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Warming Up to History

by Lorena Dmytriev

Cave and Basin Archive PhotoIn Banff National Park, there is, for me, a tangible heartland that cradles the spirit of our connection with the land: The Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the birthplace of our national park system.

Human History in the Bow Valley goes back more than 10,000 years. Many generations of people have been drawn to the warm mineral springs at the Cave and Basin. This is a sacred place. In the last century, Stoney people used the springs as a place to heal and find spiritual awakening. They believed the forested slopes of Sulphur Mountain were the home of spirits. Of human form, with far greater wisdom than mere mortals possess, the Little People controlled the healing powers of the springs.

There are eight springs around the home of the Little People, nestled on the slopes of Sulphur Mountain. The soft limestone is honeycombed with watery routes deep into the earth. Water that falls as precipitation makes its way down fault lines scored deeply into the western side of the mountain. From depths of up to three kilometres, super-heated and under pressure, the spring water is forced back up to the surface. Warm springs acquire their mineral content en route. A telltale sign of their presence is the strong scent of sulphur. The Cave and Basin springs are excellent examples of middle temperature springs, with an average range between 29 and 34 degrees Celsius. The hottest and the highest of the mineral springs that made Banff famous are the Upper Hot Springs, where visitors can bathe in an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius.

The Victorian fascination with warm mineral waters and good health drove the development of early Banff. Bathhouses beside the basin spring were framed in a rustic crossed log motif that was to become Banff's signature style of architecture. A tunnel was blasted up the Cave outlet spring to allow easier access and the Basin spring was enlarged to about three times its original size. By 1916, the largest swimming pool in Canada was in full use, though few Canadians know that its construction was completed by labourers interned at the Cave and Basin during the First World War.

Taking the waters was not limited to bathing. By 1912, the Banff Lithia Water Bottling Company was selling mineral water to rail passengers as far east as Winnipeg. Lithia water was rumoured to cure everything from chronic dyspepsia to more troubling ailments of the liver and kidneys. Watering holes sprung up along Banff Avenue boasting local cocktails of Lithia and rye, gin, or rum. One wonders which ingredients provided the best tonic.

People still come to national parks to take the cure, although we no longer believe it's all in the water. The pool at the Cave and Basin has been closed since 1994, but the old magic still lives in the natural wonders of the site. The walk up the tunnel to the Cave spring reveals a mystical subterranean landscape. Strange and eerie stalactites drip with moisture at the back of the cave. An underground cold water spring comes through the wall and cascades into the warm mineral water bubbling up in the centre of the cavern. Above, a halo of light is the original opening to the spring: a small hole created by the unique chemistry of this place over eons of time.

These cavernous depths mask the tremendous strength of this ecosystem and the web of life it supports. White ghostlike strands of algae waver like apparitions in the Cave spring outlet stream. Following the stream, which disappears briefly under the building, leads you outside to a warm water marsh. Wild streaks of purple and yellow in the outlet streams indicate sulphur-dependent bacteria, just one form of highly specialized adaptation in this unique environment. You can also find rare plants and tropical fish.

Even in the dead of winter, signs of life are everywhere. Birds flitter in aspen groves amidst the gentle breadth of the springs. A flash of red in December betrays the presence of a robin. Piles of midden and other signs of activity tell of small mammals who scurry around: squirrels, martens, coyotes and snowshoe hare have left their trails.

When winter forces you inside, you can easily spend an hour exploring: the Cave spring, the Basin spring, exhibits and interactive displays are all here for discovery. Family admission is $5.00. There is an award-winning film in the Bathhouse Theatre: in 20 minutes you'll learn about our national parks and the place where it all began. At the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, at the west end of Cave Avenue in Banff, you can warm up to history this winter.

Lorena Dmytriev works as a writer, historian, and natural history interpreter in the Bow Valley.

Reprinted with permission of the author and Legacy Magazine. 

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