by JACK McNEEL
Beautiful scenery with an incredible hot pool, unusual yet outstanding restaurant, and clean motel rooms—what more can anyone wish for in a short vacation trip north of the border?
Ainsworth Hot Springs is located on the west side of Kootenay Lake, about 130 miles from Sandpoint, Idaho and only 275 miles from Kalispell, Mont. It’s an easy overnight trip through beautiful countryside and can easily lead to a several–night trip, to enjoy more of what that area provides.
The hot springs have been here for centuries, used by indigenous, First Nations people as a place to soak and relieve aches and injuries. They called it nupica wu’u, which translates to “spirit water.” That changed in 1882 when George Ainsworth, an Oregon man, acquired the property while on a mining venture to investigate nearby mineral deposits. For the last 50 years, it’s been a tourist attraction, and for 30 years the hotel and restaurant have become a well-known destination.
Two years ago, the Lower Kootenay Band of the Ktunaxa was able to purchase the property with its pool and motel. Jake Murfitt, assistant manager, explained they wanted something reflective of their culture to offer their clients and hopefully entice new clients. With that in mind, a new chef, Aaron Day, was brought in with the mandate to create a menu for the resort’s restaurant, the Ktunaxa Grill, honoring indigenous ingredients used by First Nations people but created in a different way “to make them presentable in a fine–dining restaurant, yet reflective of the culture,” Murfitt commented.
Day has certainly done that. For lunch, you can still get a half–pound angus burger, but if you’re more adventurous, you might try a smoked bison steak sandwich that comes with roasted cremini mushrooms, bacon jam, grilled onion mayonnaise, and a Swiss–cheese chip on a handmade bun.
One item you will find in every Canadian restaurant that serves First Nation food is bannock, a homemade bread that comes in various forms, depending on the restaurant. Bannock served at the Ktunaxa Grill is excellent. In fact, everything we tried there was excellent.
For dinner we had three appetizers, starting with smoked elk carpaccio served in a bannock tuile with fresh berries, pickled beets, and berry gastrique. We moved on from that to steelhead smoked over applewood with a fennel and beet salad. (Incidentally, Day smokes all the items, 0n-site, for the many dishes containing smoked food.) The third appetizer was a skillet of roasted Saltspring Island mussels, tossed with wild boar sausage, local grape tomatoes, rosemary, caper berries, lemon, and butter. The dish came piping hot, placed on a metal grill at the table.
Diners seated next to windows have a beautiful view over treetops to Kootenay Lake a short distance away, and those on the far end of the room can look down from this third–floor view to observe swimmers and soakers in the warm waters of the large pool below.
The entire pool area is enclosed with beautiful hanging and potted flowers. On the far end, a teepee adds to the First Nations atmosphere.
Natural water, heating to 110 degrees Fahrenheit, flows from a circular cave on the west side, replenishing the pool six times a day. The cave would be black were it not for electric lighting. The water circles around to drop into the large outside pool, which holds at about 97 degrees Fahrenheit.
A swim and soak is included in the price of a room, but if you don’t spend the night, you can enjoy the pool for a reasonable fee.
Rooms vary a bit, depending on whether they face to the east over the lake or west where the view is very limited due to the mountain rising immediately behind. All rooms, however, are comfortable and clean. Many are naturally heated with the hot water from the springs.
Ainsworth sits just a short distance north of the ferry terminal at Balfour and midway between Nelson and Kaslo. Be sure to allow time to explore Nelson, just 30 miles south, and Kaslo, 13 miles to the north.
Nelson has all the modern touches, but with a strong, historic element. In fact, 350 buildings are listed as “Heritage Buildings,” and the town has an old, but functioning, streetcar. Nelson rests on the west arm of Kootenay Lake with the Selkirk Mountains behind. It also has BOB, short for Big Orange Bridge, which dates back to 1914.
Kaslo is somewhat smaller, but equally interesting. Townspeople refer to it as “Canada’s Little Switzerland,” with the high peaks of the Selkirks and Purcell Mountains above. Kootenay Lake lies adjacent. Picturesque perhaps describes it most correctly. It’s a town of galleries and museums with a wooden city hall dating back to 1898. Another popular attraction is the S.S. Moyie Sternwheeler, the world’s oldest, intact passenger sternwheeler. It plied the waters of Kootenay Lake for 59 years, ceasing operations in 1957. It is open for tourist visits, with thousands visiting annually.
Each community adds to the intrigue of this whole region and makes a visit to Ainsworth one that can easily add up to several days of a highly enjoyable vacation.
The ferry, eight miles south of Ainsworth, is part of the 3A highway system and free transport across Kootenay Lake to the east side, which has a number of studios where artisans hang their work for sale. It’s also at the northern tip of the Selkirk Loop, which is a wonderful addition to an Ainsworth Hot Springs visit.
Returning southward along the eastern shore of Kootenay Lake will take you down through Creston and onto Highway 95, south of the border crossing at Porthill, then south to Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint. Montana travelers can follow Highway 2 near Bonners Ferry toward Troy, or continue to Sandpoint and take Highway 200 toward Thompson Falls.
The circular Selkirk Loop drive can be a two–day excursion in itself should time permit, but Ainsworth Hot Springs can be the highlight of that trip as well.