Estes Park, CO

Heathen Creek Outfitters is bringing the Japanese practice of ‘Forest Bathing’ or Shinrin-Yoku to RMNP

The Colorado Switchblade
Photo courtesy of Heathen Creek Outfitters

According to the Cambridge dictionary a tour is a visit to a place or area especially one which you look about the place or area and learn about it. Here in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado we are very familiar with tours. Whether they be by bus, Jeep, horseback, or even haunted, we have plenty to choose from.

But what if there was a tour that combines the splendor and beauty of the Colorado Rockies with one of an internal and meditative nature. One that helps you let go and be present in the beauty of the forests, while bestowing documented benefits to your health and well being.

One young entrepreneur living in the Estes valley area is attempting to show people how to do just that. By introducing them to the Japanese practice of forest bathing.

Ian Mauhs, is the owner of Heathen Creek Outfitters, and he first found a passion for guiding when he was only fifteen years old. 

Mauhs got his first look at guiding when working at the Beach Club on the Hudson River in Sleepy Hollow, New York (yes, that Sleepy Hollow.) Mauhs noticed that every day he kept seeing a group of kayakers going down the river. His curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to ask them what they were doing. Jumping into the river and swimming out to pose his question. Their response; "We are guides." In short order, he became a guide himself and has been hooked ever since, falling in love with making all the stories of local lore part of his tours. 

About five years ago, he came to Colorado to check up on some friends and saw a mountain covered in snow in the middle of February. He immediately climbed up and skied down the 13,000 ft Engineer Mountain in Durango and knew he was home. 

Mauhs eventually moved to Estes Park with a local backpacking company that works out of Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP.) Since then, he has worked as a 4-wheeling guide for a couple of the local Jeep tour companies. But, he quickly became fed up with the local working conditions. So he decided to “contribute to the employee crisis." That is to say. He opened his own guiding company "Heathen Creek Outfitters." The company's namesake comes from the part of central New York State that his family immigrated to. 

He says the real motivation to striking out on his own was "When employers promise work in the wintertime, and you keep showing up to work, and they say, Ian, we have no work for you. That's a false promise." This scenario is an all too common situation shared by many of the Estes Park Community workforces. 

So back in January, he figured that now was the time to launch his own company. Primarily because of RMNP being so business-friendly with their permitting. 

Mauhs launched his company in July, and he says the response has been 'beautiful,' with locals stopping him on the streets when they recognize his tour Jeep driving through town. Even word of mouth has been building. He tells us that "outside of the state, word of mouth is growing. I get to build all these interstate relationships with people.”
Photo courtesy of Heathen Creek Outfitters

One of the best boons to his business, believe it or not, has been the timed entry system that the park has recently introduced during the summer season. He explains that "The value of Estes Park is that people show up and we can guide them to wherever they want to go. They don't have to plan a thing. Except for the timed entry system. A two-dollar permit system is deterring people from buying a $1,200 stay at a hotel." But what he has found is that the front desk people at local lodging are telling guests that are trying to enter the park without a reservation is that they don't have to worry about that. That is, if they hire a guide company. 

Mauhs says we are lucky that RMNP does things this way. At other National Park locations, they don't have the same system, and often vehicles chock full of tourists are turned away by rangers after waiting in entry lines for hours. 

The experience Mauhs wants to bring his clients is more of a relaxed and therapeutic experience in and around RMNP. One of the ways he fosters these wholistic, immersive experiences is by introducing the practice of Forest Bathing to some of his tours. 

Mauhs describes the story of local historical icon Freelan Oscar Stanley, the progenitor of the Stanley Hotel. Who in 1903, at the age of 54, was stricken with a life-threatening resurgence of tuberculosis. He was directed to undertake the most highly recommended course of treatment of the day. That treatment was to seek out and immerse himself in fresh, dry air with lots of sunshine. Like many other 'lungers,' Stanley found those curative properties in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. And indeed, eight months later, his lungs did clear up. As a result, Stanley invited scientists to study what it was in the local forests that may have helped so much. 

The results were inconclusive, but in the '80s, the Japanese government noticed that those who moved to the cities began to have increasing incidents of cancer and autoimmune diseases. In response, they set out to study the effects of natural settings and since there have been thousands of peer-reviewed studies of the beneficial effects of immersion into natural settings. 

In 1982, Japan made the practice of `Shinrin-Yoku' or Forest Bathing a part of its national health program. The aim was to briefly reconnect people with nature in the simplest way possible, go to the woods. Breathe deeply, and be at peace. 

Since Shinrin-Yoku's inception, researchers have spent millions of dollars testing its efficacy; The documented findings include lowered blood pressure, increased immune response, and decreases in stress hormones and blood glucose levels. "It is a simple thing; there are no prescriptions involved. But immersion into nature has many therapeutic benefits" Mauhs says.

Mauhs is a certified forest bathing guide through the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy. Founded by Amos Clifford, who brought the practice back to America, from Japan.

"When you drop into a liminal state and have all of your senses engaged, you begin to get rid of the abstracted world. You begin to see how unique each tree is. When you experience a larger than the human community that is inherently benevolent, you are no longer walking alone in the forest. You are walking with these ancient living beings that are 400-600 years old, and we become a part of that larger community” Mauhs says of Shinrin-Yoku experiences.

So what does Shinrin-Yoku, forest bathing look like on a Heathen Creek Outfitters tour? 

"I'll pick you up at your hotel for a three-hour-long experience where we will drive to a secluded spot with not many people. We begin by wandering to a safe and comfortable location with lots of diversity of landscape" Mauhs describes.

From there, he will give a short introduction to the practices of forest bathing. From there, participants will move straight into the pleasures of presence, Which is where all of one's senses are engaged, even the 'imaginal' sense. After all of the senses and imagination have been engaged, the move into the in-motion begins.

The participants then move slowly through the woods and focus on the relationship to the forest being in-motion to you and the awareness of you being in-motion to the forest. Mauhs says, "This helps to slow the mind down, slow our thoughts and therefore be able to feel our emotions more."

After that, there is a series of 20-minute invitations to do things like sitting next to a tree, examining different textures, and just listening to the sounds around you. "It's a mutual experience between the people and the forest itself" Mauhs says.

The forest bathing experience ends when he prepares a tea made from wild-harvested plants collected during the forest bathing process, which everyone is invited to share, embodying the forest. From there, participants exit the liminal experience, and are dropped back in the everyday world as we know it, back at the hotel. 

Not all of Heathen Creek's tours are a forest bathing experience. There are also more traditional tours of RMNP that one would expect from traditional guiding companies. 

Mauhs is aware of his business's impact on the local environment, no-matter which type of tour he is providing. Especially, in the ways that it contributes to the climate change we have all been experiencing, and conservation is always on his mind. The irony of talking about conservation while driving a Jeep with 35" tires is not lost on him.

This irony led Mauhs to research the impacts of his business on the local and global ecologies. After doing the calculations, he found that his business creates one metric ton of carbon a month.

He feels that, if he wants to inspire people to take personal responsibility and begin mitigating the effects of our activities, and participate in conservation. That he must also do his part and accept his own personal responsibility. 

He hopes to accomplish this by investing in a carbon offset program and began using Terra-Pass. This service allows businesses to calculate and offset their carbon footprint in a verified way, by planting trees throughout the world. He says, "It is incredibly affordable to do this. It costs me $10 a month to sequester the carbon I create with my business. I encourage other business owners to do the same. It is something we can all do."
Ian Mauhs of HCOPhoto courtesy of Heathen Creek Outfitters

Heathen Creek Outfitters runs tours all year round out of Estes Park. If you would like more information on Heathen Creek Outfitters or how to schedule your own guided experience. You can visit their website at; Costs range from $80-$400 per person. 

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Welcome to our brave new world. It is becoming more difficult to support oneself, much less a family (including three daughters, a granddaughter, and the family wolf) in the ways a writer used to before the age of the vulture fund media conglomerates. I am local to Estes Park, Colorado, where I write for several outlets in Northern Colorado, including the Estes Park Trail-Gazette. As much as I love what I do for a living, it is challenging to make just a living wage writing for a newspaper, not to mention securing some perks like basic health care. So I have been looking for ways that I can continue writing while supplementing my income. Many writers around the world are now turning to subscription-based platforms like Substack to supplement their incomes. I hope that by giving my readers a direct portal to all of my writing, including articles and serialized fiction projects, they find enough value to help support and join me in continuing this journey. Some of my pieces will be editorial, and sometimes I will include some of the fine artwork that I show in contemporary galleries I will also be sharing some of my political satire art from time to time. Writing is the most powerful tool that we as human beings have to change the world for the better. It gives voice to the most vulnerable of our neighbors, shines a light on the injustices we must fix, and plants the seeds of change and hope for the future. I sincerely hope you will join me on this journey. ~Jason Van Tatenhove

Estes Park, CO

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