Finding Well-Being in the Great Outdoors
Keppoch Mountain rises on the horizon just outside of the town of Antigonish, N.S. Once a popular ski hill, Keppoch’s chair lifts and downhill skiers are long gone now. In their place, a series of hiking and biking trails wind their way up, down and around the mountain.
Every day, people of all ages arrive to hit the trails, on foot or by bike in the warmer months, on snow shoes and cross-country skis once the snow falls. A cozy stone lodge with a large stone fireplace welcomes hundreds of visitors a year, from the local community and from as far away Scotland, England, Germany, Thailand and even New Zealand.
It’s all part of the plan, says Dr. John Chiasson, a family physician in Antigonish.
In addition to working full time caring for his patients, he’s also the president of the Positive Action for Keppoch (PAK) Society. The non-profit organization was founded in 2010 to breathe new life into the defunct ski hill, offering people in the Antigonish area a place to commune with nature – and improve their health and well-being.
“Most people think of health in negative terms – in terms of trying to prevent or remediate disease,” says Dr. Chiasson. “But the World Health Organization describes health as ‘a complete state of mental, physical and social well-being’ – in positive terms. And coming to Keppoch is a positive thing. You come here, have fun, enjoy being in nature, and come away in a state of well-being.”
Dr. Chiasson says that the benefits of spending time at Keppoch go well beyond the obvious benefits associated with outdoor activity, such as improved physical fitness.
“Exercise is important, but it’s only part of the equation,” he says. The psychological impact of time spent outdoors is significant, too – especially in an era when people spend so much time connected to their mobile phones.
“Being out in the woods requires your full presence,” says Dr. Chiasson. “It’s a mindfulness exercise. You don’t think about anything else. You’re looking at the trees, keeping your eyes on the trail. It changes how you feel.”
It also changes how people feel about themselves, he says.
We invite people to come out here and try something new, to learn new skills and to make new social connections.” People who don’t want to hike or bike might decide to learn about geo-caching (the park is home to 20 different geo caches). They might get involved as volunteers, joining Dr. Chiasson for a day of blazing trails and constructing bridges. They might meet up with old friends or make new ones at one of the park’s special events. In the end, says Dr. Chiasson, “people often end up thinking of themselves in a different way.”
But before the park could help people think of themselves in a different way, Dr. Chiasson and his fellow committee members had to get people to think of the park in a different way. He travelled all over the area stuffing mailboxes with meeting invites and information flyers, meeting one-on-one with local landowners, and attending public consultation meeting after public consultation meeting.
Seeking extensive community feedback was key, says Dr. Chiasson. “From the very beginning, we involved local people in helping to determine how the park would be developed,” he says. It started with an online survey. “First, we asked, ‘What do you want to see at Keppoch?’ Then we asked, ‘Would you be willing to contribute the price of a cup of coffee to make it happen?’”
Positive response from the townspeople led to a $32,000 grant from Antigonish town and county. From there, Dr. Chiasson approached the Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness and the federal government for further contributions, again emphasizing a collaborative approach.
“When we submitted our funding request to the Department of Health and Wellness, we said, ‘We see that promoting good health and active living is important to you – it is to us, too. If you can help fund the project, we can promote those messages. We can build this together.’ And it worked.”
In five years, with contributions from the committee members and local sponsors, including a number of physicians, and funding from the municipal, provincial and federal governments, the PAK has raised more than $500,000 to finance its initiatives, and Keppoch continues to grow.
In 2014, the goal was to construct a kids’ park where young riders could practice their technical biking skills. With the kids’ park now in use, the new goal is to make an accessible trail, a level, paved pathway that will open the park up to people with mobility issues and to parents with children in strollers or wagons. Much of the work at Keppoch is done by volunteers; people like Dr. Chiasson who enjoy both using the trails on a regular basis and working to build and maintain the facilities.
Work, play, and special events are all recorded on the Keppoch Facebook page, which is also maintained by Dr. Chiasson and has garnered “likes” from thousands of people – although “like” might not be a strong enough word.
“Coming to Keppoch gives people a chance to be active, but it also lets them learn leadership skills, build community and increase their confidence,” says Dr. Chiasson. “This facility, and the experiences that it provides for people, help make life meaningful.”