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In Hot Water

USUALLY, CRUISING IS REWARD ENOUGH FOR THE EFFORT AND investment involved in taking a boat to sea. But now and then an added attraction-a stunning sunset, a wilderness anchorage, difficult courses successfully plotted and completed-makes it a four-star event.

Rarely, we may find a place, a person or happening that goes a step beyond and absolutely makes boating exceptional and unforgettable. Not just four stars, but fireworks as well.

It would not be difficult to compile a short list. Right now, finding and enjoying a natural hot spring on a remote and rocky shore would top my collection of such wondrous places and things. I would cruise miles out of my way for the opportunity to ease my salty, tired, tense body into a pool of tingling hot water, always fresh, always chlorine-free, for a long, comforting, rejuvenating soak.

The only company would be a close companion, the wind in the trees, the roar of the ocean against the shore and the stars above. No one would be hawking sandwiches, drinks or fluffy towels. There would be no link to the busy world.

Tight, tired muscles relax in the enveloping heat as blood flow increases. A brain crowded with thoughts about courses, feet of rode in use, the state of the tide and the overnight weather forecast shuts down all those busy circuits and follows the heat as it soaks deeply into the body. Some believe the minerals in the water have a therapeutic effect, but my experience suggests that the usually mild dose of chemicals (often sulfur) simply cleans, softens and smoothes the skin. If it is good for me, too, that's a bonus.

Some may wonder about this affection for sitting in hot water, particularly for someone who normally bathes standing up. But when you are cruising in British Columbia or Alaska and the sea temperature is 50 degrees or less and the air temperature is about the same and it's been rainy and windy, then submerging to the chin in water heated by mother earth is a welcome thing.

You can't have that much fun on a boat. Few of us have tubs, or the water to fill one. Most have showers, but not the tankage for a 20-minute deluge. In contrast, nature's generosity is abundant. Warm water just keeps on flowing.

Hot springs are a result of the way the earth was formed and literally have been around forever. Native Americans enjoyed steeping in natural hot springs for countless generations before outsiders arrived, shed their boots and trousers and settled in to share the treat.

Although some Western hot springs have been captured and piped for resort use, many others are remote and often found at the end of a wooded, muddy trail in mountainous territory. Thanks to the uplifting, twisting and cracking of deep bands of rock, a few natural springs can be found near the ocean shore, particularly in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska.

Because those ocean-side hot springs usually bubble to the surface in remote, roadless territory, only boaters may enjoy them. Unfortunately, a few are so popular that nonboaters will pay to be flown in or delivered by fast excursion boats from nearby towns.

My first plunge into a thermal hot spring was in south central Montana decades ago. We were visiting family and the agenda included soaking in a spring that had been boxed in by concrete and covered with a roof. It was piping hot, I recall, probably because of its proximity to Yellowstone. We all came out looking like prunes.

In college, a group of guys devoted a long weekend to tearing around Washington's Olympic Peninsula. We spent an evening in a heated pool in a building that collapsed long ago.

Years went by after that without an opportunity to soak in a natural hot spring. (I tried hot tubbing at the YMCA, but no amount of scrubbing in the shower afterward would wash away the clinging odor of chlorine, so I gave that up.)

When boating brought us near coastal springs, I was ready.

On The West Side

It's a 2-mile trek through the woods from an anchorage in Hot Springs Cove, on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, to the most popular thermal springs on the coast. The trees are huge and filter the sunlight and the occasional view of the sea to the right. This is probably the closest shore-side hot spring for yachters living in the swath of urbanity that flows from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle.

Getting there is a challenge, though. It usually requires cruising west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca for about 70 miles and then turning north in the Pacific another 70 miles. Along the way, one may confront strong winds and breaking seas or dense fog that hide the fishing fleet working the island's south shore. Another course to Hot Springs Cove requires a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the island, a trek of 500 miles or so, much of it through dangerous waters.

On two visits to Hot Springs Cove several years ago, we followed a cedar-planked walk through the woods to the shore-side spring. Nearly every 2-by-6 underfoot bore the carved name of a visiting yacht, and often its crew and the date of installation. Some were simple, quickly hacked out with a chisel and hammer. Others were ornate, with several colors of paint, and obviously had been created in home shops and carried to the island for placement.

Many planks were crowded with dates carved by visitors returning year after year, proving the popularity of the hot springs.

The trail winds around and over rocky knobs, with towering salal bushes overhanging. Finally, it ends near where the spring bubbles from the ground. The small stream of hot water flows across the surface and over the edge to plunge to the rocky shore.

That drop-off is my favorite spot. I sit on a flat rock below, and the 110-degree water splashes over my head, shoulders and back. A series of small pools is on the rocky shore beneath me, each with space for a couple of soakers. Rollers from the Pacific often treat bathers nearest the beach with a cold splash of salt spray in the face.

Clothing is optional here, and at other hot springs on the coast. However little one chooses to wear, or not wear, I recommend sandals or old deck shoes to protect the feet while walking the rocks between pools and for moving easily in the pools.

Because the view is to the west, some bathers come late in the day carrying candles, wine and plastic glasses. They soak and sip until the sun has gone, then dig in their bags for dry clothes and flashlights to guide them back to their boats.

The one flaw is the popularity of the springs. Visitors fly in on floatplanes from towns on the south end of Vancouver Island. Charter boat operators will bring paying customers to the island for an afternoon dip in the hot water and then rush them back to their resort or RV at Tofino about 30 miles to the south. Commercial fishboats often will stop in the harbor, drop the hook and grab a mooring buoy or space at the dock, and fishermen will charge up the trail for their first bath in days, or longer. But no one hawks cold drinks, towels or sandwiches from the bar.

Since our last visit, the British Columbian government has torn up the cedar walk and replaced the ornately carved planks with pressure treated timbers. Robert Hale, who publishes the Waggoner Cruising Guide, which covers boating destinations in northwestern Washington and British Columbia, reports that carved boat names are beginning to appear in the new boardwalk.

Despite the occasional crowding and the noisy, sometimes messy kids who live on the opposite shore of the cove, this is a place to visit, enjoy and remember.

Through The Mist

A more formal but less crowded hot spring is a week or more's cruising farther north along the Inside Passage in northern British Columbia. On our last visit, we could barely find the entrance to Bishop Bay because of heavy rain. Once anchored, a couple of us rowed ashore to soak in the bath built and maintained by the Kitimat Yacht Club.

The club has a small float, a ramp to shore, a boardwalk through a grove of moss-draped cedar trees, a nice bathhouse on shore and a small outside pool just right for two. The float has space for a couple of boats. If it's full, boaters eager for a hot dip may anchor in the bay.

There's a small tub for rinsing off before stepping into the spring. (That's one element of hot springs etiquette: get clean before using. A second is: there are no garbage collectors on the Inside Passage so leave no debris behind, take everything back to the boat.)

The temperature is just right at 110 degrees (somewhat hotter than the hot tub on the patio), and the water has no mineral aroma.

Boaters cruising the Passage often stop at the Bishop Bay Hot Springs for a satisfying soak. But it's too far from anywhere to see chartered excursion boats or floatplanes carrying visitors.

We rowed back to our boats, glowing from a long dunking, to find river otters crunching fish dinners on our boarding platforms and hiding in dinghies.

The glow doesn't last, unfortunately. And the next hot springs on the Inside Passage are in Alaska, several days farther north.

More To See

There are more than 100 hot springs in Alaska, but only a few are on or near the shore in southeast Alaska and accessible to boaters. I have treated myself in only one.

Last summer, I had a good dunk in White Sulphur Hot Springs on the west side of Chichagof Island, about 65 miles northwest of Sitka. This place is so far from anywhere that it's surprising anyone uses the bathhouse built by the U.S. Forest Service. But evidence indicates it is popular and that hundreds have used it over the years. The evidence? Many have carved boat names and dates on the logs of the bathhouse despite a sign banning that practice.

The bathhouse provides good protection from wind and rain that frequent the coast of Chichagof. The Forest Service building has sliding translucent doors facing the ocean, so there's always a good view, one that stretches as far as one can see across the Pacific Ocean. The water temperature is about 110 degrees and the spring flows at a rate of about 23 gallons per minute, enough to keep the body warmly wrapped.

A small, open-air pool is close to the shore and partly screened by trees. On a nice day it would be a favorite place.

On stormy days, I'm told, wind off the ocean will blow foam from breaking seas over the bathhouse.

Chris Howard, who operates Howard Charters in Pelican, a small fishing village north of the springs, said the wind blew so hard last winter that the sliding doors were torn from the bathhouse and the building frame was twisted. Howard, who maintains the buildings for the government, carries kayakers, canoeists and hikers to the springs while also outfitting them with gear they may need. Many of the kayakers will paddle south to Sitka, while the others may hike inland to camp on the shores of small lakes.

Some may just park themselves in the hot water, pitch a tent nearby and wait for Howard to come back for them. Some exclusivity is promised because of the difficulties involved in reaching that section of the Alaska coast. There are only two ways to reach Pelican, the jumping off point for coastal adventures. One is by sea, either aboard a private boat or an Alaska state passenger-only ferry, and the other is by floatplane from Juneau or Sitka.

The crew from a sailboat fled the pool as we arrived. So it was all ours. Howard says that on some days there may be 20 people sloshing around in the pools and the next day there may be only two.

Few visit White Sulfur Springs in the winter because of ocean storms. But the residents of Pelican make it a point to get there on Jan. 1 to celebrate the arrival of the New Year, Howard says.

Anchorage in Bertha Bay out front is poor; the bottom is foul and rocky. A sailboat had anchored successfully the day we arrived aboard a 65-foot Malahide North Sea trawler, Ursa Major.

Unable to set the anchor, we moved north a couple of miles to a good anchorage in Porcupine Bay and took the dinghy back to the hot springs.

A trail leads to Mirror Bay, another good anchorage less than a mile away. It crosses a slough and is passable only at low tide.

Some open ocean cruising is required to reach White Sulfur Springs, but there are several good anchorages along the coastline, and a string of islands provides shelter from ocean rollers.

Tubbing At Tenakee

Tenakee Springs, on the east coast of Chichagof Island, deserves to be called funky. Its ramshackle houses stand on pilings along the shore, and the only street is a gravel path that may be 8 feet wide. Other than a couple of pickup trucks and ATV-type rigs, there are no motor vehicles in Tenakee Springs, a community of about 100 people whose principal activities are relaxing and enjoying the spring. A passenger ferry provides a link to Juneau, but nearly everyone else comes either by floatplane or boat. A bar is open occasionally.

Men and women bathe separately in 108-degree water; the schedule is posted on the bathhouse door.

When we were there several years ago the bathhouse was closed for repair, as I recall. Another place to visit again.

South of Tenakee on Baranof Island is Warm Springs Bay. Hot springs flow to several homes along the shore, and a natural hot pool is about a half-mile from a public mooring float. A huge waterfall, which once generated electricity for the community, splashes into the bay.

This place is popular. Some hike to the lake, from which the falls originate, while others detour to the hot spring and a tub. We motored into the bay once but could find no place at the dock or to anchor. So we moved on. The hot spring (briskly hot at 120 degrees-plus) is worth a visit, but better overnight anchorages, such as Red Bluff Bay, are not far away.

Cruisers seldom visit several other Up North hot springs, but they are there for the addicted.

Goddard Hot Springs on Hot Springs Bay, 17 miles south of Sitka on the west shore of Baranof, has really hot water (145 degrees) and, according to the Coast Pilot, the water is rich in minerals. Legend says the Russians developed the springs as a healing facility in 1800, long before the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. A physician named Frank L. Goddard later operated a sanitarium there, but it is now owned by Sitka and its residents take motorboats south to soak in two tubs built by the city.

Friends who have visited Goddard give it two thumbs up. They arrived to find the tubs empty. The drain plugs were there and they dropped them into place, went back to the boat for lunch and returned in the afternoon for a soothing soak in the swirling hot water.

Trocadero Hot Springs, a carbonated spring on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, 12 miles southeast of Craig, draws few visitors, according to state officials.

It is remote and accessible only by boat, and rubber boots are recommended for the 1-mile hike (this is bear country so be careful during salmon season) to the bubbling, hissing springs. Spray and runoff have created deposits of silica and calcium carbonate that range in color from subtle yellow to red.

The carbonated water is said to have a sharp, pleasant taste and no unpleasant odors.

Another thermal spring is on Hotspring Island in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia, some 70 miles offshore of the mainland. Two hot springs have been developed by the Haida Indians, most of whom live in or near the town of Skidegate. It's one I probably never will see.

Whatever Works

Regarding the big question of what to wear, the best advice is don't worry about it.

Alaskan artist Rie Munoz has immortalized the Tenakee springs with paintings of happy, naked, rosy faced, plump women soaking in the hot water. But others prefer to wear something.

Just what does one wear in a hot spring scores of miles away from home?

The late Tom Stockley, a friend for decades and famed as a wine columnist and judge in the Pacific Northwest, took a short detour in his career about 12 years ago and wrote a small book about natural hot springs in the region (Northwest Natural Hot Springs, Epicenter Press, Seattle). On several occasions we joined Tom and his wife, Peggy, for dinner to discover that he had just rushed home from a driving trip to a spring.

In a short, thoughtful essay he dealt with the issue of garb.

"Because of the springs' remoteness, you frequently find yourself there alone (or with your own group)," he wrote. "Consequently, many folks like to skinnydip. Unless it is posted and you are not offending anyone, this is considered perfectly all right. Many veteran hot springers insist it is the only way."

But what do you do if everyone in the pool is nekked and you arrive in a bathing suit?

"Usually the matter is settled quickly by simply doing as the Romans did," Tom advises. "If the first people there are in suits, wear one. If they have dispensed with formal bathing attire, then you have a choice: Go au naturel or wear a suit; either way no one will mind.

"Whatever, always approach politely and cautiously."

You'll note he didn't mention the third alternative: skipping a hot soak because of uncertainty about dress. Tom didn't write about bad wines, so it's natural that he'd ignore a bad idea, too.