Hughes Kraft worked as a mental health therapist for more than 20 years before he was turned on to forest bathing a few years ago. As an avid outdoorsman, the idea of combining nature with therapy made sense. He already was leading an annual father-son canoe trip and ski outing for home-schooled students to offer positive, grounding experiences. 

So he got his forest therapy certification online during the pandemic and became certified in March. Even so, the Portland outdoorsman and health professional didn’t realize how impactful forest therapy would be. Or that his new guiding service would be so sought after. 

The ancient practice is growing in popularity around Maine, where it was first offered about five years ago at some land trusts. This fall for the first time, Pineland Farms is offering forest therapy walks led by Kraft twice a month through the end of the year.

“The more I slowed down, the more I gathered. There is a lot of healing magic in the forest. If I learned to slow down, I got more in touch with my inner nature. Then I felt more grounded, healthier,” Kraft said. “A lot of times we humans approach nature as a destination, or some type of experience, like when we are climbing a mountain. But you don’t need to go that far into the forest to have a revealing experience, a healthy experience.”

Forest therapy or forest bathing, in Japan called “shinrin-yoku,” aims at improving mental and physical health by moving slowly through the woods, usually with the aid of a knowledgeable guide. The walks go beyond becoming more connected to nature. The moving meditation requires participants experience the forest slowly using all five senses to increase awareness of oneself and the surrounding trees. Studies have shown the practice can improve focus, creativity and even one’s cardiovascular and immune systems. 

“Interest is definitely picking up. We hope to expand and add more dates,” said Cathryn Anderson, Pineland Farms Education Department director.

Earlier this year, Kraft led some on the Pineland Farms staff on a forest therapy walk for two hours. As is typically done, he broke it up into five different moments of consideration, where the staff was asked to close their eyes, listen to the forest sounds, to feel or smell what was around them – and consider questioned Kraft posed. 

Anderson said it was completely transformative.

“I felt like I didn’t have the time to do this, to take the time to slow down in my busy work life,” she said. “But he left us all feeling our cups were filled back up. It really gave us the opportunity to reconnect with our priorities. Our culture is so oriented to moving so fast, we have so little time to get everything done. This provided an amazing opportunity to reflect.”

The Schoodic Institute, an educational nonprofit associated with Acadia National Park, started offering more forest bathing walks on its Winter Harbor campus this year. It plans to offer more in 2022 because of the growing popularity of the practice, according to Susi Acord, the institute’s development coordinator.

The Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens first offered forest bathing walks in 2018, and more are planned at the 300-acre property in Boothbay that is 90 percent forested.

“Our mission is to inspire meaningful connections between people, plants and nature. It’s why we are here. Forest bathing has been a wonderful fit for our mission,” said Daniel Ungier, the garden’s vice president of guest experience and education.

Susan Bickford is an artist and college art teacher at the University of Maine, as well as a passionate outdoorswoman who kayaks the coastal rivers around the Midcoast. So when she became a certified forest therapy guide in 2017 it was with the intention of teaching about nature as well as art.

But during the pandemic, she started getting hired only for her work as a forest therapy guide as the demand to be outdoors escalated. Now Bickford leads forest therapy walks at the botanical gardens and for the Midcoast Conservancy at Hidden Valley Nature Center in Jefferson, among other venues.

“I haven’t been marketing myself as a forest therapy guide. People found out about it through my artwork. Now it’s starting to blossom as its own viable entity. Suddenly everyone wants forest therapy. And they’re paying for it,” Bickford said. “The pandemic gave us the chance to discover that we need to connect with nature.”

Here are a handful of forest therapy guided walks on tap in Maine this fall:

HIDDEN VALLEY NATURE CENTER
When: 9 a.m. to 12 p.m, Oct. 9
Where: Jefferson
Cost: $25
Register online

PINELAND FARMS
When: 4 to 6 p.m., Oct. 28; 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Oct. 10, Nov. 14, Dec. 5
Where: Education Barn, 15 Farm View Drive, New Gloucester
Cost $20
Pre-registration required

Other outdoor venues expected to offer more forest therapy walks in the coming year: Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens in Boothbay and the Schoodic Institute in Winter Harbor. 

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