Singing to the Springs

Creative nonfiction published in Spa, 1997.

On the fourth day of a Chichigoff Island kayaking trip in Southeastern Alaska, I was yearning to reach Tenakee Springs. I stroked hypnotically, humming an old paddling song to keep going. Ahead was sky-rippled water, shiny water, gleaming and glistening silver and faint red. Water full of moving, wriggling — salmon!

Bump-bump I kayaked over arching, splashing salmon headed up-inlet to spawn. Salmon under-hull, stroking into salmon, paddling whorls around salmon! Surrounded by salmon, a song welled up in me, a Tulalip Salmon-honoring song.

I rejoiced in their abundance, much as my Scots pioneer ancestors, upon reaching the Columbia River at the end of the Oregon Trail, must have rejoiced at seeing a river of salmon seeming solid enough to walk across.

Past the salmon was Tenakee Springs. For three days I’d seen no sign of human habitation. Now I kayaked against a stiff sea breeze, whitecaps buffeting the gunwales.

Past shacks, shore trails, and light poles, past boathouses, and red and gray warehouses. Stroke, stroke, around a huge pier, barnacled and oil-stained with high tide marks, to the dock-side, where I could—if my knees still bent—climb out to the hot springs.

I hobbled up the ramp in the twilight to a building next to the wharf. The door said women’s hours.

I entered a cement locker room with a center pillar, wooden benches with clothing hooks on the walls above them, high wire-covered windows, and a low ceiling dripping with moisture. From behind the corner door, I heard children’s squeals. I undressed and stumbled down cement stairs.

The lower room was windowless, square like a blockhouse, thick, ugly and serviceable. Steam rose and surrounded me, misting my glasses. Sounds echoed off the high ceiling, level with that of the locker room above: splash of water buckets, thud of feet, squeals.

Several children crouched at the edge of an oblong pool sunk in the cement floor. Some jumped in the water, screamed, and climbed out immediately, their legs red.

Others dabbled toes and shins in the water near the edge. In the far corner where overflow water slithered and disappeared down a drain, mothers mixed jugs of cold water with hot and poured it over their children’s shampooed heads so the soapy water slipped away from the pool. I understood the custom: don’t pollute the springs.

I walked over to the oblong pool, a cement window to the earth’s rocks underneath. Recessed around the edges was a cement step. Below that I saw, through the bubbles in the steaming water, huge gray and pink rock.

Deep down in the center were two slits, one short and one very long, from which water and air bubbled up slowly, not like a surging fountain, but a pufferfish’s bubbles rising to the surface.

The rock walls sloped downward steeply at least seven feet to the horizontal cracks. Only the opposite end offered a deeper ledge to stand on while halfway immersed. The smell was faintly sulfur—mineral, moist, humid.

I put my toes in. The water was hot, felt like 120 degrees, but only 108. No wonder kids were just dancing around the edges of the pool, jumping in and out like marionettes.

I sat on the front edge and let my unshaven legs dangle in the water. The hairs rose and floated outward. My skin began to tingle. The heat reached my ankle bones. It felt marvelous.

I knelt on the shallow step to soak just my knees and sore elbow, so my body wouldn’t overheat. I felt the muscles loosen, the bones relax. No heat was too much.

The surface of the pool became a mirror. I stared down deep into the crack in the dark rock, the two pink-lipped slits, and I realized that I was staring at Mother Earth’s labia.

I looked around hastily. No one had noticed. No one had exclaimed. I was ignored until one woman said as she left, “Don’t soak too long, it’s not healthy,” and banged the exit door above, which echoed around the high ceiling. The mothers and children left, too. I was alone with Tenakee Springs.

I turned back and watched the bubbles rise from the slits, fascinated. Mother Earth’s juices bubbled up, mineral and healing. I looked again at the deep slits, then averted my eyes, suddenly ashamed of my prying glance.

Finally I lowered myself into the hot water, waiting until my thighs were used to it, then sinking slowly up to my neck in the near-scalding water, respectfully avoiding the source. Instead I raised my legs out straight over the rising stream of bubbles, felt their hot tickle.

As I soaked I imagined the springs unwalled, open to the air and sky, long before they were mapped as Hoonah Hot Springs in 1890, or renamed Tenakee in 1928 after a local cannery.

Now gray and red warehouses on stilts filled the stony shore between the blockhouse and the water. Still, the overflow to the inlet must have created a path over stones where mosses and algae grew in warm abundance, even in winter.

How must it have looked hundreds of years ago when the Tlingit pulled their canoes ashore and soaked their aching bodies? The natives who once lived here have moved to the Alaskan Mainland.

Only nearby pictographs recounting a battle between warring clans, and the weather-beaten longhouse of the old chief have remained. Unless their ancestral spirits still rested here.

How could I honor the springs? I’d already put a donation for the bathhouse in the can at the general store. Naked and wet, what offering could I bring Her?

Only the songs I carried, ancient songs from the Sisiwis (sacred breath) Northwest Coast tradition, learned from the Nootka memorizer Johnny Moses, songs She might not have heard in years.

I turned back in the silence and seclusion to the sacred healing water. Lulled in the springs, my body loosened. A water blessing song welled up from deep inside me, throbbing, guttural, sulfurous:

__________ti – ke – neh ——-__________neh———

An ancient voice flowed up from the earth into my belly, low and throaty, liquid and molten, a melody rising to the ceiling and echoing through the chambers of the heart.

__________neh——— __________klae- klae- show- sten

As the walls pulsed with the steady heartbeat of the Mother, the ocean healing song streamed from me, lyrical and resonant, ebbing and flowing like a lullaby. It felt right, as if the Mother had been lonely here, awaiting recognition, awaiting reverence.

Suddenly the wooden door banged open. Local women descended, casually nude.

“We heard the singing,” they said. “It’s so lovely.”

I realized they had been waiting above, not wanting to intrude. My body had turned red. Time to get out.

Hesitantly I asked, “Do you know—Have you noticed?” I pointed to the crack. “It’s Mother Earth’s—” Suddenly inarticulate, I halted.

“Yes, we’ve noticed. We know, we live here. It’s what keeps us going.” And they stepped in.


Anyone who loves Mother Earth must bathe in Tenakee Springs. If you don’t want to kayak or sail, you can get to Tenakee Springs by plane or ferry.

Go with a group of women. Don’t expect amenities unless you stay at the luxury Tenakee Hot Springs Lodge with a 5-day sport fishing package.

No bank, no roads, no cars, no street lights, no running water. Residents haul water from creek or cold spring. One gravel street, Tenakee Avenue, 2 miles long and 4-12 feet across, running parallel to shore. Snyder’s Mercantile, built in 1899, two cafes, library, PO, city hall, and new school K-12 for the 150 residents.

Cool summers (45-65F), mild winters (24-39F), precip. 69” yr. Hot Springs 108 degrees, 7 gal. per min. Hours: Men 2-6 PM & 10pm-9am, Women 9am-2pm & 6-10pm.

TO DO: Beach combing & hiking (eagles, seals, salmon, humpback, minke & orca whales, sea lions, otters, harbor porpoises, brown bears), kayaking, berrypicking (salmonberry, thimbleberry, raspberry, huckleberry, blackcaps, blackberry), crabbing, shrimping, salmon & halibut fishing. Tenakee Springs is its own therapy.


Blue Moon Cafe[break]Tenakee Inn & Tavern + laundromat, snacks[break]Jason Charter[break]Snyder Mercantile—cottages with kitchens ($30-60) bring sleeping bag[break]Tenakee Hot Springs Lodge—full package luxury fishing ($2390 for 5 days including airfare, home-cooked meals, lodging & boat charter)[break] Campground at Indian River, a mile east of town[break]Ferry: LeConte from Sitka 2x week, from Juneau 3x week ($22 one-way). 8-hr. trip.[break]Seaplane: LAB Flying Service & Wings of Alaska from Juneau daily ($65). ? hr.[break]Bell Air from Sitka

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