Sunday, April 13, 2008

In search of Big Windy Hot Springs

Dan and Brad ski up Birch Creek in search of Big Windy Hot Springs

Big Windy Hot Springs - You mention this destination to almost anyone and they sort of cock their head and give you a blank look and then ask: "Where is that? I have never heard of it." And the few folks that have stumbled across Big Windy during a Google search of Alaska hot springs have most likely never been there. Here in lies the mystery of Big Windy and the reason for our search of this rarely visited location.

Big Windy Hot Springs is located 20 miles as the crow flies south of Circle Hot Springs. This translates into about 33 miles of skiing up several tributaries of Birch Creek. The springs are situated in a deep valley on a rocky slope above Big Windy Creek. I have never actually met anyone that has ventured out to this oasis in the boreal forest on foot. A researcher at UAF did write an informative paper about the unusual flora and fauna which inhabits Big Windy. Apparently this is the northernmost extent of the water shrew...interesting.

Dan and his younger brother Brad geared up for the journey to Big Windy. Brad was up from Colorado for the weekend. Dan informed me as we were getting ready to depart that Brad had only cross country skied a couple times. Dan what are you thinking?!? -- this could be a grueling trip.

For first 12 miles from Circle Hot Springs to Birch Creek we followed the Bielenberg Trail which was nicely packed by snowmachines. After that we broke trail the last 20 or so miles on the creek. The Bielenberg trail is an old mining trail which continues on towards Woodchopper and Coal Creek on the Yukon River.

Dan had forgot his sunglasses so he improvised some eye protection using a hat and bandanna.

We encountered many stretches of overflow, or river water under pressure that is forced to the surface and then spreads out over the ice. So our feet got soaked as the icy water splashed up or poured over the top of our ski boots.

The river ice is so abrasive that we had to re-apply kick wax numerous times.

Dan throws himself on the ice to suck water (and possibly giardia) from a small fissure.


We came across some awesome stretches of glare ice where you could just tap your poles and effortlessly excel forward. These are moments of glory to embrace as you shoot across the ice.

We tried to dip at every watering hole in order to stay hydrated. This is much more efficient than stopping and pulling out the stove to melt snow.

As we traversed up the Big Windy drainage, the valley gradually narrowed, the snow deepened, and we began to encounter thin ice and open water.

We had to negotiate stretches of open water a mile or two downstream from the hot springs. This required precariously jumping from rock-to-rock in order to cross the river.

Dan was too lazy to keep taking his skis off and thought he could jump this small stretch...he was wrong.

In some places it was possible to bridge your skis between rocks and work your way across the stream. Dan is still having some bad luck. He will keep his skis on to the bitter end...

The boulders and deep snow increased as we continued up the valley.

Finally the boulders were impossible to ski through. So our only option was too walk up the creek or bushwhack along a steep slope through deep snow and downed trees. So it took us more than an hour to cover the last 1/2 mile to the springs.

At last - Big Windy Hot Springs!!! Hmmm...where is the inviting pool of warm water? The bathing beauties? the wet bar??

This really doesn't look too inviting.

And this looks more like a slimy water slide and not something to plunge your body into.

So it looked like at some time long ago someone had piled some rocks up around this location. Maybe this was the hidden oasis we had traveled 2 days to reach...

I stuck my snow shovel into the murky abyss and found that there was about an 18 inch column of hot sludge beneath the green slime surface - perfect!!! So I played pool guy, dropped my pants and got to business scooping out some of the natural healing mud and algae.

Voila! Big Windy Hot Springs is open for business.

The camping was very limited. The best spot was on a slight slope littered with rocks.

We had a nice campfire to dry out our gear. The grass adjacent to my boots caught on fire and before we knew it my boots had ignited and totally torched the toe. Fortunately they would still fit into my ski bindings even though the plastic sole beneath the toe was deformed.

So we did the Big Windy. The mystery of this springs has been uncovered. There are reasons why its not a hot spot on the hot springs circuit: difficult to access, limited sites suitable for pitching a tent, and a not so appealing pool of muck to soak in. But--overall its a great trip and well worth the hard work to get there.


I have more photos of our trip in picasa.

1 comment:

Bevy said...

Do you talk with old timers to find these spots or do you study Alaska maps in your spare time - although w/your job I would figure you're studying them all the time.
:) Glad your boot survived!