A Very Chilly Winter Visit to Liard Hotsprings

Liard Hotsprings in winter. (Earl Brown Photo)

(This account of a winter visit to Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park by Ioana Lupu and family is both a hilarious story and a cautionary tale about the effects of cold weather. The story first appeared in the Fort Nelson News and has been edited for this space.)

“Oh, yeah, we’re totally going to the Hot Springs on New Year’s!” That was our unanimous thinking as we embarked on our 3-night stay at Muncho Lake Lodge.  We were going to show our relatives visiting from South Africa the best of the North.  Never mind the cold. They seemed to be adapting well, skiing and snowshoeing at -30C like they had been living here all their lives (except they hadn’t).

With matter-of-fact determination, I packed bathing suits and towels and away we went: my husband, myself, our 2 kids, and our 2 visitors (who were sure we knew what we were doing).

Our host at Muncho Lake Lodge suggested that -25C would be the limit of cold temperature: beyond that she did not advise going into the hot springs with kids.  “Your fingers get too cold to dress yourself and them as well.  It is just not fun when it is any colder.” But how could we miss this opportunity? And really, what’s -25 compared to -39C? Practically speaking, there are 14 degrees of difference between COLD and VERY COLD, but that is only of importance to wussies, which we were not.

As we started driving from the lodge to Liard Hotsprings Provincial Park, the temperature dropped from -30 to -39C.  It was very, very cold when we parked the car.  The fact that we had to run from the car to the hot springs to keep from freezing should have told us that perhaps we were on the path to self-destruction.  However, once we got there, we were so cold that the promise of the warm water probably overtook our better judgment.

My daughter started wondering, in a very unhappy voice, if we had to take our clothes off.  “You decide if you want to or not.  I am okay with us not swimming if you do not want to.” In retrospect, this should have been an ADULT decision.  The adult formerly known as me was mesmerized by the steam rising from the pool, and I barely blinked as my daughter took her clothes off and plunged into the water, goggles and all.  The rest of us followed.  My son, being the strong and silent type, did not say much except for a mild protest, but hey, who’s listening.

(Photo courtesy of Ioana Lupu)

(Photo courtesy of Ioana Lupu)

Soon, we were all enjoying the water.  It was spectacular and crazy at the same time.  Our hats were frozen, my daughter’s hair was frozen (yet she kept on diving), and the steam was creating a surreal scene framed by the heavily iced trees, benches, ground, rocks, and everything else.  The sky itself seemed iced over. I lost track of time.

The hot springs pool was only lukewarm, except for the spot where the water came bubbling out of the ground, where we all huddled like primitive Homo Sapiens over a fire.  Looking back at our photos, I see that my son’s ears were getting red and frost-bitten.

It was time to get out. I had it all planned: hubby and I would both get out and get dressed, then take the kids out one by one and dress them.  The plan was fool-proof.  I stepped bravely onto the frozen ground.  My feet burned. My hands burned. My feet did not fit in my shoes.  Somehow, my shoes had shrunk. I looked over at my husband, who was shivering and trying to say something.  “I think I got the wrong shoes.  These shoes are too small.” We quickly realized that EVERYBODY’s shoes were too small, due to some phenomenon that I had no time to identify but was probably explained in “the idiot’s guide to what happens to your shoes when you leave them outside at -40C and you go take a bath.”

We finally got our feet in our shoes, but now my hands were blue and swollen.  They were also not working anymore.  I could see that they were attached to my body, but I could not move them. Luckily, a man from Fort St. John—who had had the same bad idea as us that day—had brought along a propane heating lamp and he let us use it.  It made my fingers function again. We took our youngest kid out next.  He screamed.  A lot.  We got him dressed. My fingers froze again.  I put them next to the heat lamp. Then my daughter jumped out of the hot springs, screaming that she is cold and needs to get dressed. With barely moving fingers, we got her dressed, but it was getting harder and harder to make the small movements that dressing a child requires.

Finally, everyone was dressed, but my son started shivering uncontrollably.  He was so cold he could not walk.  My husband held him next to the propane heater, and while holding him there, my husband’s jacket caught on fire.  He rolled in the show to put it out.  I am sure that added a lot of joy to the overall delightful experience, but I was not there to see the show as my daughter and I had run to the car to get it warmed up.

I put my daughter in the car, gave her a snack, and ran back to the hot springs. I picked up my son and ran with him back to the car and gave him a snack.  I then ran back to the hot springs to see how our visitors from South Africa were doing. I picked up some shoes we had left by the water and ran back to the car.

Once everyone was accounted for, we took stock of the casualties: one adult and one child had ear frostbite.  Despite the cold and the discomfort and the painful ears, and the fact that I would never do it again, we had a story to tell and a New Year’s we would never forget.