Hot Spring PSA (1)

Contributed by Christine St.Pierre

Nothing stokes the urge to enjoy a soak in a natural hot spring more than mid-winter, especially when your natural hot springs are nestled beneath towering giants in the mossy, wet forests of the Pacific Northwest. Far away from blistering winter wind or the sounds of traffic in the distance, hot springs are remote havens that create spaces for ultimate relaxation, connection to nature, and, sometimes, expanding your community.

This region is gifted with a relative abundance of these phenomena due to heavy rainfall and a vast geothermic network. Narrow streams cascade to and from the springs, refreshing the typically 105–110-degree water in the springs, which are formed in different ways. In some cases, natural sources of water seep into the earth. They become heated by geothermal activity—the temperature of rock within the earth increases with depth—and recirculate to the surface as hot, mineral-rich water. In other cases, preexisting groundwater beneath the layers of underground soil and rock are geothermically heated and rise from the earth’s crust.

Rain and snow evaporate as they hit a fortress of steam emanating from the natural sulfuric pools, which can be as deep as two to four feet. Often, springs are lined with stone or fallen wood by individuals who maintain the springs either voluntarily or in connection with park and forest services. These small pools be naturally formed, but are also manipulated by human intervention to create a habitable space. Some hot springs are simply hot water rising from a small hole in the ground that requires digging and sculpting into a pool.

The surrounding centuries-old trees offer a reminder of your isolation deep in the forest. Some springs are easy to access and others much more remote, which also contributes to the quality of the pool and the water within the spring. More remote springs increase the possibility that the landscape of the area may have negatively affected the spring or the pool, and you may come upon a spring that has been washed away by a landslide or clogged by heavy rainfall and plant material. Closer access means more people, which means less privacy, serenity (and potentially nudity naysayers). All-too-often, this also means more garbage and more disrespect to the natural environment.

Recently, my partner, Conor, and I drove to Baker Lake for a dirtbag Valentine’s Day weekend of camping with our dog in the back of our converted 4-Runner and relaxing in the Baker Lake Hot Spring. This site is notorious for its sometimes contaminated water, large, rowdy crowds, and unsanitary conditions. Prior to this weekend, we had enjoyed one summer afternoon with the spring to ourselves and in wonderful condition. So, we drove to the trailhead and fell asleep to the rain pattering on the car’s roof, eager to be first to the springs the next morning.

The next day, as we meandered along the lush, green trail toward the hot spring, I could smell the sulfuric water growing nearer. As we approached, I noticed an eyesore of a “shelter” made of cheap plywood and covered in ripped plastic, meant for changing in and keeping things dry. My first reaction was Leave no trace, people, c’mon. And, besides, remote hot springs are to be enjoyed in the nude. Disappointed, I noticed in my periphery something floating in the hot spring: a plastic bag, full of bloated hot dog buns and rotten meat: hot dogs and raw bacon strips, their packaging torn open by the hands that left them there.

My eyes scanned the murky water for more garbage. Nearby, a bottle of ketchup bobbed about the water like a hot tub temperature gauge, floating above unidentifiable garbage that had settled to the bottom of the spring. I stepped closer, trying to make sense of the small, brightly colored trash, only to realize that a broken jar of dill pickles had scattered its contents across the bottom. With a long stick, I attempted to remove the broken glass and pickles from their watery tomb, with no success. Fortunately, I was able to retrieve rotting packages of sliced cheese and pre-cut salami. The spring’s sources began to bubble, releasing more hot water into the contaminated water—a torturous welcome, or maybe a plea for help.

Standing there in the pouring rain, our eyes locked and our hearts sank. Who would do this? Who would disrespect nature with such potent neglect and laziness? This was such a glaring example of the devastation humans can bring to a sacred space. Even to an ordinary space—to other humans, to other life. The length of human destruction grew in its limitlessness.

Taking a step toward the wreckage, we put our bags down to inspect the damage further. Half of a door—yes, a door, for a house—rested awkwardly across the waterfall that sourced from the hot spring. Brightly colored fireworks littered the ground, along with remnants of campfires with melted garbage, clothing items, beer bottle tops, cigarette butts and, heartbreakingly, an empty jumbo-sized garbage bag. I grabbed the bag, and we started cleaning.

We salvaged ten, twenty, thirty, one hundred bottles and hadn’t even breached the surface. Broken glass stretched across the grounds. I didn’t want to imagine how many shards had settled to the bottom of the spring, thinking of the families with little children who often visit the natural wonder. Bottles had nestled into the soft earth and tucked themselves away in the brambling bushes, deep tree roots, and nearby waterfall’s nooks and crannies. Beer, wine, champagne, liquor—you name it, its empty remains were strewn fifty feet in any direction of the sickened spring. I imagined an intoxicated mob of people launching bottles from the hot spring’s elevated mountainside pad. It made me sick to my stomach; it made me angry; it made me get to work.

Near the water, a rotting trout, still wrapped in plastic from the grocery store deli, slipped through Conor’s fingers as he struggled to dispose of it in the garbage bag, now brimming with clanking bottles, glass, and rotting food. The silvery remains of tea-light candles shimmered in all directions like tiny bits of garbage bait taunting us. We would move about in small circles to pick up the garbage that seemed only to multiply the more we cleaned. Working for more than two hours, we had to break the news to the many groups of starry-eyed nature-lovers that constantly flowed in hoping, also, to enjoy the spring that day—or any time soon.

We warned newcomers to swim at their own risk while continuing to pick up garbage, detailing the state of the spring upon our arrival. Many had driven from their homes hours away in Seattle, and beyond. One couple said they had been here in November and the spring was in great condition. Unanimously, we all decided that the temperature of the water was at prime condition for bacteria, such as E.coli, to thrive and multiply. With the added danger of meats—cured and uncured—as well as other food material, the risk was too high. We didn’t even want to touch the water. Everyone was disgusted, heartbroken, and angry. We wanted answers, but the silent forest revealed no clues.

There would be no justice for the forest that day. We cleaned for hours and considered the service our Valentine’s Day gift to the earth—the thing we love most, and the thing that gives each and every one of us life and abundance. But as the forest grew darker, we realized how cold and wet and on top of a mountain we were, and had to leave. Chances are, in the days and weeks that followed, dozens of unknowing visitors enjoyed the hot spring. Maybe they didn’t see the warning we wrote into the wooden shelter. Phone calls to the national forest made no promises of retribution or even cleanup. One disappointed ranger mentioned that the hot spring could be cleaned in the spring, its bottom dredged.

Let this be a letter of encouragement and a public service announcement to each and every one of us: we are better than this! Tell this story to your friends and family, and tell them to do the same. This drunken party became a public health risk, and the ground a minefield of broken glass in a place where bare feet are the norm. Seeing as this was not an isolated incident I encourage you not only to “pack it in, pack it out,” but also to head into the wilderness equipped with a trash bag, ready to “pack it out” for others, too

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