Ainsworth Hot Springs – Spirit Water

by Willa Condy, photos courtesy Lower Kootenay Band

For some winter is not complete without a trip to Ainsworth Hot Springs. Just 182 miles from Spokane Washington, Ainsworth welcomes all.

“Since time immemorial the Ktunaxa people have utilized this site 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.” said M. Jason Louie, Chief, Lower Kootenay Band.(LKB)

After the gold strike in 1886 near Nelson, B.C. miners came to the area looking for the mother lode. Oregon prospector George Ainsworth was involved in setting up the townsite, at first called Hot Springs Camp.

By 1891 Ainsworth was booming, due to the discovery of lead, silver and galena. The mines that produced the ore had miners looking to soak their weary bones. Ainsworth Hot Springs was becoming part of the fabric of life in the late 1800’s in the Kootenays. Photos from 1888 show a natural basin for soaking.

By 1920 the Hot Springs started to be developed into a commercial operation. John Burns of Nelson starts developing the property. There may have been an indentation in the rock but the caves actually got a little help from a local blaster hired to blast the second cave opening and connect the two together. It created the horseshoe shaped cave.

Arrival at Ainsworth Beach

The pool was ten feet deep and during the 1930’s it was open 24 hours a day. The cost for a dip? A dime! In the 1950’s the mines closed. The Yale Lead and Zine Co, sold the hot springs. Different operators ran the resort until 1962. Then Sam and Bell Homen bought the property.

The pool was reduced in depth during the late 1960’s and continued to be a popular spot. In 1979, the Homen’s sold the property to their daughter Joyce and her husband Norm Mackie.

In 1983, the pool and caves were updated. Ainsworth Hot Springs started attracting more visitors, leading to an increased demand for rooms and food services.

In 1987 a new hotel was constructed then renovated in 1999 and 2012. In 2014 the Mackie’s were ready to retire and the property was put up for sale.

“The Band became aware of the opportunity and began a year long process of vetting the business and property. When it came time to decide on the purchase I recall the discussion at council. Jason said this represented an opportunity to regain part of the territory they occupied prior to being forcibly relocated to Creston. He also spoke about their desire to build an economy so that LKB citizens could aspire to opportunities beyond a job at the band hall. The vote to purchase was unanimous.” recalled Rod Bateman, General Manager of the Ainsworth Hot Spring Resort.

Ainsworth Hot Springs has flourished under the ownership of the LKB. So far the band has implemented Indigenous branding to reflect the history of the property. They have modernized and created a family friendly environment at the resort. That includes using the most up to date technology to create the friendly guest service that the resort is now famous for. This includes the Ktunaxa Grill, which creates and serves a locally sourced indigenous inspired menu.

Capital projects that the LKB have done so far include making the property more energy efficient, renovating the entire restaurant level, including a separate meeting room. Opening this spring a new rooftop patio with a view of Kootenay Lake and the mountains.

The pool level has been renovated as well, with the change rooms refreshed with new lockers as well as an updated gift shop.

Currently under construction is a new 14 unit all-suites building with balconies facing the lake, complete with a walkway to connect the new building to the existing building at the pool level.

The LKB has also purchased and renovated a nearby motel property for staff accommodations.

The Covid pandemic closed Ainsworth Hot Springs for 5 months and it is now reopened with reduced operations.

Covid has impacted planned projects. These include interpretive trails and a tipi camp above the resort. The tribe is working on getting funding to start these projects later this year.

Currently Ainsworth Hot Springs is missing their American visitors.

“The United States market is very important to Ainsworth – prior to the pandemic and border closure they accounted for 33% of hotel stays. We very much look forward to when we can (safely) cross our shared border again!” said Bateman.