Lower Kootenay Band returns to ‘spirit waters’ with Ainsworth Hot Springs purchase

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  • Mar. 24, 2015 6:00 a.m.

Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort, a popular Kootenay Lake tourist destination, is being purchased by the Lower Kootenay Indian Band (LKB), Chief Jason Louie announced March 19.

The acquisition, which will see ownership change hands in April, is an important economic development investment for his people, and it has historical significance too, he said. (More history here.)

“The Lower Kootenay Band has a history with the site that dates back hundreds of years,” he said in a press release. “The Ainsworth hot springs are known by the Ktunaxa people as nupika wu’u, which has a literal translation meaning ‘spirit water’.”

Louie said on Monday that the purchase was announced to about 65 Lower Kootenay Band members at a community meeting last week.

“We couldn’t advertise what it was about, so we just said it was to discuss economic development,” he said. “It was one of the biggest meetings we have ever had. There were a lot of questions asked but no challenges to our purchase, but the atmosphere in the room was upbeat and optimistic.”

Louie said the LKB faces numerous challenges, including establishing working relationships with residents of Kootenay Lake’s west shore, and connecting with the many tourism-related organizations in the Kootenays.

Equally important, though, is to ensure changes and new development are in keeping with First Nations values, and that they provide an educational proponent that brings the band’s history and culture into the picture.

“We will be relying on the few elders that we have left to guide as we move forward,” he said.

International tourists are among the many opportunities the resort offers, Louie said.

“I was at the resort with my family last week and in the pool and caves we could hear many languages being spoken — I would guess German, French, Russian. There are a lot of international visitors and we want to give them a unique cultural experience.”

He said one idea being discussed is the installation of teepees that could be used as accommodation in the spring, summer and fall months, inviting visitors to get a deeper understanding of the hot springs’ importance to earlier generations of Lower Kootenay people.

“Lower Kootenay has a unique culture and a unique language,” he said. “It is not associated with any other language family.”

The resort includes land that will accommodate further development.

“This is a great economic development opportunity, but it does not include plans for a casino, despite the rumours,” he said. “We don’t have an interest in capitalizing on people who don’t have the funds to spare for gambling.”

Education about language and culture won’t be restricted to tourists.

“We also have to work to educate our own community,” he said. “The majority are young and there are definitely generation gaps. Many haven’t really been exposed to our language and culture.

“My own children are excited. Changes will come in due time and the transition will start with a new branding of the resort.”

Curtis Wullum, LKB development services director, said on Monday that about $500,000 is earmarked for capital improvements, which “came from our due diligence.” They will focus on improvements to the banquet and restaurant facilities and a patio.

The resort, located 22 kilometres south of Kaslo on the west shore of Kootenay Lake, has been family-owned since 1962. Current owners Norm and Joyce Mackie purchased the property from Joyce’s parents, Sam and Belle Homen, in 1979.

No immediate dramatic changes are planned for the resort, Louie said. He and band representatives met with resort staff March 18 to announce that all employees would be kept on. LKB will be investing in capital improvements at the resort in the near future.

“The resort will provide meaningful employment and business opportunities for the citizens of Yaqan Nukiy and local residents, and will continue to be a major tourism destination of the region,” he said.

The resort currently provides about 50 jobs in the management and operation of the hot springs, 41-room hotel and restaurant.

“We are privileged and pleased to enter into this purchase agreement with Chief Jason Louie and the Lower Kootenay Band,” Norm and Joyce said in a written statement. “The resort has been a family affair since 1962 and transferring ownership is a daunting experience.

“This has been a wonderful 35-year ride for our family. Probably the best part for us has been to watch young people, in their first job, come to work with us, and become self-assured contributors to the work force. Many of these people come back to visit and tell us this was probably the best job they ever had. This is truly gratifying.”

“The spirit water has been medicine for healing various ailments that the human body experiences,” said Louie. “This business venture reconnects our First Nation to a significant cultural site of the Ktunaxa people.

“The Lower Kootenay Band will continue to strive for excellence in hospitality and experience. Professional development will be ongoing and customer service will remain a priority.”

A formal grand opening event is planned for the summer.