Vancouver Island wilderness resort specializes in the great outdoors

``I always wanted to be a circus acrobat,'' the white-bearded man says, hopping up onto the horizontal cable slung some three feet above the forest floor. The rock-climbing class at Strathcona Park Lodge -- a wilderness resort in the center of Vancouver Island -- doesn't start out by having much to do with rocks. In the beginning you find yourself wobbling stoutheartedly across swaying logs, the cable just mentioned, and an assortment of rope ladders and logs that are mercifully stationary but placed at a daunting height from the ground.

Fortunately, stout hearts are what we have here. I have joined up with a visiting group of hikers from the Appalachian Mountain Club, middle-aged and older but as spunky as they come. They've taken up rock climbing for the first time in their lives.

One by one, with expressions of great determination under their protective hard hats, they assault the cable, with only a rope attached to a distant tree for balance.

The most common way of falling off is by abruptly pitching over backward. But really, pitching over backward is not that bad when a comrade throws his or her arms firmly about you as you go tumbling by. Almost everyone makes it a very respectable halfway across.

Next the group takes on what could be described as the ``Army boot camp'' part of the course. ``It's all just a matter of clipping and unclipping,'' says our instructor, Paul, with a grin, as he attaches his safety harness to an overhead cable. He steps casually about, 12 feet above the forest floor: up a tree, along a log, along two parallel logs, a downward log. Then he takes a fairly long jump, negotiates a rope bridge, and finally climbs something called a spider's web -- a ``ladder'' of swaying ropes.

Once again, our group follows and comes out victorious. And as each person disengages himself from the spider's web, those watching on the ground applaud. When we break up for lunch, we all feel elated.

``There's a lot of fear on the part of people that they can't start to do something,'' says Strathcona's owner, Jim Boulding. But fear, and particularly embarrassment, shouldn't hold people back, he says. ``Everybody's on a different level. We've been able to understand that everybody's always on a different level.''

Mr. Boulding and his wife, Myrna, have owned Strathcona Park Lodge, in Strathcona Provincial Park in the center of Vancouver Island, for 27 years. Mrs. Boulding's father once owned the land now covered by Strathcona's man-made lake, and the government gave him the lakefront property in trade.

The Bouldings, both former teachers, describe their resort as an ``outdoor wilderness education center.'' It combines facilities for tourists, a school for training teen-agers in outdoor skills, and a summer camp for younger kids.

All these facilities interact. Once the teen-agers pass the Wilderness Leadership course, they're ready to teach the kids and the tourists a wide variety of sports.

What makes the variety possible is the area's dramatic terrain. ``We are extremely lucky that we have the physiography of the mountains, lakes, rivers, and ocean right close together,'' says Mr. Boulding. In winter ``we have enough snowfall that we can be skiing the same day we are kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. One day you can be in a deep river canyon in a forest and the next day in the alpine tundra.''

Jim Boulding, a big man who is never without his signature floppy leather hat, is someone Hemingway would have admired: an athlete and woodsman whose specialty is outdoor survival skills. This became an interest when ``we realized that we were living in this vast country without being sensitive to it,'' he says.

Strathcona offers a course in wilderness survival as well as sailing, hiking, and mountaineering. Occasionally subjects like potterymaking, quilting, fly fishing, log cabin construction, and identification of native plants are also covered.

The west coast of Vancouver Island is almost unpopulated, so that's the coast most used for day trips. ``It's open ocean, and you have to know what you're doing,'' Mr. Boulding says. An understanding of the history of the area is also required of Strathcona's guides. ``It's just stupid to paddle along the coast and not understand the Indian culture,'' he says.

Because of the various aspects to Strathcona, ``we can take different members of the family in different directions, Myrna Boulding points out. ``We have a lot of single parents -- divorced fathers with their kids, women who can't take the kids camping on their own.'' She adds, ``Most resorts don't want families; we welcome families.''

During my stay, I have even met a very feminine grandmother who brought her grandchildren to Strathcona. They have joined the campers for the week, while she spends most of her time out on a balcony reading and gazing out on the wild Strathcona lakescape.

``We don't promise [to put visiting children with the campers], but in summer we can. If nothing else, I send them off with the baby sitter I have for my own kids. My kids do things all day long,'' Mrs. Boulding says.

``We tend to get more women than men; men tend to think they're already experts and don't need lessons -- though that's changing,'' she says with a smile. ``A father will take a canoeing lesson just to make sure that his strokes are right. Five years ago that wouldn't have happened.''

An Outward Bound mentality does not prevail at Strathcona. For instance, the rock-climbing course provides an opportunity to do rather intimidating things and be quite protected at the same time.

``We're pretty safety-conscious here,'' Mrs. Boulding says. ``We don't pit people against the environment. Some programs take people out into white water before they're ready and then rescue them. We're more gradual than that. . . . At the same time we believe that kids can do a lot more than people think they can. We put them through rigorous programs.'' That goes for the adults, too.

The nice thing about Strathcona is that it combines the active outdoor life with plenty of indoor comfort. The wooden cabins scattered along the lake have big windows, and the view is handsome; a cleft in the mountains beyond the lake reveals another, fainter cleft, and several others beyond that. During my stay, a cool mist partly obscured the spiky outlines of the pine trees.

Comfortable beds and good food -- whole-grain muffins for breakfast, salmon for dinner -- are particularly welcome when you're so active.

Flexibility is the key to Strathcona. The Appalachian Mountain Club group found the hiking here too difficult and unrewarding, so the rock-climbing class was arranged for it. Special classes can be arranged for small groups of 4 to 6.

You can do a lot of things in a short time in Strathcona. In the afternoon, the rock-climbing class is introduced to ``belaying'' -- climbing with the help of a safety harness and a rope secured to the top of the cliff. In the evening I had my first kayaking lesson in the enclosed bay convenient to the boathouse and the sauna. Practical information

You can just rent a room at Strathcona ($34-42 for a double with lake view, deck, and private bath), or camp out ($8.75 a day, including bathhouse and sauna privileges), or take meals only ($16 a day). Or you can hire an instructor ($8.75 an hour for four people) or rent a windsurfer, sailboat, motorboat, or bicycle (prices in US dollars).

The best deal is the package price of $48 a day for adults, including meals, accommodation, equipment, and guides.

Bring a flashlight; the power is by generator and goes off at 11 p.m.

Campbell River, about half an hour away, has the nearest airport.

The address is PO Box 2160, Campbell River, British Columbia. Reaching Strathcona by phone is tricky. Call your local operator for the mobile operator, then ask for the Campbell River radio operator, Strathcona Lodge No. 1, No. H688568, or Strathcona Lodge N693546, routing number (604) 042-121. Or call (604)286-3122 and leave a message for them to call you back collect.

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