Putting the spring back in Meager Creek Hotsprings
Closed four years ago due to health concerns, the hotsprings have been given new life
By Jack Christie
Care to take a little day trip to Meager Creek hotsprings in the Lillooet River headwaters region? Bathers are welcome there once again without fear of contracting anything nastier than a horsefly bight.. Just be sure to pack along some extra clothing and food. You might be there a while.
The area around Mount Meager is a notoriously unstable region. Last September, a 500,000 tonne rock slide in Capricorn Creek, a tributary of Meager Creek located about 5 kilometres downstream from the hotsprings, erased a key bridge and dammed Meager’s channel. A lake quickly formed behind the rockpile; although water levels have since receded, its pea green surface can easily be spotted from the road or the campground on the hillside above the hotsprings. A series of culverted earthen bridges have replaced the old plank-and-piling structure carried away by the slide. These days, CRB Logging, who maintain the road, keeps an excavator on stand-by.
Visiting the Lillooet headwaters is like returning to the days before the dike system straightened out the Pemberton Valley section of the Lillooet River. In the headwaters north of Pemberton Meadows the river braids itself across the narrow valley floor. When it's at full flow, it leaves very little ground uncovered on either side. Flat stretches of the Lillooet River Road are prone to flooding. You’ll recognize them on sight.
Until 1975, only one road, running along the valley's south side to the foot of Spidery Peak, provided access to the headwaters. When B.C. Hydro decided to explore the geothermal potential of the Fall Creek volcanic centre, which includes the region around Mount Meager, the Lillooet River and Meager Creek roads were constructed. The logging industry, primary builders of back roads in the province, got a free ride on this one. Maintaining this road has proved to be no small feat as the river has repeatedly washed out vulnerable sections. Still, the road reopens after every deluge and commercial activity resumes.
Drive carefully as you make your way towards the Kilometre 37 marker. The road is wide but somehow the logging trucks always seem wider. From here, a Forest Service sign directs traffic to a solid bridge nearby that crosses the well-behaved Lillooet and deposits intrepid travellers on Meager Creek Road. You’re in good company.
Black-tailed deer with spring-loaded hooves catapult themselves ahead of you. Bears in shades of cinnamon and black rustle through the alder and shake their booties as you pass. (Fresh scat around the hotsprings is a telltale sign to mind your manners.) A western tanager swoops past in a streak of cadmium. The only dull hue emanates from the hundreds of displaced stumps and uprooted tree trunks whose grey hulks litter Meager Creek’s wide, gravelled course that stretches south from the road towards the slopes of Pika Peak. It’s hard to imagine that such an apparently benign landscape could just as readily cradle a cauldron of debris.
A greater contrast couldn't be imagined to the delicate nature of the hotsprings that lie just ahead than the volcanic region within which they flourish. There's nothing dainty about an eruption: evidence lies spewed around the base of Mount Meager, Canada's most recently-active volcano, and its neighbours. The force of the explosion that occurred around 450 BC sent ash flying as far east as Alberta. Debris chutes scar the face of the five mountains in the Meager volcanic complex, comprised of Mounts Meager, Capricorn and Job, as well as Plinth and Pylon Peaks. After-effects have never ceased, with four heavyweight rock slides noted since the 1850s. Late summer storms regularly deluge the region, swelling Meager Creek to Biblical proportions, as the broad gravel bars heaved up around the otherwise well-behaved creek testify.
Interestingly enough, when you do leave your vehicle in the new day parking lot (a former CRB work yard) a recently–constructed, pumice-covered trail leads beside the road towards the hotsprings. Pumice, a light, porous rock obtained from a nearby mining operation, is composed of ash jettisoned by Mount Meager’s eruption. Cross a wooden bridge that spans lively Meager Creek and pick up the trail again on the opposite bank. Although not visible from the bridge, the hotsprings lie just a short distance upstream from here. Snow has begun to recede in earnest but much of the understorey still has a winter-weary, matted appearance.
Suddenly, a drift of bright green fiddleheads interspersed with equally brilliant yellow monkey-flowers relieves the monotony. This signals that you have entered the delicate hotspring environment where thermal warmth prevails year round. Just ahead on the open hotspring terrace is one of this fragile eco-system's curiosities: a grove of dwarf fir, covered in cones. Although they appear to have been planted recently, the majority are at least 50 years old. Rock-lined pathways weave through the stunted grove, some of whose branches have been split by the weight of this year’s snowpack. The pathways not only lend an air to the terrace of a botanical garden, they also encourage visitors to avoid trampling a landscape in recovery from past abuse.
A variety of exotic plants and animals depend on the sensitive terrain for survival. Pacific rubber boa-constrictors, the size of garter snakes, hide themselves among the Olney's bulrush, a rare bright green sedge that has only been identified in one other location in Western Canada. Anderson’s swordfern, marginal shield-fern, diversed-leaved collomia, calypso orchids, and mountain lady’s slipper are found in the unique temperate microclimate, which manages to keep winter largely at bay. The crowning feature of the 65-hectare recreation site is the grand Douglas firs that tower above the hotspring terrace and hide the logged hillside on the creek’s far shore from view.
A welcoming familiarity awaits those who have avoided the hotsprings in the four years since the site was closed for health reasons. At the same time, notable changes have occurred, all for the better. Both wooden bathing tubs have been removed, not an easy task considering that they were anchored in rock and concrete. Thanks to the efforts of naturalist Paul Kroeger and Meager Creek Hotspring Natural History Society alumnus Ron Shewchuk, the upper–terrace where one tub once stood is now in the process of revegitating. Shewchuk can also take credit as the initial proponent for installing a composting toilet on site to replace the two pit toilets which long ago filled to capacity. Squamish’s John Hawkings and a crew of carpenters were just putting a roof in place on the new composting toilet when Pique recently visited the site. At a cost of $11,000, the Clivus Multrum M-12 comes well recommended. It’s the same model that has been used with success at the top of Whistler Mountain’s Harmony Express chairlift.
Overseeing the renaissance of the hotsprings has been the considerable responsibility of Ministry of Forests recreation officer John Crooks. In 1996, Crooks assumed responsibility for Meager Creek from Mick McKechnie who managed the site, which was originally opened in 1979, during some of its darkest days. The two still consult regularly on the rehabilitation process aimed at cleaning up Meager’s tarnished image. Both are obviously proud of the little recreation site’s uniqueness.
"Meager has been a challenge for us to handle and we’ve stumbled along the way," admits Crooks. "I think we’re finally at a stage where we can say we’re ready to manage it better."
To this end, the Forest Service has embarked on an innovative strategy for dealing with a multitude of problems which, in the past, have plagued the Meager Creek hotsprings recreation site. After sifting through a variety of proposals which resulted from a public hearing process in 1996, Crooks went to work on a master plan. He brought knowledge-based consultants such as Paul Kroeger together with GeoAlpine of Whistler and Rockingham Engineering of Vancouver. A request for proposals for a new hot tub design was issued, to which four different contractors responded. In the end, Japanese-Canadian Mike Sato, president of Sea to Sky Onsen, tabled the only plan that addressed both the health concerns and budgetary constraints with which Crooks was grappling. The other contractors felt that the project was just too costly and risky for them to be involved.
Although estimates ranged as high as $370,000, in the end the first phase of the project has been completed for just over $100,000. FRBC provided $66,000 in wages for a crew of displaced forest workers and materials. A further $23,000 was spent on a trail from the new day parking lot to the hotsprings. A new changing hut plus housing for the composting toilet cost $3,000 each.
Mike Sato paid for all of his company’s costs out of his own pocket. Crooks tips his hat to Sato. "He did it for no other reason than the status associated with the project."
Sato, who first visited the hotsprings in 1988, has been involved with Meager Creek for the past seven years and has always expressed an interest in being part of the redesign. To this end Sato, who will manage the site under a contract with the MoF, brought in Tom Torizuka and Kaz Haraguchi to help oversee construction of the new bathing pool. Both men have considerable credentials: Torizuka is renowned for the Japanese gardens which he designed for Montreal’s Expo 67 and for the Japanese embassy in Ottawa; Vancouver-based Haraguchi has worked on the design of both UBC’s Nitobe Garden and the Japanese garden in Hastings Park on the old PNE site.
The first impression visitors get when coming upon Meager’s new pool is how compatible it is with the surrounding landscape. Rounded stones have been relocated from the nearby creekbed and set in concrete around the pool’s perimeter. Stepping stones invite bathers to enter the water without fear of slipping. The bottom of the waist-deep pool, which can be easily drained and scrubbed clean, is inlaid with smooth cobblestones. A waterfall now spills into one end of the pool where you can rest and enjoy a little hydrotherapy. Sounds of rushing water are everywhere: from the springs themselves, from Meager, and from Falls Creek which splashes down the embankment opposite the hotspring terrace.
For those who prefer their hotsprings comfort au naturel, come sit closer to Meager Creek. Simply dig a seat in the fine, ash-like silt deposited on the creekside. At your elbow hot water trickles in from a seep on the bank above, one of about 50 such vents from which scalding hot water percolates, gathering in places among the boulders. Thick green pads of what appear — at first glance — to be frog’s eggs coat the sides and surfaces of the hotter natural pools. These are colonies of algae that thrive in the highly-mineralized, carbon dioxide-rich waters. On closer inspection they're like something you'd see in a Korean delicatessen. Squeamish bathers scrape the surprisingly sturdy pads out of the splash pools. If you're inclined to overlook the growth's foreign appearance you'll find it soft and slippery, helpful in fending off the jabs of glacier-sharpened gravel on the bottom.
Meager Creek's blend of grey and white water surges past, some of which eddies around your feet. Stretch out. The temperature reading at your head is a toasty 40 degrees while at your toes is a numbing 7 degrees. After soaking in your little pool for a few minutes your body is thoroughly confused: whether you're hot or cold has ceased to matter. All you know is that Meager Creek hotsprings is a very special place and you feel fine.
– Jack Christie is an avid hotsprings buff and author of the Whistler Outdoors Guide. He first visited Meager Creek in 1982.