The hot springs of Hot Lake Resort

Lost in remote Eastern Oregon (yet conveniently only five miles off of I-84) is Hot Lake Springs Resort--a grand historic mineral hot springs resort that is remarkably open again for business.

If you are traveling on I-84, Hot Lake Springs can serve as a wonderful (if weird) layover. Or, if the timing is not quite right for spending the night, a short stop for a recuperative soak can be just the ticket for improving one's disposition during a long stint of driving.

The resort is steeped in the history of Europe and America's obsession with mineral water health spas and is one of many that thrived in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the century. What compelled people to travel so far and spend so much time and money to soak in these remote mineral water baths?

When Hot Lake Springs was first built this spot must have seemed impressively isolated.  There was of course the city of La Grande, a mere 8 miles further down the line. In its heyday of the 1910s and 20s, La Grande was a small but well-established full-service western desert railroad/cattle town. But  you wouldn't really be aware of this if you got off the train at Hot Lake Sanitorium (sic). You could do this because Hot Lake had it's own train station (and post office). This enabled visitors to come directly from all over the U.S.

I imagine people traveling from the East Coast and getting off directly at Hot Lake.  Stepping off the train onto the platform at the station must have been something. Looking around you'd see great stretches of emptiness. But behind the lake of geothermally-heated mineral water with vapor wafting up into the hills, was the giant "modern" resort, seemingly plopped down in the middle of nowhere. A traveler might have been on trains for days clattering through the desolation of the Great Plains, the Rockies and eastern Oregon desert only to step off into an oasis resort of high grandeur. Visitors could maintain serious bragging rights of having traveled deep into to the Great American West without ever really having suffered the loss of any modern convenience.

Given the relatively isolated location, and considering when it was built, the facility was remarkably big and modern. The brick addition (as pictured above at the left) was completed in 1908 and became the new focal point of the complex. This three-story structure is most of what remains today. When completed, it boasted full modern appointments: indoor plumbing, central heating and electricity. Residents' rooms were airy and well lit: with tall ceilings, awning lights above the doors and big exterior windows. The third floor was a dedicated and modern medical facility which included a surgery. Contemporary accounts often refer to these services as the "Mayo Clinic of the West."

Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article)

Photo Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort

Look at that tile! Yowza! The counter top may be newer.

Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort 

As stated, the 1908 brick structure was an add-on to an even earlier Victorian-era wood structure that was more-or-less built over the source waters of the hot spring. This earlier wood portion burned down in 1934. Even though the business recovered and carried on, the original section was never rebuilt. Since the original structure appears to have been built directly over the springs, I'm curious to know how it was utilized. Where and how did the Victorians take their water?

Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group Hot Lake Resort
At one point water from Hot Lake, as with many mineral water resorts of their day, bottled and sold the source mineral water.

A big part of the Hot Lake Resort story is its miraculous resurrection. Moving into the 20th century modern medicine replaced mineral hydrotherapy and business died off.  The resort closed in the 1950s and for the next few decades there were a succession of other tenants using the space. For a number of years it was completely vacant. The facility slowly crept into dereliction. At the its low point, vandals had smashed out all of the glass windows and the roof was seriously leaking and even missing in some sections.

Photo: Flickr user, Allen, taken from the Flickr group, Hot Lake Resort (link at end of article.)

In 2003 a family bought and began a significant rehabilitation. While the restoration is a blessing for bathing and history enthusiasts, here the story turns a little weird.

The restoration considers the building's history but in a way that is really odd. It's not so much a restoration as someone's fantasy/nostalgia recreation. The hotel rooms are redone with faux historical elements and are drenched in what I refer to as "potpourri excess." It's bed-and-breakfast cute gone wild. Here are some photos of my room:

And it's not just the excessive frill and artificial fragrance. Watch out for the the flocks of peacocks and geese on the grounds who tend to honk (at least in the case of the geese) and poop everywhere. Speakers outside and in the common areas play canned Big Band-era music from morning to evening. To make matters worse it was the same hour or so tape loop. I don't know how many times I heard Glen Miller's In the Mood. It made me feel rather crabby.

In spite of my complaints we are extremely lucky to have Hot Lake Resort back in business and the water, as it has been for thousands of years, is no joke. It comes out hot, 208 degrees, and is mineral laden. Sampling it with a good soak helps you understand why this place was so popular a hundred years ago. After a relaxing bath, all (most) of my grievances about the stay were forgiven.

There are a number of different soaking options at Hot Lake:

There is what remains of the old spring house that is filled with acrylic hot tubs and artificial plants.

Around the back of the spring house I thought these two outdoor claw-foot tubs had potential. Were they intended as cool-down cold plunge tubs or will they be set up for outdoor soaking? I would sure rather soak in the wonderful outdoors in these instead of the plastic tubs inside.

There's also the relic of an old brick structure. The water in here was super hot, almost too hot to stand, but I had the space to myself and it was wonderful.

 You can close this gate for a little privacy.

Stepping in the gate and just to the right is this little semi-private deck next to the private soaking area. The chairs face the soaking pool to the left.

Ahhhh!, a private pool of super hot water! The open trellised roof, old brick and vines winding down to the water made for wonderful atmosphere. The only negative was that soaking in this water with really challenging. It took me a while to adjust and even then and I could only stand soaking for five or so minutes at a time, after that I was cooked!

Next to this brick hot soaking relic is a neat-o waterwheel contraption that lifts, slows and cools the water for a series of outdoor soaking tubs. The water, at 208 degrees, as it comes out of the hillside, is near boiling so it needs this process to cool off for the next series of soaking pools.

From Hot Lake Resort, La Grande, Oregon

Water from the wheel pours  into a gutter which is channeled into the outdoor pools.

Again, I'm not a big fan of acrylic tubs.

My favorite was this one (above), a pool made out of cement and local rocks. The trouble with it was that it was the farthest one away from the water wheel and it was hard to keep it sufficiently hot. There was a fair amount of lake algae as well. I was warned about this by the staff but it didn't bother me at all. Relaxing, looking out over the lake, made it all worthwhile.

Here's another view of the cement outdoor pool taken from above, water vapor lifting up off the lake.

There is a very good Flickr group of photos of the resort/sanitarium. I used some of the photos for this post from that group. Thanks to Allen Sandquist, in particular, for making his collection available.

A Tinygogo bibliography

For the new year, I want to share some of the books that have helped inform my sense of mission with this site. I share these as an overview. Later I hope to explore some of the books below (and others) in more depth.

There are numerous how-to books on saunas and hot tubs. Most fall into the garden variety "home-improvement" category such as the Ortho and Sunset series of books. These have scintillating titles such as: Sunset Ideas for Hot Tubs, Spas and Home Saunas and Spas: Planning, Selecting and Installing. 

Still there are a few that stand out for their insight and vision, reading that informs us of the deeper meaning for enthusiast bathing. These are the books that I occasionally revisit for reference and rediscovery.

I hope what I share below will inspire you to seek and create some quality bathing in 2016. 

Let's start with five:

Cathedrals of the Flesh, Alexia Brue

Such a good read! Alexia Brue considers the possibility of opening her own Turkish Hammam in New York City. In order to properly appreciate this potential huge investment, she does a world tour, making careful study of the bathing customs of various countries by experiencing them for herself. (Her writing style reveals a certain wry joy for the weird and awkward that I particularly love.) Cathedrals is a travelogue written around the subject of indulgent pleasure seeking via bathing. What else is there to life?


Sweat, Mikkel Aaland

This is an indispensable book that explores the world of sweat bathing. It's important because it is one of the first books that provided information on sweat bathing from around the world. It's a great mix of well-researched material with some fun travel writing and personal story telling. Sweat, really gets the credit for being one of the first works that explores the shared commonalities of sweat bathing in numerous different cultures around the world. 

The title says it all. Just as Carl Sagan (coincidently working around the same time Sweat was written) integrated up-to-date scientific information from a wide array of sources to show us the "big picture" of how we fit into the universe, Mikkel Aaland synthesized diverse cultural and historical knowledge to tell us an important story: sweat bathing is a common reoccurring theme with how humans have traditionally cleaned themselves, communed socially and reconnected to being alive and human. We've just lost sight of these traditions in our culture of quick-and-easy morning showers. 

Mikkel has been covered earlier here at Tinygogo. He is responsible for the Perfect Sweat Summit which took place at Archimedes Banya in San Francisco.


Getting Wet, Adventures in the Japanese Bath, Eric Talmadge

This book focuses exclusively on the Japanese national passion for bathing: ofuro, onsens and sentos (wood hot tubs/baths, hot springs and public bath houses) and other related bathing activities. Eric Talmadge is an Associated Press reporter based in Japan. He's lived there for a number of years now and really knows and loves sharing Japanese culture. As with Cathedrals of the Flesh, exploration of Japanese bathing culture becomes a great travelogue where we learn more about the country through amusing personal stories. 


Undesigning the Bath, Leonard Koren

If bathing were a political movement, this would be my Little Red Book. It is my bathing manifesto. It's is out of print but worth tracking down. If anyone is considering building their own bath or sauna retreat, Undesigning the Bath is essential primary reading. Inside there are no "how-to's" but instead important philosophical conceptions on the aesthetics of the bathing space and how such spaces can become environments for deep reflection and satisfaction.

Leonard Koren was a speaker at the Perfect Sweat Summit. He is probably best known for being the founder/publisher/editor of Wet Magazine.

The Sauna Book, Tom Johnson and Tim Miller

I don't know much about this book's background or the authors. Way back in the 1970s it probably competed for bookstore shelf space with Mikkel Aaland's Sweat as the book for do-it-yourselfers building their own backyard or basement saunas.

Like Sweat it's out of print and getting harder to find. Also like Sweat, it goes deeper into sauna background, health and history. But primarily it provides good solid information on how to build a sauna. It's remains one of the better books for DIY sauna building. This book was indispensable when my brother and I built our backwoods wood-fired sauna in the 1990s in Alaska.

Carson Hot Springs Resort gets an update

Here are a couple snaps of a cool new development at the venerable Carson Hot Springs.
Check out the pool that is going in on the right.

Here it is directly.

The new owners of the resort are putting in an outdoor soaking pool! I think this is a very good move for the facility. 

It was hard for me to see a way forward for the resort. Space is now limited with overbuilt new hotel rooms that were put in by a previous developer. (You can see one building in the photo above and there is a similar building right behind me from the photo above.) Also the wonderfully quirky old historic hotel and bath house (in the top photo) simply can't go. It is too historically important and a part of the cultural legacy of the region. But, honestly, the old soaking tubs and wraps are a little antiquated. It's a bathing method that is not for everyone. 

With the outdoor soaking pool, guests can will now take in the splendor of the Wind River Gorge while soaking in a more congenial, social setting. 

Another big bonus is that kids will be allowed in the facility. The bath house has traditionally had an age limit. Now families will soon be able to soak together outside!

Happy sauna time

Here nephew Andrew lights and stokes the sauna for a quiet and dark winter sauna. Thanks, Andrew. Playing with fire can be fun!

Sauna in cinema: Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring

Saunas are not just for hedonist pleasure (though there's nothing wrong with that). For many they are used for ritualistically connecting with life. They are used as a contemplative space for coping with life transitions, including the pain of loss and sorrow. There is a very powerful sauna scene in Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring (1960) which uses the sauna as part of a tragic tale of loss. 

Oddly enough, I've actually scene a couple Bergman films just recently (Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal). I'd always wanted to know what people were talking about by "Death on the beach," etc. So I was surprised when a sauna friend of mine, Michael Nordskog, mentioned a sauna scene in another Bergman flick, The Virgin Spring. (Michael, by the way, is the author of one of the U.S's primer sauna books, The Opposite of Cold. He was a speaker at the Perfect Sweat Summit.) He suggested the movie might make for a good topic for Tinygogo's Sauna in Cinema.

I got a copy from the library and all I can say is "absolutely." It is a powerful movie with a powerful poignant sauna scene.

The story centers around the rape and murder of an attractive, if spoiled, innocent young girl, Karin. She is the only daughter of Swedish parents who act as the heads of a small medieval feudal compound. 

Human pettiness and resentment set the stage for bad things to come. The mother and father both desperately love their daughter, though there is a rift between them in that their love is not a shared mutual love. The mother dotes on the daughter. Her daughter is all she has in the world. She is jealous of her daughter's relationship with her father, Töre. The father, tough, stoic, clueless, doesn't bother to reach out and share these affections with the mother as a family love. There is a adopted step-sister, Ingeri, who is treated more like a domestic servant. She deeply resents Karin for the love and happiness that is bestowed on her. Ingeri is further shamed with an unwanted pregnancy.

A tragedy ensues. Karin is sent off on an errand to deliver cheese and candles to a church for the Virgin Mary. Along the way she is waylaid by goat herdsmen, she is raped and murdered. The act is witnessed by her jealous step-sister Ingeri who fails to try and stop the act. 

Later that night, the herdsmen seek lodging unknowingly in the very house of Karin and Ingeri's parents. One of the murdering herdsmen offers some of Karin's clothing they stole off her body to sell to the mother. The mother, in cool silent horror, brings the dress of her dead daughter to the Töre. On his way to investigate, the stepsister returns to tell the tale of murder she witnessed. She confesses her jealousy of Karin.

With little doubt now of what became of his daughter and who was responsible, Töre, begins to ritualistically prepare to exact retribution and kill the herdsmen.

He calls on Ingiri to prepare "the bath," a traditional Nordic sauna. While it is heating up he wanders off to collect birch branches. He vents his rage by tearing down a tree with his bare hands.

He chops off birch branches for the bath to be used as vihta

Dutifully, the step-daughter has prepared the bath--water on the rocks for loyly.

Töre cleanses himself. It is ritual purification. The flagellation and dumping of cold water on himself are acts of waking himself up and gathering strength to face the deed he must carry out. (Max von Sydow, you hardbody! How'd you get yourself so fit for this role?)

Töre locks himself in the great hall with his wife and the herdsman. He stands vigil until dawn when he kills both men with a knife and his bare hands. However in his fit of murderous rage, Töre kills an innocent younger brother of the herdsman, a child. He realizes that he has overstepped his bounds in exacting vengeance. "God forgive me for what I have done." Töre, dude, you're going to need a lot of sauna sessions to work this one out.

With Light Steam, book reading event

copy write Bryon MacWilliams
Hey Portland sauna enthusiasts! We're in luck. Come meet Bryon MacWilliams and listen to him read from his new book With Light Steam. I met Bryon earlier this year while we attended the Perfect Sweat Summit in San Francisco in March 2014. He spoke at the summit, sharing stories and reading from his upcoming book. It was great.

We got to hang out (and sweat) a little at the end of the day after his talk and a long day of discussion. He's a friendly personable guy.

Bryon's talk and reading will be on his damn-it-all move to early-90s post-Soviet Russian, his life there, adjusting and banyas--the Russian equivalent of saunas. He spent a fair amount of time here traveling around and, while he did, his favorite passtime was visiting Russian banyas, big and small, public and private.

Right now he's on the West Coast. His website has the latest reading times and locations: With Light Steam

Here in Portland he will speak at the Guildhall of CSE (Community Supported Everything) 1626 NE Alberta Street from 5 to 6:30 pm. There will be a group walk to a community soak and sauna following this at Common Ground Wellness Coop: 5010 NE 33rd. 

We have much to learn! I'm looking forward to it and getting my hands on his book.