by Korie Marshall
They were submerged after the completion of Mica Dam in 1973, but the hot springs south of Valemount are once again capturing the attention and imagination of Robson Valley locals.
Mica Dam created what is now known as Kinbasket Reservoir, flooding the upper Columbia River to the southeast and Canoe River. Canoe flows from the northwest near Valemount, joining the Columbia near what was once known as Boat Encampment.
Along with forests, farmland, trails, ecosystems, communities and cultural artifacts of First Nations, the reservoir also covered the hot springs at one time an idyllic spot to soak.
Today, Kinbasket reservoir generally drops throughout the winter for electricity production and to maintain water flows in the Columbia system through Washington and Oregon in the US. Through the spring and summer, the level of the reservoir generally increases as rain and snowmelt is collected behind the dam in order to prevent flooding downstream in both BC and the northwestern states.
The dam was designed to bring the reservoir to a usual maximum elevation of 2745 feet (755m) and BC Hydro, which operates the dam, can drop it as low as 2320 feet (707m) but it doesn’t usually go that low. In fact, it hasn’t dropped low enough to reveal the original hot springs since 2008. They are located some 25 kilometers away from Valemount and at an elevation of just under 2362 feet (720 m)
But some crafty and determined residents have been finding spots in the rock bank above the hot springs since then, sometimes digging holes that seem to fill with heated water as the reservoir rises.
The temperature has been recorded at as high as 50 degrees Celsius in recent weeks.
In earlier years, the hot springs were an attraction for locals and visitors alike.
"It used to take two days to get from Tete Jaune to the hot springs," says local historian Marilyn Wheeler. That was back before the highway, and even before the train came through the valley. Her book "The Robson Valley Story: A Century of Dreams" recounts an entry in The Journal, McBride’s first newspaper, from June 1914:
"The Hot Spring season at Canoe Valley is now open. All those wishing to benefit by the medicinal qualities of the spring should visit it now. Mr. Corporon, of Cranberry Lake, BC, is now taking out parties to the Hot Spring. It is a two day’s trip from Mile 49 (Tete Jaune Cache) to the spring."
And the spring is indeed hot. Wheeler’s book also recounts a story by Angus McKirdy of a month-long trapping trip along the Canoe River with his father Angus in the early 1900’s. He said they crossed the river from the Bulldog to the hot springs to take a bath before heading home. Someone had built a cedar box around one spring, and a cedar trough so that cold water from a stream nearby could be added. He didn’t have a thermometer with him, but he cooled it enough for himself, and he bathed first. Then his dad had to add more cold water before getting in, and he was as "red as a beet" when he got out. At the time, the temperature in the valley (recorded by his mom back home near Valemount) was minus 30 Fahrenheit (-34 C).
Possibly driven by rumours that hunters, fishermen and loggers have seen steam rising uphill from the original hot springs through the years, some adventurous locals have been digging small holes with picks and shovels each year when the reservoir is at its lowest.
Some locals may not be happy about sharing the fruits of their labour, or about others digging for the hot spots each year. Digging fresh each year is necessary because the massive, steep bank, made of loose rocks and the remains of cedar tree stumps, some of which might have been as big as 12 feet in diameter, collapses each year with wave action as the reservoir rises and drops. It’s hard work, and it doesn’t last long.
Some locals are worried if we share it, it will become overrun with tourists. A mild winter made the forest service road on the west side of the reservoir more accessible this year. The road itself can be a risk, however it is often blocked by avalanches or by mud slides that take out the bridges over various creeks.
A recent workshop on the potential of geothermal resources in the Valmeount area including a presentation by Mike Sato, world renowned builder of natural looking hotsprings – may have gotten a few locals more energized about the potential to reclaim the hot springs. People have been traveling to check out the hot springs, even at the risk that the pool might have drained out or turned cold, for a few weeks now. Some argue, and have suggested to Valemount Council that extra money available this year from the Columbia Basin Trust (originally set up in 1995 to help compensate for the impacts of the treaty with the US) might be used to see if there is a way to bring the hot springs above the level of the reservoir.
For now, the chance of sitting in the hot spring in the Canoe Reach is still mostly a dream. It means taking a 4×4, a long drive and a lot of work to try to sit in a shallow pool of hot water and mud. And the water might drop away if the reservoir goes down a few inches, or the pool may be overwhelmed if the water comes up or the waves wash the bank away. Or maybe the steam that seems to come in pulses, creeping through the loose bank, heating some of the rocks below the surface to nearly scalding, just moves at will, and tomorrow the heat will be gone.
"It’s like everything in Valemount," says Matt Morison, who has lived here for a few years now, and traveled to the hot spot recently to sit in the hot muddy water. "You have to put in the effort and go way out to get it. Once you have, you’re rewarded with something amazing that’s worth it every time."