Cozy Up To A Hot Spring
by Jack Christie
When you're outdoors in winter and want to get warm right to the core of your being, set your sights on a hot spring. A soak in one of B.C.'s 85 thermally-heated springs is guaranteed to drive out the stubbornest chill. And no matter the region, there's always a little (or a lot) of torrid venting going on in one neck of the woods or other. Don't let the fact that you may have to ski, snowmobile, or paddle to reach the best ones deter you. Just remind yourself before setting off that there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Besides, once you're soaking in a hot spring, clothes suddenly become an afterthought.
Hot springs never disappoint, especially ones with such stunning prospects as at Meager Creek tucked away in the Coast Mountains northwest of Vancouver, Hotspring Island off the east coast of Moresby Island in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Historic Site, and Liard Hot Springs Provincial Park at Kilometre 800 on the Alaska Highway (Highway 97). As a reward for your trekking efforts, you can bet the farm on having these springs to yourself in the off-season.
That being said, there are equally-worthy hot springs to consider that don't require nearly as much time to search out. Pencil one in when planning a winter road trip. One note of caution: hot springing, like birding, is contagious. Once you've seen an exotic one you'll be hooked on steadily adding others to your checklist. Here are a few for starters.
There's nothing quite like the presence of steaming hot water in the midst of a snow-covered forest to inspire uninhibited frolicking, such as at Nakusp Hot Springs in the West Kootenay where the municipality operates two outdoor pools. A large swimming pool is kept at body temperature, an oh-so comfortable 37 C (99 F). An adjacent smaller pool is a much hotter 41 C (106 F). Even a degree or two of difference in water temperature will affect how long you stay immersed. Choose your pool, then when you're cooked find a patch of snow nearby in which to make an angel. Contact with the mildly-abrasive frozen crystals not only cleanses your skin, it also plunges your central nervous system into complete confusion. After several trips back and forth between the springs and the snow, your body can't tell whether its hot or cold. All you know is that it feels deliriously grand.
Nakusp Hot Springs sits in a narrow canyon through which the Kuskanax River runs. Until the 1970s visitors found their way to the springs along an old forest trail. Today, you can drive to the springs along a wide, well-graded 14-kilometre road. Nakusp Hot Springs Road also intersects with five cross-country skiing trails if that approach tickles your fancy. Contact the Nakusp & District Chamber of Commerce for information and winter recreation maps with details on several other wilderness hot springs (Toll free 1-800-909-8819; www.nakusphotsprings.com). Commercial hot springs in the Nakusp region also include Halcyon Hot Springs Resort (toll free 1-888-689-4699; www.halcyon-hotspings.com) and Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort (toll free 1-800-668-1171; www.hotnaturally.com)
Chances are that if you're on a snow safari through the Columbia Valley you'll pass by either Radium Hot Springs or Fairmont Hot Springs (or both, if you're lucky). Like all hot springs, each displays a personality of its own. Radium Hot Springs is located within Kootenay National Park. Despite being commercially operated, there's a wilderness setting here that makes bathers feel as if they're in the middle of the narrow canyon through which nearby Sinclair Creek splashes. Water in the large outdoor swimming pool is maintained at a constant 40 C (104 F) year round. In winter, steam rising from the pool creates some fascinating effects as it makes contact with the air, particularly on days when the bottom drops out of the thermometer. Snowflakes crystallize seemingly out of nowhere and drift lazily down on the surface of the pool only to be released once again as steam as the entire process repeats itself. The effect is akin to being placed inside a souvenir snowstorm cube. Radium Hot Springs is wheel-chair accessible, with special bathing chairs available. For information on the Radium Hot Springs, phone toll free 1-800-767-1611; www.rhs.bc.ca.
The Olympic-sized heated pool at Fairmont Hot Springs lies perched on a Rocky Mountain benchland 40 kilometres south of Radium Hot Springs. Since the 1920s, Fairmont Hot Springs Resort has quietly been accommodating both soakers and skiers. The sound that you hear as you approach Fairmont is the sizzle of frozen souls thawing out in what is arguably the biggest outdoor thermal pool at any ski hill in the province. Two of Fairmont's most endearing qualities will escape those who just drop by the resort for a quick dip. Even if you don't ski, drive three kilometre up the road that climbs the hillside above the resort to the winter recreation base. From here, let your eyes sweep across the Columbia Valley to the Selkirks and Bugaboo Mountains. Kootenay River winds along below. Viewpoints don't come any better than this. And for a more hot spring rustic experience without the admission fee charged at the resort, soak in one of three tubs housed in the Historical Baths, an adobe-like bathing facility on the hillside directly above the resort's parking lot. (Call toll free 1-800-663-4979; www.fairmonthotsprings.com)
If you only visit one hot spring in your lifetime, make it Hot Springs Cove. The reason is quite straight forward. One soak at these wilderness springs, located on the west side of Vancouver Island near Tofino, will make you think you've died and gone to heaven. The hard part, as any survivor of a near-death experience will relate, is returning to the "real" world, so make the most of the experience while you can. The up-side is that the springs will still be waiting for you the next time you return.
What's the big appeal you might ask? Imagine soaking in the serenity of a briny hot pool while surf kicked up on the storm-lashed North Pacific breaks offshore, a made-to-order front row seat for storm watching in absolute comfort and safety.
Getting to Hot Springs Cove is a journey in itself, one that involves a full day paddle by sea kayak, an hour by tour boat or half that by float plane, plus a rainforest hike along a meandering 2-kilometre boardwalk (best avoided during wind storms) that leads from the government dock to the springs in Maquinna Provincial Park. In short, a total West Coast experience. Shoulder season between March and May is one of the best times to enjoy these hot springs. Whether planning a self-guided trip or booking with a tour company, plan your arrival to coincide with a falling (or neap) tide to make the most of your visit. (For information on guided hot springs tours, contact the Tofino Visitor Info Centre, 250-725-3414; www.tofinobc.org.)