The Nation's Pulse

Hot Springing

Most hot springs in the West are hardly as deadly as Yellowstone's. 

By 10.12.11

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"We passed several springs…. In further examination I found this water nearly boiling hot at the places it spouted from the rocks."
-- Captain William Clark, at present Lolo Hot Springs, Montana, 1805.

A recent hike with friends followed by a pleasurable "soak" at Sharkey Hot Springs near Salmon got me thinking about these natural wonders that Westerners take for granted. Sharkey is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). It's clean and has two small pools, dressing rooms, and a bathroom. It's free and popular with local residents.

Hot springs are scattered throughout the American West, and number in the hundreds. There are roughly 130 in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming alone. Yellowstone National Park is the epicenter for "thermal features" (in geology-speak) in the region with its celebrity geysers such as Old Faithful. But the average Westerner doesn't have to go far for a good hot springs soak. The springs found in the East are few, not particularly hot, and are known for their medicinal properties got by imbibing those waters. Saratoga Springs, New York comes to mind. The drinking of Western waters is not recommended. More on that later.

Compared to the older, worn-down Appalachians, the Rockies are -- in geological time -- an adolescent mountain range subject to the growing pains of earthquakes and near-the-surface volcanic activity. For instance, the Teton range in Wyoming is only nine million years old and still rising about five inches per century. The nearby 1,300 square miles Yellowstone Caldera is the prime example of this unstable landscape.

The Caldera -- like parts of Iceland, another hot spot -- has molten volcanic magma present only a few miles beneath the earth's surface. This, in combination with rainwater and snowmelt seeping into the ground and percolating back up along earthquake faults like a whistling tea kettle on a stove due to the magma's hot pressure, gives Yellowstone its eternal thermal activity. If you have ever visited the national park and trod the boardwalks across the geyser basins you have seen the steaming ground as fragile as a pie crust, inhaled the sulfurous smell in the air, heard the gurgling and popping of mudpots and fumaroles, and clear, placid pools so hot that they hiss.

The Lewis and Clark expedition veteran John Colter certainly did (though he lacked the convenient boardwalks) and his first 1807 reports describing the vaporous wonders and the "smell of brimstone" of Yellowstone were met with disbelieving scorn. Later witnesses during the years of the Rocky Mountain fur trade superstitiously concluded that Yellowstone was a portal of Hell, as they warily traveled through. That didn't stop the occasional wayward trapper from enjoying a soak in some of the more safely tepid springs of what they commonly called "the boilings." Finally, in 1871, a U.S. government survey led by Ferdinand V. Hayden studied Yellowstone's geological makeup (the crew also included the artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson) and the ensuing 500 page report was responsible for Congress designating Yellowstone as the nation's first national park, with President Grant signing the legislation on March 1, 1872.

While it's unlawful to immerse oneself in most of Yellowstone's scalding waters (the Boiling River on the Gardner River is one of a few safe exceptions), some have with sometimes fatal results. For example, in July, 1981, a 24-year-old Californian named David Allen Kirwan dove into Celestine Pool (202 degrees F; the boiling point at that elevation is roughly 198F) in the Fountain Paint Pot area with the object of rescuing a friend's dog. He failed at this and almost immediately with assistance climbed back out. He quickly went blind and the outer layer of his skin began peeling off. He died the next day in a Salt Lake City hospital, his vital organs literally boiled. Yellowstone's historical record is replete with such tragedies, mostly accidental. But most Western springs are in the hot-bath-at-home category of 100 to 120 degrees, cooled down from 140-160 by diluting from cooler water sources, especially at well-maintained resorts, such as Hot Springs State Park in Wyoming, a favorite of mine. Though it's always smart to "test the waters."

And it's important to keep one's head above water. Once, while swimming in a large pool at Lost Trail Hot Springs in Montana, I soon after developed a nasty infection in my right ear that tormented me for a month and required prescribed ear drops to clear up. Bacteria is found in all natural hot springs, which are not chlorinated like swimming pools. And never drink the water, as Giardia and Naegleria are many times present, and these micro-organisms will bring on dysentery-like distress to one's gastro-intestinal system.

It is also not smart to imbibe alcoholic beverages while soaking. Immersion by itself increases body temperature, thus putting slight stress on the heart. Adding alcohol is dangerous, and can cause "non-exertional heat stroke," according to the medical literature . It is best to drink water before and during hot springs soaking.

Primitive, backcountry hot springs are popular with folks who like to soak in the nude; I prefer swimsuit shorts myself. This seems to be a throwback to the '60s because its male adherents tend to be flabby, Boomer hippies with gray ponytails. The women are, well, never mind…. While soaking at isolated Goldbug Hot Springs near Elk Bend, Idaho last spring, I finished and, as there were no facilities, went back down the trail to a patch of brush where the hiking group took turns undressing and dressing. On the way down I passed a nice enough couple as described above, and they were both rather portly. After we exchanged pleasantries and information about the springs they hiked further on to soak. I dressed and sat on a rock to eat my lunch. I was soon joined by my friend Sharon carefully picking her way along the rocky trail in swimsuit and bare feet.

"I barely said hi, and those people didn't waste any time getting naked," Sharon said.

I laughed. "Too bad you left your camera in the car."

"Very funny," she said, sarcastically.

And such are the joys of hot springing. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.