Steamy adventure

🕔Mar 09, 2006
by Heather Ramsay

In the wild, wet of Northwestern B.C., hot springs can seem like gifts from the gods. Steamy water seeps out of cracks in the earth, pooling to form a cocoon of warmth into which the body is submerged on a rain-slashed winter afternoon. Yum.

The thing about these geothermal miracles, especially here in the North, is that the best ones are in hidden, hard-to-get-to kind of places. Only the worthy—those willing to go on an adventurous quest—are blessed with a dip in the sacred pools.

I have my own tales of seeking, getting lost, trusting the universe and being rewarded with the pleasures of a hot soak in the wilderness, but these adventures were set in the Kootenays and on the South Coast. Alas, they must be told in a different magazine. For my favourite northern tale of outdoor adventure, I turn to two rugged West Coast enthusiasts.

It was a dark and stormy winter, but John Kelson of Terrace had a job to do in Green Inlet, a watershed on the backside of Princess Royal Island. To get there he had to zip through the deep black water surrounded by the steep-sided fjords of the Douglas Channel south of Kitimat. The setting is straight out of Monkey Beach, the acclaimed book by Haisla novelist Eden Robinson (she has a new one, too: Bloodsports, now available).

It was December and Kelson’s buddy, Mike Simpson of Smithers, muttered something about how bloody cold and dangerous it is in an open zodiac and wouldn’t let him go alone. The timing was crazy, like asking-for-hypothermia kind of weather, but the two men were up for the task.

“What you do first is figure out where the hot springs are,” says Simpson in recounting the tale.

Two of the most popular springs on the North Coast were on the way. Weewanie is on the east side of Devastation Channel about 35 kilometres south of Kitimat. A boathouse in the small bay is visible from the water. The springs are busy, especially during fishing season, but when the two men whipped in for a quick soak they were alone.

Farther down the channel, once you round the corner at Gribbel Island, you’ll find another spring tucked into the back of Bishop Bay. Proposed as a provincial park, the area is well used too with a dock, raised tent sites and outhouses.

But the ones they really wanted to find, the Klekane Inlet Springs, were elusive. These springs are seldom used nowadays, but when the Butedale Cannery was in action from 1919 into the 1960s, workers would come regularly for a spa-like soak.

Kelson says an English draft dodger from the First World War lived in a nearby cabin for years. When Johnny Wilson of Kitimaat Village was a young boy, his family would visit the man, who would try to entice them to stay longer by baking fresh pies.

Whether it was Wilson who provided the original instructions or not, they were hard to follow.

“The description was such that there was no way you’d ever find it,” says Simpson, of the hot springs said to be in the thick bush above the tidal flats. But after a long day in a zodiac in the bracing wind, they couldn’t leave aside their dream of sitting in a hot tub and staring at the stars.

The evening was spent trashing around in the scrub instead, leaving them with nothing to do but set up a base camp and crawl into their sleeping bags. It wasn’t until the morning when they were heading out to explore the nearby inlets that Simpson and Kelson noticed the steaming mud. Elated, they sat in the hot muck of the tidal flat for a long time, says Simpson, but then the pair decided to dig a hole in the sand to allow the muddy water to seep in. After rinsing off in the ocean, they took off for the day, knowing their dream hot tub would be awaiting them.

Europa Bay (Shearwater) Hot springs in the Gardiner Canal, on the way to the Kitlope Valley, saved Kelson from hypothermia on previous trips. A sturdy shed with a loft has been built over one of the pools, where Kelson slept, the steam from the hot spring warming his backside.

For those lacking a boat or a daredevil attitude, there are a few other options. Mount Layton Hot Springs are located on the highway between Terrace and Kitimat. If you’ve never stopped in (which I haven’t, preferring the hard-to-find hot springs), know that a friend of mine swears by them. He makes special trips from the Queen Charlotte Islands to partake in the healing waters. I’ve always been put off by the waterslides, but he can think of nothing better than staying right in the hotel, thereby getting free access to the pools until late in the night.

Other hot springs accessible by road are found in the Nass Valley. The Aiyansh Hot Springs are tricky to find, but worth the mini-adventure. Not only do you get to travel up the stunning Nass Valley Road, past the lava beds and creeks racing with other-worldly aqua-hued water, but now you can visit the tiny village of Gingolx at the mouth of the Nass River too.

A longer drive, like more than 1,000 kilometres from anywhere on Highway 16 (whether you take the Stewart-Cassiar highway or the Alaska Highway), brings you to the oasis of Liard Hot Springs.

If you are driving up the Stewart-Cassiar and are prepared for an incredible week-long hike, then don’t miss the hot springs in Mount Edziza Provincial Park—like my friends and I did. As we passed the volcanic cones and lava beds at 6,000 feet, in the chilly high alpine weather last August, the thought of hot springs often crossed our minds. Little did we know that we were camped a kilometre from two different springs on two separate nights.

The Elwyn and Tawah Creek Hot Springs may require a float plane and lots of wilderness experience to find, but scenery and the vari-coloured tufa deposits make them worth the effort, according to the Hot Springs book I’ve now read. At least we saw caribou.

Wait, I forgot to mention Hot Springs Island on Haida Gwaii, Frizzel Hot Springs on the south bank of the Skeena near Port Edward and Choquette Hot Springs on the east side of the Stikine River. To reach these, you’ll need to brush up on your boat safety skills; being ready for a multi-day adventure would help. Kayak trip anyone?

How to find them

For real descriptions of how to find the hot springs in this article, read Glenn Woodworth’s book, Hot Springs of Western Canada.

You can also check, an outdoor community-based adventure guide.

Or if you prefer, get vague descriptions from someone who has been there, don’t write them down, just remember the gist and set off on your own magical mystery tour.