The mountains of scientific evidence grow bigger every year: Exercise makes people healthier (and happier), and being outdoors in nature makes people happier (and healthier).
According to the American Hiking Society, physical activity such as hiking fights the ailments of modern industrial life that too many Americans suffer from: diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, colon cancer, back pain. Hiking also builds strong bones and joints and helps stave off osteoporosis and arthritis — and it does so kindly, since dirt trails are softer and lower-impact on the frame than asphalt.
Furthermore, being outdoors simply feels good. It releases pleasurable endorphins, purges anxiety-producing adrenaline and staves off depression. A new study, published by researchers at Stanford University in summer 2015, found that people who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area had far less depressive activity in their brains than people who walked in a busy urban area.
City dwellers have a 20 percent higher risk of anxiety disorders and a 40 percent higher risk of mood disorders than residents of rural areas.
Sources: American Hiking Society, Stanford University
PORTLAND — Getting mud on your shoes and sweat in your eyes and rain in your hair is still so much cheaper and more pleasant than going to the doctor.
That’s how Winona Groves sees it. Groves, 84, maintained a pretty rapid pace as the 50+ Forever Young Hikers set out for the historic Pittock Mansion from Northwest Portland’s Wallace Park. The hike was about five miles long and required an elevation gain of about 800 feet into the West Hills; much of it followed the looping, rising streets of the Kings Heights neighborhood and provided great gawking at the many “Domiciles of the Rich and Precarious” that are perched atop pilings up there.
Groves is a native of Iowa, which isn’t famous for steep slopes. When she was a young woman, she pointed her car west and just drove, she said, in search of something different. She joined Portland’s mountaineering Mazamas at age 31 in order to enjoy some company and some help getting up peaks such as Mount St. Helens and Mount Hood.
“Some of my peers are falling by the wayside,” she said. It’s because their lives were too easy and comfortable, she theorized; they didn’t stay tough. So Groves will only make one concession to age: having started out at with the Forever Young Hikers at 77, she now skips the outings that are rated “difficult.”
The mostly urban hike up to Pittock Mansion counted as “easy to moderate.” Truly easy hikes include paved strolls such as the Willamette River Greenway and the Mosier Twin Tunnels; difficult ones are climbs such as Sheep Canyon at Mount St. Helens and the Hardy Ridge Loop near Beacon Rock.
Forever Young is one of Vancouver Parks and Recreation’s most popular programs, according to recreation specialist Becky Anderson. And that must be because of the aging of the baby boom generation and the rise of a “silver tsunami” that still behaves like a bunch of youngsters — hence the name of the program, borrowed from a deathless Bob Dylan tune.
All slots for all fall hikes “filled up on the first day of registration,” Anderson said. “All the baby boomers are finding us.”
A couple of years ago, volunteer hike leader John Harris added, these hikes would bring out maybe a dozen participants. The hike up to Pittock on Dec. 15 was capped at 34. The whole group gathered at Vancouver’s Luepke Senior Center for some orientation and to hop into three Parks-and-Rec vans that stopped at Panera for coffee on the way to Wallace Park.
“You don’t even have to drive,” said James Lanz. “You get driven, and you’ve got other people to socialize with every step of the way.”
A little more orientation and organization followed, led by charming and comedic volunteer Geoff Fowler, whose knowledge of the neighborhood and gentle wisecracks — delivered in a mid-country English accent — provided a touch of extra class.
While an urban neighborhood hike isn’t uncommon at this time of year, Anderson said, most Forever Young Hikes feature trails and dirt, not streets and sidewalks. Precipitation rarely matters, but one hike got completely canceled during mid-December’s fountain of rain because of unsafe trail conditions.
All Forever Young hike guides — volunteers and city staffers — are trained in first aid and carry walkie-talkies. The group that hiked up to Pittock Mansion circled up and counted off several times to make sure nobody was missing. Nobody gets ahead of the leader and nobody gets behind the “sweep.”
But unfortunately, Harris added, every once in a while some eager hiker will confuse glorious memories with current abilities, and exhaustion or other problems will set in. A volunteer will have to help them back out. It affects the whole group, Anderson said. That’s why it’s important for people to attend an orientation class and to be realistic about their abilities, she said.
Visit www.cityofvancouver.us/parksrec/page/fifty-and-better to learn more about 50+ Forever Young programs and outings. Don’t be surprised by waiting lists; do consider pulling together some friends and creating your own outing.
“It’s really expanded our circle of friends. That’s not something I anticipated when I retired,” said Lanz, who was a nurse for Clark County Public Health for 28 years. “We met some avid hikers through the group and formed our own group that goes on Thursdays.”
Among the many topics of conversation that 34 happy hikers of a certain age will bat around for a few hours — pets, kids, jobs, gratitude for retirement from jobs, health issues, gratitude for freedom from health issues — is how their hiking passion grew to begin with.
Larry Hansen was about 12 when his Boy Scout troop ventured out into California’s Mojave Desert, he said. There was an old artillery range where the boys were able to mess around (but probably shouldn’t have). There was also an old pioneer cabin with a working water pump and every single one of the boys had to pump it, of course.
And a simple childhood memory like that — making water rise in the middle of a desert he’d walked across himself — “was one of the highlights of my life,” Hansen said with glee.
“We used to go to the Muscatine caves and to Crystal Lake, where there were stalactites and stalagmites,” said Diane Vinsel, another Iowa native. “It was thrilling as a kid. In fact, if I ever get back to Iowa, I’m going to go there again.”
Anderson herself said she didn’t start hiking until age 18 or so, when she moved from urban Minnesota to Juneau, Alaska. The love of nature was already there thanks to Minnesota’s many lakes. But the love of scaling mountains and bushwhacking took a little longer. “I thought I was going to die going up Banff,” one of Alberta’s tallest peaks, she said, but eventually Anderson fell in love with “civilized hiking on trails,” she said. “Hiking is my passion now. I want this program to be here when I retire.”
And Doug Martel was 50 when he started hiking. He grew up in Vancouver and was vaguely aware of the gorgeous Pacific Northwest landscape all around him — but life was tough and he always had to work, he said. A visiting friend eventually suggested they go hike up Beacon Rock and Martel realized: “Gee whiz, I have a lot of catching up to do. I have got to get out. I’ve got to experience something totally different.” Now, Martel goes on about one Forever Young hike per month, he said.
Paul Foisie used to go on frequent hikes in the Olympic National Forest with his dad; when he’d graduated from college and had some time on his hands, Foisie spent about a month hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from the Columbia River Gorge down to California. This was decades ago, and Foisie said he can vividly recall just how hungry he was, how much his feet hurt — and how great the whole experience was.
“It was the real deal,” said Foisie.