Naturally Nakusp

By Remy Scalza

Soothing hot springs, lush forest, and friendly people are all part of this West Kootenay village’s appeal.

High above the tiny village centre, at the end of a 13-kilometre-long mountain road that climbs along swift-moving Kuskanax Creek, is nature’s gift to Nakusp. From a cleft in the Selkirk Mountains, heated water issues from the earth at 57 C. It’s shunted down a series of pipes for nearly a kilometre to a pair of tiled pools circled by Douglas firs, western redcedars, and white pines. On a fall afternoon, steam rises from the water into the cold air, climbing higher and higher until it seems to mingle with the fog in the crowns of the tallest trees.

“We have regulars who drive 12 hours to get here,” says Noel Ballard, who has helped run the village’s main attraction, the Nakusp Hot Springs, for the last six years. “They soak for a few days and swear it replaces their arthritis medication for weeks.”

I make my way barefoot across cold concrete, then down a few steps and into a pool that feels like bathwater and smells like lit matches, the telltale sulphur that has drawn bathers to the same spot for hundreds—if not thousands—of years and now attracts spa enthusiasts from as far away as Japan and Germany.

What’s most noticeable, though, is what’s missing. No crowds, no noise, no poolside bar or uniformed attendants giving massages and manicures. I snag a pair of pool noodles floating by, lean back, and close my eyes. The big draw at the springs is nature, immediate and unadulterated, which turns out to be the real charm of Nakusp.

Situated in a strip of inland rainforest in the Kootenays, more than 100 kilometres from the nearest regional airport or urban centre, Nakusp is firmly off the well-travelled path. The village, population 1,581, consists of a few streets threaded between the shores of Upper Arrow Lake, a reservoir on the Columbia River, and the craggy Selkirk Mountains. Summers are hot, with highs pushing into the thirties, bringing vacationers from Alberta to boat, fish, and swim; winters draw heliskiers who use the area as a base to access local peaks. But fall is quiet, crisp, and often moodily overcast—perfect for soaking in hot springs, enjoying solitude, and exploring one of British Columbia’s lesser-known corners.

A few hours after my mineral bath, I’m back in town and trying to keep pace with Rosemarie Parent, an energetic grandmother and president of the Arrow Lakes Historical Society.

“This is one of our five original hotels,” Parent explains outside the waterfront Leland Hotel, a sturdy-looking three-storey affair that has been operating continuously for more than 120 years.

Nakusp sprung up in 1892, when a new port was needed to ship Slocan Valley silver, lead, and zinc downriver. In its heyday, massive sternwheelers, complete with elegant formal dining rooms, competed to ferry passengers and cargo back and forth. But in 1968, the Hugh Keenleyside Dam in nearby Castlegar was constructed, ultimately raising the water level and inundating much of the village. “For lots of us, things were never the same after that,” Parent says, pausing at a waterfront promenade to look out over what was once busy wharves, shipyards, and rail stations. Today, dark water stretches to the Monashee Mountains on the opposite shore.

Along Broadway Street, the modern-day main drag, we pass vestiges from the boom times: an ornate Masonic lodge, old pool hall, the 1910 Nakusp courthouse. While a few buildings are vacant, others have been reborn as cafés, boutiques, and even a gift shop selling Guatemalan folk masks. “We’re a community in transition,” Parent says. “Mining is gone. The good forestry and mill jobs are hard to find. But we’re finally discovering the natural treasures in our own backyard.”

Just outside of town, a network of trails winds deep into one of them. This is one of B.C.’s most unusual ecosystems—inland temperate rainforest. Stretching continuously from Prince George to the southern Kootenays, near Nelson, this lush, wet biome of enormous trees and abundant wildlife is the result of Pacific weather systems crashing into the mountains.

This afternoon, the rainforest is living up to its reputation. I pick up the newly blazed four-kilometre Jackrabbit Interpretive Trail and immediately find myself under a dark, damp evergreen canopy. Low fog hangs in the trees, condenses, and drips steadily from above. The ground is an unbroken carpet of neon-green moss.

I climb higher along the moderately difficult trail, flitting into and out of banks of clouds. It’s then I start noticing mushrooms everywhere: brilliant orange, dinner-plate sized mushrooms. There are dainty ones that grow in dense patches and big white ones that glisten in the mist and resemble those found at high-end supermarkets. After my hike, I stop by a local landmark to unravel the mushroom mystery.

“Lobster, or chanterelle, mushrooms are our best seller,” explains Janis Dahlen, one half of the team behind Dan and Jan’s Mushroom Station, a wholesale buyer back in town. While visitors can’t buy mushrooms here, a quick stop offers a glimpse into the region’s culinary claim to fame. On a rainy afternoon, I find a line of local “pickers”—mainly hobbyists looking to earn extra money— dropping off boxes of Nakusp’s cash crop. Dahlen escorts me to a walk-in refrigerator in her garage, filled with thousands of pine mushrooms, graded on a scale from one (the crème de la crème) to five (still delicious but a bit worse for wear) and packed into plastic crates.

Most of these will eventually end up on dinner plates in Japan, though a few will also find their way onto local menus, part of a larger gastronomic awakening of sorts in Nakusp. Back on Broadway, I warm up inside Karl’s, a wood-fired pizza joint serving Neapolitan-style pies with wild ’shrooms. Meanwhile, down the street, the K2 Lodge makes a mean borscht with dill and cream (a legacy of the strong Russian presence in the area), and around the corner Jennifer Chocolates sells grappa-filled truffles handmade by its Italian-trained master chocolatier.

Taking a few cues from boho-chic Kootenay neighbour Nelson, Nakusp is also embracing a nascent art scene. A half dozen studios in town showcase everything from hyper-realistic charcoal sketches to contemporary sculpture.

“When I first got here, lots of people had never even seen sculpture,” says Toru Fujibayashi, who makes abstract pieces in onyx, marble, and chalkstone, among other materials.

Down at the waterfront, the last few rays of setting sun are catching the profile of one of his latest works, a stark white sculpture called Deepening Peace. Up close, its gentle curves belie the hardness of the stone. “It’s my way of working through my experiences here,” he explains. Fujibayashi and his family were placed in a Japanese internment camp in the Slocan Valley during the Second World War. After working abroad for some time, however, he was drawn back to this corner of the Kootenays. “The physical beauty and presence of this place is hard to turn your back on,” he says.

At night, Nakusp’s streets quickly fall dark and small-town quiet. I poke inside the old bar at the Leland Hotel, whose rough-hewn walls have endured more than a century’s worth of carousing. Tonight, one older man in a flannel shirt is nursing a can of beer, eyes intent on the Keno board. A couple stand at the pool table in the back, the clack of their play cutting through Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” on the stereo.

Up at the bar, I settle onto a well-worn stool and order a pint, imagining wilder days when the Leland would have been filled with grizzled miners with money to burn, ragtime piano ringing through the room, and rye whisky flowing. But it wouldn’t be right to expect much in the way of nightlife these days.

Or would it? The bartender, busy polishing glasses for the night ahead, sets me straight. “You’re just early,” he explains. “Come back a bit later for the Karaoke Dance Party with Shirley. She packs ’em in.”

To know if you go

PLAY

Soak in the Nakusp Hot Springs, mineral-rich thermal waters fed into a pair of tiled pools set amid old-growth forest outside town (nakusphotsprings.com). These Hot Springs can be found commercially at Halcyon Hot Springs and in the wild at St. Leon.

Hike the Jackrabbit Interpretive Trail, a four-kilometre path through Nakusp’s unique inland temperate rainforest (nakusptrails.ca).

Indulge in handmade truffles and other artisan treats during a stop at Jennifer Chocolates (jenniferchocolates.com).

Tour the Nakusp and District Museum (92 6th Ave. NW), a cramped basement with a treasure trove of 6,000 artifacts from the town’s river port heyday.

Admire abstract sculpture (86 3rd Ave. SW) inside the tiny studio of internationally acclaimed Japanese-Canadian artist Toru Fujibayashi.

STAY

Brouse Creek Bed & Breakfast (250-265-4625; brousecreek.com), 240 Brouse Loop Rd. Situated on a more than fourhectare farm just outside of town, this B&B offers a cabin and a single room, both with kitchenettes. Breakfast with farm-fresh eggs is included.

Halcyon Hot Springs Village & Spa (888-689-4699; halcyonhotsprings.com), 5655 Highway 23. The area’s most luxurious digs, this resort 35 kilometres north of town comprises chalets and cottages set around a cluster of hot-spring pools overlooking Upper Arrow Lake.

EAT

CMH K2 Rotor Lodge Dining Room (250-265-3618; cmhk2rotorlodge.com), 515 Broadway St. This lively bar and restaurant features great pub classics as well as regional specialties like borscht and Mt. Begbie Brewery craft beers.

Kingfisher Restaurant & Lounge (888-689-4699; halcyon-hotsprings.com), 5655 Highway 23. Easily the most elegant dining option in the region. Classically prepared cuisine with fresh West Coast ingredients

Nick’s Place (250-265-4880), 93 5 Avenue NW. Classic burgers and pizza.

Getting There

Nakusp sits at the junction of Highways 6 and 23 in a curve of the Upper Arrow Lake, between the Selkirk and Monashee mountains. Highway 23 connects with Revelstoke and the Trans Canada Highway, 105 kilometres to the north, via the free Galena Bay/Shelter Bay Ferry. To the south, Highway 6 travels the length of the Slocan Valley, connecting with Nelson and Castlegar via Highway 3A. Drivers can also reach Nakusp from the Okanagan city of Vernon (239 kilometres to the west on Highway 6) via the Fauquier/Needles Ferry and the Monashee Pass. Travel time from Vancouver is approximately eight hours.

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Christine Ly

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