Hot Springs

Hot springs represent the raison d’etre for our national park system. The first park in Canada was a tiny 26 sq. km. (10 sq. mi.) reserve around several hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain, named the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. Two years later, the reserve was enlarged to include Devil's Head Lake (today's Lake Minnewanka) and the Banff townsite and it became the Rocky Mountains Park of Canada.  Our first national park was renamed Banff National Park in 1930. Banff is the third National Park in the world behind Yellowstone in the U.S., and Royal National Park in Australia. It’s interesting to note that the first National Park in the world, Yellowstone, was also set aside for its thermal features.

Key Topics

An Introduction to Hot Springs

There are many springs in the Rockies. Springs are defined as places where groundwater is discharged at a specific location. They vary dramatically as to the amount of water they discharge. Some of the water may have traveled great distances underground before resurfacing as a spring. Many of the larger springs in the Rockies are the result of long cracks, or joints, in sedimentary rock.

How are Hot Springs Created?

When we talk about hot or thermal springs, these are defined as springs where the temperature of water lies significantly above the mean annual air temperature of the region." A mineral spring is defined as one that contains a reading of 400 parts/million of total dissolved solids. Both types of spring are found from Mexico to Alaska.

In the case of the thermal springs in the Rockies, their formation tends to be quite consistent. As rain falls on the surrounding peaks, it percolated into the rather porous sedimentary rocks. As it descends through the rock, it picks up a variety of materials, everything from radium to sulphur. Also, as it moves further beneath the surface, it heats up from the primal heat of the Earth. Eventually, it encounters a large thrust fault, or crack. As water descends behind it, it forces the now heated water to ascend along the fault-line to surface as a hot or warm spring. In Banff, it is the Sulphur Mountain Thrust Fault that is responsible for the 8 hot and warm springs along the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain. Also critical in the creation of a hot spring, is an express route to the surface. If the water moves slowly from depth to the surface, it will cool back down before it bubbles out as a spring. Luckily, since many of these springs occur in limestone formations, The openings allowing the water to the surface may be enlarged by dissolving of the limestone to create a virtual pipeline to the surface. This assures a quick trip and warm waters.

Life In And Around Hot Springs

Like most mountain environments, hot springs support an abundance of life even long before they reach the surface. The sulphur smell is caused by anaerobic bacteria living deep beneath the Earth’s crust (see next topic). Once the springs surface, they offer opportunities not found elsewhere. The warm water allows an abundance of algae and bacteria to live. For many years a species of fish, the long-nosed dace, survived only in the outflow of the Cave & Basin Hot Springs. Unfortunately, it has now joined the dodo bird in the realm of extinction. Numerous other species of tropical fish survive in the outflow from the Cave & Basin in a small section of Vermilion Lakes.

The warm water also allows an abundance of life surrounding the waters to survive. It creates a microscopic world where the climate is warmer than the remainder of the Rockies. Plants like watercress, not found elsewhere in the Canadian Rockies, thrives in the warm runoff. Reptiles like the garter snake, and amphibians like long-toed salamanders also survive only adjacent to these warm runoff channels. It’s a world unlike any other area of the mountains.

That Pleasant Aroma

Just where does that odour come from? It reminds you of rotten eggs and clears your sinuses better than nasal mist. The smell is a result of H2S (Hydrogen Sulphide), a gas similar to natural gas. It results from anaerobic bacteria converting some of the dissolved sulphur in the water to H2S. Springs like the Upper Hot Spring and Cave & Basin in Banff, and Miette Hot Springs in Jasper, exhibit this pungent stench. The presence of H2S indicates that the water has penetrated to great depths. As the water percolates deeply into the crust, pressure increases, and this allows anaerobic bacteria to convert sulphur in the form of sulphate to the sulphide of H2S. This normally is followed by a quick trip to the surface in order to retain the H2S created. A slow surface route may retain the gas only if the passage excludes oxygen, allowing the anaerobic bacteria to continue their work. There must also be a large initial concentration of H2S created at depth. This can be seen in springs like Radium where the water reaches the surface through aerated caves which allow the H2S to oxidize before it reaches the surface – the end result – no smell.

Hot Springs History

For more than a hundred years, hot springs in the Rockies have attracted untold numbers of visitors to their healing waters. There's something very soothing about soaking in a pool of water heated by the primordial heat of the Earth itself – especially at a time when the health of that Earth itself is in question. Over the past few years, the future of these facilities has been in question as the debate over their cost and profits, compared to their historical significance is regularly and routinely discussed within the higher echelons of parks.

The first white men traveled through the Banff area in 1841. That year, George Simpson, in charge of North American operations for the Hudson's Bay Company, passed through as part of a round-the-world journey. He never mentioned anything about any hot springs. Neither did Reverend Robert T. Rundle who entered the area shortly thereafter. He is remembered in the name of Banff's most famous peak.

The first non-native discovery of Banff’s springs was in 1865 with the arrival in the Bow Valley of two American fur traders, Benjamin Pease and Peter Younge. Pease was able to speak Sioux (a language similar to Stoney), and was told of the springs by local Indians. Development wasn't really an option as the area was still completely remote with no reasonable access, so the springs remained undisturbed until the railway chugged its way west. With this, came more and more people. On a cold morning in November of 1883, three workers, Frank McCabe and William and Thomas McCardell, noticed steam rising from the side of Terrace (now Sulphur) Mountain. As they checked out the source of the steam they became the modern discoverers of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs.

Being good capitalists, they quickly built a small bath-house and filed a homestead claim. Unfortunately, homesteads weren't recognized in the Rockies. They then tried a mineral rights claim. Unfortunately again, mineral springs were not considered a mineral resource. All of this brought the area to the attention of William Pearce, the mine Superintendent in Calgary. Upon investigating, he was so impressed that he, along with William Van Horne of the C.P.R., began to agitate for the creation of a park.

Finally, on November 2, 1885, the Banff Hot Springs Preserve was set aside. It was only 26 square km, but two years later would be significantly enlarged and renamed Rocky Mountains Park – Canada's first National Park. It was also the third such park in the world behind only Yellowstone in the U.S. and Royal National Park in Australia.

Like Banff’s hot springs, Miette Hot Springs were well known to local natives. Passing fur traders often soaked in their healing waters. Miners from nearby Pocohontas who first built a rough trail to the springs in 1910, followed with a small bath-house three years later. The first pool was built in 1919, but the area remained remote until a road was completed in 1933.

Radium hot springs, like all the rest, was long known before it was developed. In fact, it played an integral role in the location of highway 93. This highway was routed to take it past the springs. Although a tent was erected in 1890, a small pool was built in 1914. A more permanent structure was built in 1923, after completion of Highway 93 and the creation of Kootenay National Park.

Today, these parks  look very different. With millions of visitors each year making their way through the gates, the connection these pools provide to our history is becoming more and more vital. We must ensure that these landmarks will continue to soothe the aches and pains of travelers for many years to come.

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All Material © Ward Cameron 2005