There I stood, on the banks of the icy cold reservoir, each breath creating a fog, clouding my view of the 50 other people in bathing suits, shivering, hovering, and wondering, as I was, if this really was the right way to start the New Year.
This was my second Polar Bear Plunge. For those of you who are first hearing about this phenomenon, the Polar Bear Plunge is often a charity event held through the winter in different parts of the world. They share one thing in common: Jumping into icy cold water. On purpose.
Why? Exposing the body to really cold water has many supposed benefits: boosts immunity, improves sexual function, increases circulation, speeds weight loss, and creates endorphins. Endurance athletes do this regularly, soaking in ice baths after training to speed recovery. To me it is a wake-up call, a reminder to really live. There’s nothing that reminds you that you’re alive, than 36-degree water.
Except hot springs. As much as I love icy baths, hot springs are my preferred choice if I plan to spend time immersed in water. Hot springs are geothermally heated from inside the earth. Since hot water holds more suspended solids than cold water, hot springs often have high mineral content. They often smell of sulfur and other minerals, which many believe adds to their therapeutic properties.
The use of water for mental and physical health and well-being (hydrotherapy) dates back to ancient civilizations. The boom of hot springs resorts peaked in the 1920s in the U.S. We are blessed with an abundance of hot springs in our region. Here are a few of my favorites near Ashland:
• Stewart Mineral Springs: Located outside of Weed, Calif., Stewart is a well-developed facility that has been around since the late 1800s. The protocol at the springs is to sit in your hot springs-filled clawfoot tub for between two and seven minutes, then towel up, step outside and plunge into icy cold Parks Creek right outside. Repeat. Repeat again and again for 90 minutes, which is how long you rent your bathing room.
There are many other healing opportunities at Stewart, including a dry wood-fired sauna, massage, rustic cabins and nearby hiking opportunities. Pro tip: It is much easier to do the polar plunge when you are able to jump back into a hot bath.
• Jackson Wellsprings: Right outside of Ashland are the lovely Wellsprings and adjacent — and higher end — Lithia Springs Resort. The Wellsprings dates back more than 100 years, and has recently been remodeled and spruced up. On site are a large warm swimming pool, a steam room and a dry sauna. When I go there I am transported back to ancient Rome, where public bathing was the norm. For women concerned with privacy and cleanliness, Ladies Only night is every Monday, right after the weekly pool cleaning.
According to the Wellsprings, these waters have been “revered for centuries by First Nation tribes as a ceremonial and birthing site.” The namesake for the springs is Eugenia Jackson who wanted these waters publicly available for “natatorium and sanitarium purposes.”
• Umpqua Hot Springs: By far my favorite local hot springs are the Umpqua Hot Springs, near Tokatee Falls and the “Dread and Terror” section of the North Umpqua Trail. The setting is right out of the Lord of the Rings (absent tiny Hobbits running around) with huge Technicolor plants and damp, mossy old-growth towering above as you walk to the steamy pools tucked in the woods.
Warning: These hot springs have recently reopened after high bacteria levels were recorded. Some brilliant person took matters into their own hands and bleached the springs to kill the bacteria (and everything else), but it won’t stop me from going back. These springs are on public land and are largely undeveloped, so be prepared for a rustic experience.
I prefer the more undeveloped hot springs found on public land, but that’s just me. If you are planning some hot springs adventures, I recommend grabbing a guidebook such as “Hiking Hot Springs in the Pacific Northwest.”
Joseph Vaile is executive director of the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center (KS Wild, 541-488-5789, www.kswild.org). His Wild Side column appears every three weeks.