The changing face of Canoe River hot springs, through five generations

by Jean Ann Berkenpas


Isis Hiroe soaking in the hot springs in April 2019. / PHOTOS COURTESY MIWA HIROE, ART CARSON, RENE NUNWEILER & McKIRDY FAMILY

In the early 1900s, pioneers of the Valemount area Fulton McKirdy and his son Angus, stopped at the Canoe River hot springs to wash up on the way home from their trapline for Christmas. A bit less than a century later his 10-year-old great-great granddaughter, Isis Hiroe, heads there for a soak on a springtime family outing. Over the course of five generations the landscape has changed, but that little stream of hot water still gushes from the earth.

Isis is the fifth generation descendant of Fulton McKirdy, who is described as “one of the most colorful and energetic pioneers of this valley,” by the Valemount and Area Museum. According to their records, he prospected along the Canoe, Swift Current and Fraser Rivers in 1899. The local history book “The Yellowhead Pass and Its People” says that “McKirdy staked his homestead in 1907 in the township of Cranberry Lake” which later became the Village of Valemount.

Isis’ grandmother, Catherine Hiroe, recalls her childhood trips to the hot springs with her father Jim McKirdy, grandfather Fulton McKirdy, siblings, and cousins. A trip to the hotsprings was a rare all-day adventure into a magical landscape that was so different from their everyday experience on the farm. She and her sisters recall the great ancient cedar trees, giant devil’s club and the lush plant life of the old growth forest.

To access the springs they would drive a gravel road to mile 18 on the east side of the Canoe River, then ferry across the river by canoe. There was no reservoir of water at the time, since the area was not logged, dammed and flooded until the completion of the Mica Dam in 1973.

She remembers her grandfather Fulton paddling the canoe, despite the fact that it was outfitted with a motor. In his old age, he was living in his most familiar way. Her dad Jim would cut the motor and paddle with him, heading downriver to the springs.

View towards the hot springs from the Lebans camp, shortly before the valley was flooded.

“Us children would be free to walk the trail at our own pace, since it was easy to follow. The giant devil’s club on either side prevented us from going off of the trail. The bridges over creeks and wet spots were made of hollow pieces of rotted cedar,” recalls Hiroe. “It was so different from our everyday world. It felt magical, like we were little hobbits on an adventure”.

The hot water was also a treat, since without heated running water, baths were a lot of work. At home the family would bathe twice a week using the same water, starting with the youngest first. The hot spring, Hiroe recalls, was clear and clean with no odour. They would soak in a big man-made cedar tub, with gravel on the bottom that had been packed up from the river by local trappers. There was a trapper’s cabin nearby belonging to Oswald Svenson, and a small lake that was good for fishing rainbow trout. Originally there were three tubs, but by the 1960s only one was usable.

When they arrived they would scoop green algae from the surface water. There were two streams, one each of hot and cold, flowing into the tub. They would adjust the water intakes to make it a comfortable temperature. It was always much too hot, Hiroe recalls.

These rare outings would be on a Sunday, after morning chores.

In 1970, before the completion of the Mica Dam, Hiroe did a winter snowshoe trip there. The valley had been logged by then, but not flooded. With her was her dad Jim McKirdy, brother Walt, cousin Brian McKirdy, and also Gordon Carson. She was 17 years old at the time, and says that she was poorly dressed for the -30 degree Celsius temperatures. She remembers being extremely cold.

“Steam was visible coming up from the ground in different places, and there were icicles hanging from the cedar branches” she remembers. “We had only one match between all of us, probably my brother Walt’s since he was a smoker,” she said. “Dad lit the fire though! He was not going to leave that chance to any of us.”

3-year-old Mirai takes in the natural hot springs south of Valemount that have been enjoyed by her family for 100 years.

Art Carson worked at a logging camp down the Canoe River in 1969. The camp was run by Ralph Lebans, incidentally also a relative of Isis. Carson recalls heading to the springs “across our logging bridge and old skid trails using Bill Holmin’s old Scout 4×4 to soak in the hot springs on winter weekends.” According to Carson, there are three main hot spots in the area, but they primarily used the tub near Svenson’s cabin and the little lake.

In the August of 1972 Carson did a trip back into the area. “My own last canoe trip from the present lakehead to the site of Lebans’ camp was a strange one. Forest removal on a massive scale was going on all the way,” said Carson. The area was to be massively changed by the filling of the Mica reservoir, with the remnants of the logged forests and the hot springs being submerged beneath Kinbasket Lake.

After 1973 the hot springs became only accessible when the reservoir level was low enough to expose the spring. Road access on the west side of the valley allows visitors to drive a short beach walk away from the springs. The cedar tubs are long gone, and a new soaking pool is dug in the rocks and muddy beach each time the water level moves. The experience has changed too. Instead of a lush cedar forest and infestation of mosquitoes, bathers are surrounded by an expansive view of mountains and a rocky beach speckled with the stumps of old cedars. It is a muddy sulfur scented soak, changed each time by the ebb and flow of the water level.

Above: McKirdy family siblings and cousins at the site of the hot springs and small lake in the late 1960’s. Bottom of page L to R: Sign beside the Canoe Valley Road, 1973; Fulton McKirdy had a trapline in the vicinity of the hot springs; Art Carson at the hot spring 1969.

Hiroe would take her family, including her four children and their entourage of friends and cousins, to the hot springs when the lake level was low enough to access the spring. It was a rare opportunity, only every five years or so. The landscape in the 1990’s was similar to the rocky and driftwood strewn shores of today.

Isis Hiroe relishes the opportunity to visit the springs. Her favorite parts of the outing are the abundance of mud and the unique and still magical experience of hot water flowing from the earth.

“We made a mud slide into the pool with my friends,” said Isis. “It was fun!” She finds the hot springs special because, “It’s not like a bath. Hot water is outdoors, just flowing in a creek.”

She thinks that she will still go to the springs when she is old “as long as I still live here and can move around okay,” says Isis. She is concerned about the possibility of people leaving more garbage as it becomes a more popular spot to visit.

The area surrounding the Canoe River hot springs has dramatically changed over the last century, from an out of the way excursion in an old growth forest to an afternoon outing on a rocky lakeside beach. The stumps of old cedars are like ghosts, watching as generations of local residents visit for a soak in the hot water. Human energy needs have altered the valley. The question of how the geothermal potential of this hot spring will further shape the area is yet to be determined.

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