By Kelsey Wiebe
“You’ll be able to go from the dead of winter to the tropics just by walking in the door,” Bert Orleans promised residents of Terrace and Kitimat in 1987. Orleans began his tenure at the Lakelse hot springs with a sense of grandiosity, much like Ray Skoglund had, decades before.
When Orleans purchased the hot springs property from the provincial government in 1985, the site had sat dormant for nearly a decade while debate about its future raged. Northwest residents asserted a constant—and familiar—concern that the hot springs should be developed as a regional rather than an international resource.
Anthony Brummet, the Minister of Lands, Parks, and Housing, called for tenders to sell the hot springs property in late 1984. There had been only tepid interest in developing the property up to that point, and the provincial government refused to attach conditions guaranteeing local access, as lobbied by regional groups.
Developers instead would have to meet local standards of governance, and would also have to “structure the development in such a way to ensure the support and patronage of the local residents.” This, Brummet implied, would occur strategically rather than through restrictions during the point of sale.
Orleans, a tugboat company owner-operator from Kitimat, was the highest bidder of five interested parties. The B.C. government at the time noted that Orleans “was the person we selected as being the most qualified and committed to carry out the project.”
In the first phase of development, Orleans built a warm swimming pool with a diving area, a large hot tub, three waterslides, two children’s waterslides, and a children’s swimming pool, complete with a UFO-style children’s waterpark from Expo ’86. An ozone water treatment system was imported from Germany.
The restaurant was cutting edge for the 1980s, and the cafeteria windows provided a view of the hot tub and pool. The Johnstone Dining Room featured fine dining, and the Rooftop Gardens were available for conferences, weddings, and private bookings. The licensed Splashdown Lounge overlooked the pools and water slides.
The grand opening of Mt. Layton Hot Springs Resort was celebrated on Feb. 27, 1988. The completion of the first phase was lauded by dignitaries including former owner Lloyd Johnstone, MLA Dave Parker, cabinet minister Bill Reid, and Kitimat Mayor Ray Brady.
Orleans installed three waterslides, each standing 60 feet high. One, a freefall-style waterslide, was christened the Cannonball. After a 1987 group visit from a Christian school, the newspaper noted that “one girl was seen giving thanks after having come safely down the Cannonball run.” The waterslides were popular with children and youth, and the lineup was out the door on ‘2-for-1 Wednesdays’.
The planned second phase of development included an 18-hole golf course, a 100- to 300-room high-end hotel, an indoor-outdoor swimming pool, an island getaway, and a therapeutic clinic. Orleans intended to create what the Terrace Review called a “playground for the elite,” complete with a helicopter on standby to take guests heli-skiing. Orleans planned a resort hotel centred around the main hot springs pool, which would be enclosed in a dome of glass and surrounded by a tropical garden.
In the late 1980s, Orleans applied for the right to expand onto 153 hectares of crown land in order to implement his second-phase plans, which included a golf course and resort hotel. The Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine and many Lakelse Lake residents were concerned about drainage from the golf course into the lake. Following a drawn-out debate with the Ministry of Crown Lands and local government and residents, Orleans was only granted the right to purchase 180 acres. He insisted, throughout, that his intentions were good: “If I destroy the environment,” he said in 1987, “I destroy my own investment.”
One of the more fantastic plans for Mt. Layton Hot Springs involved the construction of an island on Lakelse Lake. In 1991, Orleans told the local media that he was planning to develop a ‘theme village’ on an island that would be created through canal work adjacent to the original hot springs canal constructed by Skoglund. He intended to add private cabins and meeting rooms, and would market his secluded retreat concept to corporate groups of up to 60 people.
Orleans poured the foundation for his second-phase hotel complex in the early 1990s, but cautioned he was closely monitoring economic and tourism trends. “When indicators say the project is a go,” the Terrace Review quoted Orleans in 1991, “everything will be in place and the building will go up relatively quickly.”
By 1991, Orleans had spent $5 million developing the Lakelse hot springs into Mt. Layton Hot Springs Resort. He planned to spend another $10 million over the next 10 years.
But an economic downturn coincided with Orleans’ planned construction on phase two. A planned Kitimat Alcan smelter expansion was halted. Forestry, the region’s largest employer at the time, was hit by a slump in American housing; in the late 1990s, mills closed, and resource workers moved away. With the economy floundering, Orleans hit the pause button on expansion. While he continued to operate the swimming pools and hotel rooms constructed in his first phase, the second phase was stalled indefinitely.
The region has only begun to bounce back economically in the last few years. The hotel rooms, lounge, and cafeteria at the hot springs remain open, but the mineral waters that drew young and old are barred to the public, much as residents feared would come to pass when the Skoglund Hot Springs shuttered in the 1970s.
Elsewhere on the property, Orleans grows hibiscus in a greenhouse. Flowers and vegetables, nourished by the minerals and warmth of the hot springs water, grow generously, much as they were said to do in the meadow near the Johnstones’ original lodge.
Plastic is tacked to the window frames of half-built buildings. Rebar juts out of the cement foundation built around the main hot springs pool. The tiles surrounding the drained swimming pools are chipped and moldy. The resort has generally fallen into disrepair, much to the chagrin of the hopeful public.
Today, in letters to the editor, in municipal and regional government discussions, and in public and online forums, residents of northwestern British Columbia express disgust, anger, and concern that the world-class potential of the hot springs has never been realized.
This anxiety, coupled with a concern that any development will shut out local residents, has recurred with every phase of the hot springs development, highlighting an uncertainty about the northwest’s role within the nation, an insularism common to small, rural communities, and equal measures of distrust and hope about development.
The history of the hotsprings at Lakelse encompasses Bruce Johnstone’s log cabin spa, Ray Skoglund’s not quite fulfilled ambitions, and Bert Orleans’ half-built water wonderland. Perhaps, given that millions of dollars, decades, and dreams have failed to attract the international attention long anticipated, the hot springs are simply not well-positioned to support large-scale development. The populations here are small; travel to the area is expensive and time-consuming; and there are many more centrally located hot springs resorts better able to attract jet-setting international tourists.
Across the highway, exploration of the area’s geothermal potential has been underway for over a year. Perhaps the glamorous success envisioned by each developer will be found in resource development, rather than in recreational facilities.
Kelsey Wiebe is the curator of Heritage Park Museum. More photographs and stories can be found in A History of Lakelse Hot Springs, an exhibit available online through heritageparkmuseum.com. The exhibit was assisted greatly by Merilyn McLeod, Alice Gellner, David Skoglund, and Ella Goodlad. Wiebe will be speaking about the History of the Lakelse hot springs at UNBC’s Terrace campus from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. today, February 11th.
Three generations of hot springs owners: Bert Orleans, Ray Skoglund, and Lloyd Johnstone.