Story last updated at 7/24/2013 - 1:56 pm
A few hot springs have been developed in Southeast Alaska: Tenakee Springs, Bell Island Hot Springs, and Baranof Warm Springs. The city of Sitka maintains two hot tubs at Goddard. The Forest Service has put in wooden tubs at two: White Sulphur Springs and Shakes Hot Springs on the Stikine River. Other thermal mineral springs come from deep in the ground and flow from cracks in the earth onto their natural terrain.
Bailey Bay is one of the hot springs that has never been developed. This bay indents the mainland off western Behm Canal, north of Ketchikan. At the head of the small bay is an impressive washboard waterfall draining Lake Schelokum (elevation 344 feet). The springs are a mile up the lake beside a tributary, a creek aptly named Spring Creek.
At least two attempts to utilize these remote springs as a health resort never came about. Blueprints were drawn for a southern Colonial-style lodge, complete with a hedge maze "to provide exercise and amusement for the hotel patrons." The Pioneers of Alaska attempted to build a "Sanitarium and Pleasure Resort for the Pioneer of Alaska." Nothing was ever built.
The early users of Bailey Bay Hot Springs were the active, young people of Ketchikan. The first recorded visit was in August 1904. Charles Guzman and D. H. Delzelle (both department managers for Heckman's store) spent two weeks at the springs with their families. They undoubtedly stayed in white canvas tents, typical of the times. Others visited, but most preferred nearby Bell Island Hot Springs that had the advantages of being near the sea, and having bathtubs in structures and cabins for rent.
In 1906, sufficient use of Bailey Bay's springs among the young Ketchikanites prompted a survey for a steep trail, alongside the falls, through brush and timber from the beach to the lake's edge. M.A. Mitchell, of the Miners and Merchant Bank, and volunteer crew of men constructed a log trail in August 1907. A rowboat was taken into or built beside the lake.
It was not until 1913 that the Forest Service upgraded and rebuilt parts of this original trail. Sometime soon after 1920, the trail was extended along the lake shore to the springs, a distance of 2.2 miles. The trail has always been difficult to keep passable. For example a forest ranger in August 1933 found a rock slide had taken out 300 feet of the trail. Trestles necessary to cross streams often washed away. Clearing windfalls and brush was frequently necessary.
A recent telephone call to the USFS reveals that the primitive trail is still maintained and was brushed out in the spring of 2013. Warning: No extensive board walks: wear boots!
Long ago husband Frank and I hiked to the springs. At the time I recorded impressions: "The mountains around us are sheer rock pinnacles, boulders have crashed down to rest beside the trail. Here and there odd caverns and crevices are made by teetering piles of boulders, many mud holes and roots are on the trail, bridges cantilever at such angles it is difficult to cross." Today one of those bridges is gone, and hikers wade the creek.
The springs are located a quarter mile up a long, wide valley from which many granite cliffs rise to mountain peaks. Spring Creek, a gentle flowing stream, winds its way through the meadows in front of the springs.
Hot water issues from at least nine springs on a steep slope covering about half an acre. The hotness of the water and various chemicals are said to be therapeutic. Here are a few statistics: The flow of water is about 10 times that of Bell Island and is much hotter. In 1914, the Bailey Bay's water ranged from 145 to 191 degrees. Bell Island's was 125 to 162 degrees and Sitka Hot Springs had a maximum temperature of 149 degrees. On my second trip 16 years later the largest springs was 192 degrees. Sometimes earthquake activity changes hot springs, so it would be interesting to check the temperature today.
One of the springs sends water through a small fissure in the stone. This is "Drake Geyser" and was described in an early report as spouting 12 inches in the air every 18 to 20 minutes. I saw it once. Obviously the frequency had greatly diminished.
Frank and I scrambled upward to look down the slope. The hillside was a kaleidoscope of colors veiled by the wafting vapors. Varied shades of orange, red, green, and mustard colored algae grew in the pools and overflow channels. The hotter the springs, the brighter the color became with more reds and oranges. As the water cooled, the darker green began to take over. Where the water has nearly cooled, the growth, almost black, formed a sheet of slime.
As for facilities, in 1914, a surveyor found the water from the two lowest springs channeled into a wooden bathtub in a tent. With water at 179 degrees, he surmised the bath was cooled from a small adjacent stream. Frank and I found parts of a wooden tub at the bottom of the slope. A shallow pool had been enlarged by damming one end with rocks. Here the water had cooled to make open air bathing possible. On my second visit, there was no trace of the tub or large pool. Today the Forest Service reports there is no aid for taking a mineral bath.
However, hikers will find a primitive three-sided shelter available without reservations. The original was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps crews. Built from nearby timber, with a cedar shake roof, the building was in poor repair both times I visited. Recently historic restoration of this original 1933 building has been made. Historically the floors of these three-sided shelters were left "natural," and we found them muddy. I also learned from the Ketchikan Ranger District there is a skiff and oars at Lake Shelokum. Sometimes it gets damaged during high water. Call ahead if you plan to use it.
Bailey Bay Hot Springs continues to flow down the hillside untamed.
Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.