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The Indigenous Connection to Our Natural Hot Springs

There is nothing quite like the feeling of ‘discovering’ something new, whether it is in our backyards or some far-flung destination. As the weather begins to cool, discovering new hot springs is a popular way for residents and visitors alike to experience the Kootenays.

But of course these thermal springs were ‘discovered’ long ago by the ancestors of the Ktunaxa Nation, whose constant movement throughout their territory, Ktunaxa ?ama?kis, would have led them to these natural wonders. Similar to today, hot springs were seen as a remedy for arthritis, hunting or battle injuries and other ailments.

Photo courtesy of Fairmont Hot Spring Resort

The larger springs like Fairmont and Radium were likely also used by Indigenous from many nearby groups, including Stoney, Peigan and Blood whose territories border Ktunaxa  ?ama?kis to the East. These two hot springs would have seen busy times when people converged on the region for the once bountiful upper Columbia summer salmon run and during the winter burbot spawning season. Other, more remote hot springs would likely have been discovered and used on hunting, berry-picking and trading trips.

Steamy Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park; Photo courtesy of Parks Canada/Olivia Robinson

They may also have been a critical source of winter food, as the springs and the warm earth around them once attracted wildlife, particularly birds, that would otherwise have had to migrate. Mountain goats were particularly attracted to the warmth and the mineral deposits of natural hot springs.

The unpleasant odour of Sulphur Springs near Elkford is called Yakamumts’ikukwi, “water smells,” by the Ktunaxa. While it was likely never appealing to soak in, it would have been an important landmark for travellers in the days before road signs and Google Maps.

In the West Kootenays, the Ktunaxa people have utilizing Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort as a place for healing. After battle, warriors would soak in the spirit waters (nupika wu’u) to ease the wounds sustained in the fight to defend this beautiful territory. Those living with other ailments such, as arthritis, would utilize the hot pool to find some relief to their pain.

Bathers enjoying the soothing waters at Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort; Photo by Kari Medig

During your next hot spring soak, close your eyes and imagine the millennia of early Indigenous people who likely sat on the same rock, eyes closed, with a dreamy smile as the Nupika Wu’u or Spirit Waters worked their magic on body and spirit.

Know Before You Go – Plan ahead so you can travel safely and responsibly. Familiarize yourself with weather, road conditions, general alerts for travellers and provincial health orders & recommendations.

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Top/cover photo by Kari Medig at Radium Hot Springs mineral pools.

Words by Dave Quinn. Born in Cranbrook, BC; Dave is a wildlife biologist, educator, wilderness guide, writer and photographer whose work is driven by his passion for wilderness and wild spaces. His work with endangered mountain caribou and badgers, threatened fisher and grizzly, as well as lynx and other species has helped shape his understanding of the Kootenay backcountry and its wildlife.

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