When Curtis Wullum dropped into my office last week I had no idea what was on his mind. The purchase of Ainsworth Hot Springs Resort would not have been among my first thousand or so guesses. And upon hearing his news, I immediately felt a big grin spreading across my face.
It’s hard to find anything negative to say about Ainsworth Hot Springs. The resort is about as unpretentious as it could possibly be. Nothing about the family-owned business is meant to be showy. It is designed and operated to be a family-friendly, affordable destination where guests can relax and forget about the outside world for a few hours or a few days. And, under the guidance of the Mackies, and the Homens before that, it has been remarkably successful.
I have vague childhood memories of the Banff Hot Springs caves and there is no denying the appeal of going into that dark, humid and a bit eerie semicircle at Ainsworth, feeling your way around until the light once again appeared. Even with some lighting — no doubt an acknowledgement that we live in a safety-obsessed society —it’s still a great experience. On our most recent visit last summer I was even lured into dunking into the cold pool by a five year-old who can get her Pop to do just about anything she asks. The appeal of that frigid water so near to the hottest pool is hard to explain. Let’s just say the contrast works.
As soon as Wullum outlined the basics of the deal, it felt to me like I was watching the sevens drop into place in a slot machine — it was a winner from every angle I could see. I use the slot machine analogy intentionally. Apparently there have been rumblings by people who treasure seeking out the negative that the purchase is a sure sign that the resort will soon be the site for a new casino. After all, First Nations and gambling go hand-in-hand, don’t they? In this case, it won’t happen in the short or medium term for two reasons. One, there is, according to Chief Jason Louie, no license available to construct another casino in the area. Two, he and Wullum agree that the Lower Kootenay Band wants to operate and further develop the site with a much different set of values in mind.
On Monday, I sat with Louie and Wullum and they spoke of doing some upgrades immediately, then looking at a longer-term plan to put facilities and programs into place that will educate the public and celebrate the long history of First Nations people in the Kootenays. They spoke of signage, of teepees, of fishing boat excursions, of adding traditional Indian food to the restaurant menu and placing a greater emphasis on the 100 Mile Diet. No major changes will take place without the approval of the elders in the small community of Lower Kootenay, which is finally beginning to see some of its economic development plans come to fruition.
The future of Ainsworth Hot Springs, in Louie’s eyes, will mirror the future of the Lower Kootenay Band. Slow and steady will win the race. Those words weren’t his, but the sentiment was clear. Every step taken today has to be with the benefit of future generations in mind.
One thing that really resonated with me was the idea that a business that has been lovingly owned and operated by a family for more than a half-century will now be in the hands of a people who used those very hot springs —nupika wu’u, or spirit water —for centuries. One can only imagine how magical those waters must have been to a people who traveled the lakes, rivers, forests and mountains to find food and shelter. Imagine a small pool of hot water steaming on a frigid winter day, inviting cold and weary travellers — or even those suffering from battle injuries — a respite from the elements.
Louie acknowledges that there is work to be done for the Lower Kootenay Band to establish trust and build relationships with people on the west arm of Kootenay Lake. Residents of Ainsworth, Kaslo and even Nelson are about to have a much closer look at First Nations people and their values, and it’s an opportunity to learn for both sides. My experience with Lower Kootenay leaders, which started with Chris Luke Sr. and his sons, and now with Jason and Angie Louie and their family and the current council, convinces me that these are good people with big hearts. They want, more than anything, to leave the world better than when they arrived.
At a Lower Kootenay community meeting last week — one of the largest Louie remembers — he said there were many questions, but little in the way of negativity or pessimism. This purchase looks to me, after taking several days to assess the situation, to have the potential to be a turning point for the Lower Kootenay people. I wish them every success with it.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.