Living Healthy in British Columbia (World)

I’ve just returned from an eight-day visit to two health-conscious ranches in “the middle of nowhere,” British Colombia,  where I went on  long hikes, rode horses, fly-fished in a pond full of uncooperative rainbow trout, flew in a small plane over a pristine mountain range to view glaciers from 2500 feet below, played disc golf, swam, had a personal fitness exam, spent an hour with a personal trainer, ate both calorie-counted and extravagantly prepared meals, watched my wife bond with a horse, studied a black bear nibbling wildflowers, went on a hayride, and had five professional massages and a facial.

And let me tell you, up front, this may not sound like “work” to you, but if you want to read about it, somebody’s got to do it.

This particular adventure began ten years ago, when I first heard of the Hills Health Ranch. I had met the owner, Pat Corbett, who told me if I enjoyed spas and outdoor activities I should pay him a visit. I filed it away under Things to Do, but each year when I thought about where to go, I just couldn’t figure out a way to squeeze a quick visit there while exploring other, more easily accessible areas of B.C. like Vancouver Island, Whistler, or Banff. To go to the Hills meant renting a car in Vancouver and driving six hours north or flying into nearby Williams Lake. So each year I put it off until I ran into Pat again. He’s such a decent, gentle man that I didn’t feel like making excuses for why I hadn’t taken him up on his invitation. Especially after I had met a former newspaper man named Flint Bondurant, who managed the Echo Valley Ranch & Spa, a 90 minute drive from the Hills.  Flint told me if I ever was up his way to stop by and check out what was going on there. “It’s like no other place you’ve ever visited,” he said.

I love when I hear that. Every travel brochure you ever look at promises uniqueness, but very few deliver. Having two health ranches in “the middle of nowhere,” as those who work there like to joke, made sense to my wife Hiromi and me. We wouldn’t have to go “out of our way” to visit on our way to somewhere else. We would make these two ranches the whole trip. And now that we’ve done it, my only regret is that I hadn’t done it ten years ago, so that I would have had ten more years to plan returns to these very different, very special playgrounds.


We flew into Vancouver before noon and within the hour we were in Norm Dove’s Cessna heading towards 108 Mile House, where Pat Corbett was waiting to take us to his ranch. Dove is Corbettt’s “competitor”—the owner of the Echo Valley Ranch. But he’s also a really sweet and generous man who offered to pick us up and drop us off. More about Dove later.

There is nothing ostentatious about the Hills Health Ranch, though within a few years that may change when Corbett turns it into a Village. Pat, and his remarkable wife Juanita, have turned the 20,000 acres of wilderness into a winter wonderland, with trails for cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snow tubing, an ice rink, and ski slopes. In the summertime, the trails are used for walking, horseback riding, the ice rink becomes a volleyball court, and the surrounding countryside is where the horses are allowed to roam freely. The land is covered with wild roses, which initially exasperated Pat. “Why do our neighbors have such fine grass and we have these wildflowers?” he complained to Juanita.  “God must have a purpose for these flowers,” she said, and then set out to investigate what properties roses had that might be useful after they flower.  What she discovered was the tiny seed, when crushed, produced a drop of oil that was high in vitamin C, E, A, B1, flavanoids, beta-carotene, iron, zinc, manganese, copper, boron, potassium and nitrogen.  She had the oil tested by scientists and was told it had numerous health and healing properties. It worked on scars, burns, and wrinkles and was beneficial for sensitive skin, thread veins, capillary damage, and promoted tissue regeneration. The only problem was, the seed was tough. It took a special $30,000 German-made machine to crush it. Once she was confident about the rose oil she ordered two machines. She then hired local people to gather the seeds and founded a small business. You can get bottles of rose hip oil at the ranch’s gift shop. Or at any of the Fairmont Hotel’s spas, which use the oil for many of their treatments.

Juanita turned out to be a fount of knowledge—and a fascinating character. When she was a child she sang in the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.  She observed the decadent and depressing behavior of many of its stars backstage and saw that the only happy people were those who worked behind the scenes, out of the limelight. When she turned down a TV offer, preferring to study to become a cosmetician, her father stopped talking to her for months. Years later, when she and Pat opened the Hills Health Ranch, she was able to put her ideas about health and nutrition into practice.

On our second day at the ranch we took a fitness test with Karen. We had our body fat and flexibility measured, did pushups, sit-ups, step walking and jumping from a standing position. I was told that I was in “Good Shape” overall, though my flexibility “sucked.”  Hiromi scored “Excellent” on all the tests, a testament to her daily yoga routine. And once again she had more fuel for the fire of our tease-for-tat relationship.

Karen also led the long hikes, with her dog Yogi, who she said could tree a cougar or chase a bear if we were so fortunate as to come across such wild animals. Naturally, every time she expected me to keep up the pace, I just reminded her of how my flexibility sucked and that must affect how I walked. If Karen was the taskmaster, Regulah, from Switzerland, was the kindhearted nutritionist who gave us a long questionnaire to help her analyze our needs. The supplement I needed to add was chromium and to avoid, caffeine. Hiromi had to watch her chlorine.  Then Clare, the fitness trainer, spent an hour each with us, going through weight and exercise drills to keep us balanced after seeing the results of the previous two tests. So, in just a few hours, we were tested, analyzed, dissected, recommended, and shown what we could do to make our lives healthier and more productive. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

That evening Juanita gave us facials (my first). One look under her hot lamp light showed the broken capillaries around my nose and she recommended vitamin C with bioflavonoid. She spoke about the wonders of the rose hip and eucalyptus oils, gave me a chamomile face mask, suggested using an electric toothbrush to stimulate my neck and face, and made me feel ten years younger in the hour she worked on me with her magical hands.  When Hiromi was done, she discovered Dr. Schwab’s Bamboo Crème Peel to use on her face—always something that makes a woman happy.

The next day was devoted to horses.  We rode for two hours in the morning, something neither of us did at all in Los Angeles, and my proudest moments were getting on and off my horse on my own. In the afternoon we met with Sherry May for a horse whispering workshop. This, I must say, was a highlight. Pat had told us, “Once you do this, you’ll never be the same, it will change how you think about animals.”  Sherry worked with what she called “wounded” or neglected horses. These were horses that were leery of humans and probably had some traumatic experiences earlier in their lives. What she did was take you into a fenced-in ring with the horse and showed you how to gain its trust. You worked with a whip, though you never actually used it, other than to keep some distance between you and the horse. The horse would circle widely around you. If you stomped your foot, the horse would trot faster. If you made a motion towards the horse, the horse would turn and trot in the opposite direction. As the horse circled around, it would begin to decrease the distance between you, lowering its head and grunting. That was a signal that it was trusting you. At that moment, it was time to drop the whip and walk away from the horse, like a matador turns its back on the bull. If the horse fully trusts you it will follow you from behind and nudge up to you.

“Which one of you wants to do it?” Sherry asked.

“Hiromi,” I volunteered.

“I don’t want to, you do it,” Hiromi said.

“You’re a woman,” I said. “Horses relate better to women.”

“You’re just making that up. You don’t want to do it because you’re scared.”

“Not true,” I said, though it was true. “I want to document it, and I take better pictures than you. And if you do it, I’ll take you to dinner at Bacchus in the Wedgewood Hotel in Vancouver before we go home.”

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