on the south side of the lake, we found the three-person group that had been hiking behind us. A nervous energy ran through us as we hurriedly ate our soup and relaced our boots. Then it was time to return. My thoughts kaleidoscoped. Is this how I’m going to go? Mauled by a bear on a wellness retreat? Then I’d laugh at myself—with a little reminder that black bears (generally) only attack for defensive reasons—and strike up a loud conversation with my nearest neighbor. We passed the spot where the bear had been spotted. All eyes scanned the landscape. Kirkland, and his bear spray, was in the lead; the second guide, and her bear spray, was last—we hikers were tucked in the middle like ducklings. Not a whisper of the bear.

Later at the lodge, relief coursing through our veins, laughing at our urbanite fears, we heard the full story: The thwarted group was trudging along, panting and wheezing like everyone else. Suddenly, they turned a bend and there was a very large, very trail-blocking black bear enjoying a particularly juicy huckleberry feast. The guide tried to scare the bear away, shouting and waving his arms. The bear refused to budge. The guide tried again. The bear—irritated now, interrupted twice—rose up on its hind legs and gave the kind of growl that you hear in your nightmares. The guide, wisely, decided that a glacial lake view was not worth risking four hikers’ limbs and lives. Hungry bear: 1, annoying humans: 0.

It was an unnerving encounter, especially for those of us unaccustomed to living so closely with the ursine set. But it was also a tingling reminder that out there, we were both protected and exposed, like our ancestors long before us.

Epic-Trips-AG.jpg

Ancient trees and epic mountain views.

Photos by Aislyn Greene

On Wednesday, I hit a wall. I woke up nauseated and with an aching head, and my emotions swung wildly and surprisingly, from anger to sadness to grief. That day, we had a choice: Hike or forest-bathe.

I’d done a forest-bathing walk before, but I hadn’t really connected with the experience beyond enjoying time in the trees. I could tell I needed a break, so I decided to try it again. Maybe it was that I was more open to the trees and the woo-woo-ness of what they can offer; maybe I was just tired and sad—my dad had flitted in and out of my head over the past three days, but I hadn’t really sat down with my emotions.

Our certified forest-bathing guide, Natasha Hall, led us slowly into a patch of dappled sun by a grove of hazelnut trees and explained that she’d be offering us a series of “invitations.” For the first, we clambered up a grassy hillside, stood in a circle in the sun, and closed our eyes. She asked us, first, to listen. My ears tuned into the buzz of an insect side-swiping my head, to the whine of a lawnmower in the distance, to the rustle of friendly leaves, and to the thump of my own heart. She then invited us to “sniff the air like a bear,” so I tipped my head back and took a primal inhale. (Was that a note of huckleberry?) She even invited us to stick out our tongues and taste the air. (No huckleberry, only, maybe, lake air?) We did this for 15 minutes, shuffling in our little patch of sun and seeing what emerged. My abiding sense was one of childhood: In that moment, I felt like a kid again, sprawled out in the sun, with nothing but endless time ahead.

Next, Natasha invited us to “see what’s in motion”—the wave of a leaf, our own bodies moving through space, the planet slowly spinning through space. She invited us to journey into the forest of small things, to collect anything that could fit in our hand and arrange it on the path. Our installation included abandoned wasp nests, hazelnut caps, moss, bark, and a lone lantern once nailed to a tree.

By the time we were invited to befriend a tree, I knew I was going to cry. I found a tree hugging a small creek bed and sat with my back snuggled up into its mossy bark. It was solid, supportive. I looked out at a sea of trees, some living, some no longer so—a reminder that things change, decay, and break and yet there is always strength somewhere, somehow. Later, as we shared our experiences over cups of fireweed tea, nearly everyone choked up. Even now, I want to crack a joke about these moments—I hugged a tree! But the profoundness of connecting with a being that was here long before me and, with any luck, will remain long after I’m gone, is a gift I don’t want to disrespect.

Over the next few days, my energy returned. I felt so alive, like my blood was pumping with ferocity, like I could climb any mountain, tackle any challenge. The hikes were easier; evening workouts more pleasurable. I hadn’t felt that way since before the pandemic, maybe even longer. But my mind kept returning to our forest-bathing walk. In that moment, resting softly against the tree, listening to the rich quiet of the forest while surrounded by evergreen companions, the future stretched out in all its bumpy unknowingness—and I was ready to meet it.

Getting there

Travelers can fly into Spokane International Airport, and take the four-and-a-half-hour shuttle to the lodge, or they can fly into the West Kootenay Regional Airport near Castlegar, B.C., just a 75-minute drive from the lodge. Mountain Trek trips are 7 to 14 days, $6,100 for one week, $11,590 for two weeks.

Aislyn Greene is a deputy editor at AFAR, where she edits long-form narratives for the magazine and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
More From AFAR