Tsek Hot Springs spiffs up for the summer
Heard the one about the four brothers, their sister, and a mink? In answer to a plea from a loving couple keen to become an eternal source of healing, the sextet transformed the husband and wife into hot and cold springs. That’s a punch line to rival anything from Marvel Comics.
In fact, somewhere in the mists of mythological time, such an event reputedly occurred near what is today the Native community of Skatin.
Care to soak in those all-too-real springs while contemplating the tale? Follow the historic Cariboo gold-rush trail that runs beside Lillooet Lake south of Mount Currie. That’s where the Georgia Straight headed in late June to check out the most recent transformations at the popular thermal springs that during the past 150 years or so have been branded variously as Tsek, Skookumchuk Hot Springs, and St. Agnes’s Well.
On arrival after a dusty one-hour drive, it was evident that change was once again afoot. A party of workers hoisted a newly constructed outhouse into place near an almost completed change facility fronted by a life-sized wooden carving of a black bear reared up on its haunches. Nice touch.
In charge of the operation was Mike Sato, president of the Squamish-based Sea to Sky Onsen Inc. (Onsen is a Japanese term for hot springs.) The last time the Straight crossed paths with Sato was in the late 1990s, when the Ministry of Forests contracted him to create Japanese-style bathing pools at Meagre Creek Hot Springs, about 95 kilometres northwest of Pemberton (inaccessible now due to a massive landslide that blocked access in 2010).
In the intervening years, Sato has explored geothermal potential at the head of Lillooet Lake as well as overseeing similar projects from the Yukon to the Kootenays to Washington state. Now, Sea to Sky Onsen has been hired to manage the Tsek (pronounced “chick”) Hot Springs in association with the local Skatin First Nations, within whose land the springs seep.
Tsek Hot Springs has always drawn an eclectic group of visitors willing to put up with what was, until recently, a journey that tested the endurance of motorists just as much as it challenged the hordes of gold prospectors travelling on foot in the 1850s. For decades, as a forest-service recreation site, Tsek’s two ramshackle pools offered uncontrolled access for Natives and a mélange of hot-spring devotees. As of last year, a day-use fee of $7.50 per person ($10 for campers) has been collected by an on-site manager, a move Sato identified as helping to control rowdiness.
“Native visits to the springs are up by 50 percent since we made improvements, plus there is a constant increase in attendance year-round. For example, we had a large group of students from an ESL college in Vancouver who arrived yesterday in a convoy of seven RVs. As well, there are two couples here from Alberta on a return visit and some families from Washington who come every year.”
Sato cautioned that on summer weekends there simply isn’t enough room to accommodate everyone at the 54 campsites; late arrivals should consider a backup plan. “If this was a typical natural hot springs, the intense heat would tire bathers out in an hour or so. Since the water temperature in each of the seven tubs can be regulated with both hot and cold flows, people can soak for hours in bathtub temperatures. That means a wait may be in order, in which case, take the opportunity to explore the section of the old gold-rush trail that can be found at the north end of the campground.”
As Sato toured the Straight through the forest adjacent to the roiling Lillooet River, yellow tape marked off areas of the site in which archaeological investigations were being carried out in hopes of finding remnants of a hotel that stood here decades ago before being gutted by fire. Nearby, access was similarly restricted around a red cedar that holds spiritual significance for the people of the In-SHUCK-ch Nation.
Regrettably, over the years fire has proven a great leveller of historic wooden structures throughout B.C. One gratifying exception that’s well worth inspection is the Church of the Holy Cross in Skatin, a short drive south of the springs. Just as when the Straight first visited there in the mid-1980s, a resident leaned out the window of a home adjacent to the triple-spired edifice and encouraged closer inspection inside. A simple latch is all that keeps the front doors shut.
Caretaker Lesley Sam appeared and pointed to a number of improvements made recently to the foundations to ensure continued stability for the building. “My grandmother told me she remembered logs being floated up the Lillooet River that were used to build the church in the early 1900s. Ever since I came back from school in Mission, I’ve kept my eye on the place. Although there’s no regular Sunday service, there are still weddings and baptisms.”
With its hand-carved altar and figurines, including a dove of peace suspended from the arched roof, the church is as much a marvel as the hot springs’ creation myth. Prepare to be transformed.
Access: Tsek Hot Springs lies 48 kilometres south of Highway 99 on In-SHUCK-ch Road. Skatin is a further two kilometres. In-SHUCK-ch Road begins 12 kilometres north of Mount Currie at the head of Lillooet Lake and runs 81 kilometres south to the head of Harrison Lake.