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Mother Nature Strikes Back At Local Hot Springs

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A mother sits in a geothermal heaven with her young son, enjoying the tranquility of her natural surroundings. 39-year old Erin Barker has no way of knowing that a large boulder would tumble down into the pool she was sitting in, narrowly missing her and her 18-month-old son. Barker, who finds the area healing, regularly visits Terwililger Hot Springs, more commonly known as Cougar Hot Springs, with her two young sons.

In the early afternoon of April 29, around 1:15 p.m., the rock – estimated to weigh at least 100 pounds – came crashing into the top pool of the hot springs only after Barker and her son had been soaking for about 20 minutes. Steve Mitzel, a long time soaker of the springs, was also in the pool at the time of the landslide.

Top pool before landslide. Photo by Greg Thorne.

”We were sitting in the top pool and talking about how the rest of that cave looked like it wanted to come down and how precarious it looked just sitting there being held on by only the roots,” Barker recalls of the incident. “Just as we said that, the whole thing came down, a big boulder almost hit me in the leg, I had to jump out of the way quickly.”

Only a week before, a collapse occurred in the mouth of the cave. The largest rock in the land slide was estimated by Greg Thorne to be around 2 cubic feet in size. Thorne, a caregiver and longtime Cougar soaker of 23 years, runs a Facebook page, where he posts as many photos and updates as possible, including daily temperature readings of the pools.

Top pool after landslide and rock collapse
Top pool after landslide and rock collapse. Photo by Greg Thorne.

The Hot Springs themselves have been attracting visitors regularly for over 50 years. 112 degree natural mineral water flows out of the mouth of the cave and cascades into 5 pools staggered into the side of a mountain in the Willamette National Forest not far from the Highway 99 towns of Blue River and Rainbow. An estimated 200 people per week visit the clothing-optional springs during its busy seasons – fall and spring – traveling from all corners of the world to enjoy the serenity the springs and their surroundings. Most of the regular soakers are locals from nearby towns on the McKenzie Highway as well as residents of the greater Eugene and Springfield area.

Unfortunately, the pools have seen several attempts of destruction and vandalism throughout the years, the site becoming a popular party place for more unruly soakers who usually come at night, often leaving broken glass, misplaced rocks, and other litter in their wake. Just earlier this year, in April, the third pool suffered a serious vandalism. A large section of the retaining wall, built by Eugene based Stone Mason Alan Ash, was torn out, causing the pool to be about 8 inches shallower, and accommodating far less people.

Drainage of top pool shows the large rock which fell earlier.
Drainage of top pool shows the large rock which fell earlier. Photo by Greg Thorne.

“The recent vandalism is an example [of vandalism] that we’ve had for years,” states 54-year-old Thorne. “It happens at night. The usual targets are the ticket booth, which has been getting broken into 2 or 3 times per year, causing a lot of damage. And a couple times each year night soakers have torn rocks out of the retaining walls of the pools, some of them large enough that when they are in the bottoms of the pools are difficult to remove.”

“It irks me that people treat such a beautiful, well-kept spot as a party ground. There are so many of us that visit the springs because it is such a spiritual experience and an unending respect for nature, and it’s the few bad seeds like that that cause the continuation of the dusk to dawn soaking ban,” states regular, 22-year-old Mysti Gilbert. “It also makes me very ashamed of my generation, as I am college aged and am sure to get grouped in and generalized with many of the young people that destroy such beautiful natural wonders like that.”

Despite the best attempts of several regulars to allow legal access for peaceful soakers to come to the Hot Springs at night, the United States Forest Service only allows soaking from sunrise to sunset. A heavy fine is given by the McKenzie River Ranger District to anyone who dares stay after hours. The lack of peaceful soakers, however, is what many regular attendees of Cougar fear gives way to the rowdier crowds who find their way to the springs at night.

On top of the vandalism, the pools, for the first time in several years, are in need of desperate attention to help rebuild and restructure the pools themselves and the mouth of the cave as well as the soft earth it sits in that is slowly crumbling away.

Alan Ash, Master Stonemason of 30-years, with the help of several volunteers, rebuilt the top 2 pools in 2009 after a serious storm wreaked havoc on the hot springs. Ash, who owns his own company, Ash Stone Masonry, has extended his services once again to the United States Forest Service as well as American Land and Leisure, the current contract holders of the land the springs sit on. After Ash offered a free consultation to help figure out the best plan possible for the rebuilding of the springs, he was turned down politely by a USFS representative, stating that they had the situation under control and would be bringing in their own workers. The USFS has strictly enforced no use of the top pool since the collapse, even to the point of draining it, to discourage soakers. While the lower pools remain open, volunteers are currently not allowed to clean the pools. Some cleaning has been done by AL&L as well as the Forest Service, however the lower 2 pools – which are not in their contract to clean – remain mucky with thick mud layering the floor of the springs. Ash, who is considered to be one of the top Stonemasons in the nation, uses the ancient technique of stone building which ensures the longevity of a structure.

Closure of top pool after landslide. Retaining wall shown here done by Master Stonemason, Alan Ash.
Closure of top pool after landslide. Retaining wall shown was done by Master Stonemason, Alan Ash. Photo by Greg Thorne.

“I use dry stone which offers more practical solutions,” he states. “Dry stone uses gravity, friction, and the skill of the stonemason.” Sometimes natural “cement”, which consists of hydraulic lime, is used as well. Ash himself is worried about the future of the springs and that whoever the Forest Service brings in to do the job will not be looking ahead at long term plans. Several years ago, Ash suggested that a natural retaining wall using local stone be put up next to the top pool where the earth could give way as well as an aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound dry stone archway be placed in the mouth of the cave to discourage people from going inside and picking at the rocks, as well as helping the infrastructure of the cave itself, while still allowing the water to flow out.

“My concern is that they might put in a rebar, a type of metal grate,” Ash explains, “into the mouth of the cave. Not only is this ugly, but it is not a long term solution as it could rust and does provide proper support.”

Ash is often hired to evaluate the structural integrity of large structures, such as that of the Oswego Iron Furnace in Lake Oswego, OR, originally built in 1866. Serving as the master stonemason on the seven-year effort to restore the furnace, the project received recognition by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For Ash, restoring the Cougar Hot Springs to a safe, long-term, aesthetically pleasing environment would be no trouble at all, if only his input and expertise would be heard.

“I don’t know who they are going to bring, they might do a good job,” the West Virginian native states, “but I’m worried it will not be up to par. These hot springs are a great spot. I’d hate to see it lost.”

Cougar Hot Springs has been deemed a sacred spot for many throughout the years. For Steve Mitzel, a regular for 37 years, the greatest benefit is that of the high lithium content in the water which helps “so much to bring inner peace and restore calm from the stress of life.”

Mitzel stated, after speaking with a forest service employee, that he thinks “they do have plans to fix the erosion of the hill face and return the top pool to use. Not doing so would be a huge waste of tax dollars already spent to create the pools as they are now. Although, as with anything federal, I think lots of meeting and planning will go on before any fix is attempted.”

Mitzel, Gilbert, and several dozen regular soakers have stated that they would be all for raising money in any way possible that will bring about a repair so that the hot springs can be enjoyed once again in their fullest capacity and beauty. So far, the USFS has denied any help or fundraising from the soakers.

Some suggestions have been made to help improve the overall future of the springs. Grant Whittle, hailing from Alabama, has visited often in his travels. His suggestions were well received by the Cougar community on the private Facebook group, “Friends of Cougar.”

"Emergency Closure for Public Health and Safety" notice posted at hot springs, by Willamette National Forest, McKenzie Ranger District.
“Emergency Closure for Public Health and Safety” notice posted at hot springs, by Willamette National Forest, McKenzie Ranger District. Photo by Greg Thorne.

“By working with the USFS to make their jobs easier, there is a chance that we could gradually ease existing restrictions if they see such changes won’t make their jobs more difficult. For example, if Friends of Cougar were the contractor, perhaps we could get a once a month sanctioned night soak (i.e. full moon or occasional meteor shower) as monitored by Friends of Cougar organizers,” he suggests. “It is better to provide a rational voice at the table than be excluded from such conversations. I also suggest that as a community service, Friends of Cougar could petition to have a low traffic week day become a “free” day to allow the financially disadvantaged improved access to this community resource.”

There is currently a $6 fee to enter the Hot Springs, unless one possesses a yearly pass. For those who do not wish to make the trek to Cougar during this time of restructuring, neighboring Umpqua Hot Springs, located just east of Roseburg right alongside the North Umpqua River, is a good alternative.

Manager of the Terwilliger Hot Springs concessionaire and speaking on behalf of AL&L, Sheryl White, states, “Everything has to go through channels, we need everyone to have patience. Hopefully the Forest Service will have a fix for this issue soon.” In regards to the cleaning of the lower pools she explained that “It is going to take a couple weeks to get all the silt, sludge and muck out of them, but we are trying.”

As this process takes place, most regulars agree and urge that people have patience and do what they can to work with, and not against, the Forest Service in their attempt to restore the springs.

Erinn received a B.S. in Journalism from Corban University. She has since written for the Eugene Weekly, Salem Weekly, McKenzie River Project, Pulse News Relay, and several other publications. Erinn lives Springfield, OR and also enjoys writing and performing slam poetry.

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