I was completely naked and shocked that the lake was so cold in a town so famous for hot water.
That’s just one of the many dichotomies I would discover in my first-ever visit to Harrison Hot Springs.
When I stepped into frigid Harrison Lake – the largest lake in the southern Coast Mountains stretching some 60 kilometres long and 280 metres deep – I thought for certain there was no one around. It was the only cloudy day of the summer and the beach at Sasquatch Provincial Park was deserted.
Unfortunately, midway through my skinny dip, a family showed up for a picnic. But let me back up a bit.
The reason for my stop in this visually gripping part of the province was to take part (fully clothed) in the Harrison Festival of the Arts, a 10-day celebration of world music, art, theatre and literature. The annual festival features free outdoor beach concerts, evening performances, a children's day, art exhibits and two weekend art markets. It’s the cultural event of the year and draws fans from all over the area.
Andy Hillhouse is the festival’s artistic director. He grew up in Vancouver but relocated from Toronto with his wife and six-year-old son to take over the job. The culture shock was immediate.
“It’s a really close-knit community out here,” says Hillhouse. “It took me about three years to crack it, to feel accepted, but there is incredible community support for the festival in this area.”
The town itself feels a bit like a miniature Penticton, seemingly undecided as to whether to let go or embrace its somewhat tacky 1950s resort façade, with theme restaurants, ice cream parlours, hot dog stands and motels lining the main drag that hugs the southern edge of the lake, where roaring jet skis have to steer clear of a gigantic inflatable water playground.
And yet there are strip standouts, like the excellent Muddy Waters Café, the historic Memorial Hall and, further along, the Ranger Station Art Gallery, which houses a writer rent-free for an entire year.
This year’s writer-in-residence is the outstanding Vancouver poet Bren Simmers, and she’s loving her time in the area.
“The first thing everyone asks is ‘where are the hot springs?’” muses Hillhouse. I had to admit I was about to ask the exact same thing. So… where are the hot springs in Harrison Hot Springs?
Unfortunately, a giant hotel at the end of the main drag privatized the town’s namesake long ago. If you want to experience the springs in the great outdoors, you must be a guest at the hotel. The cheapest room is $209.
That was a stunner, until someone told me about the large public indoor pool which opened 50 years ago right at the main intersection of the village, at 101 Hot Springs Rd. The pool is indeed filled with hot springs water, but has a Cold War atmosphere. On the upside, you can have a soak for $10.
Another of the many Harrison ironies I encountered was the occasional love/hate relationship with the main economy driver: summer tourism.
One long-time resident whispered to me that “Chilliwack likes to dump their trash here on the weekends: pick-ups and pit bulls, if you catch my drift.”
The hairiest creature rumoured to roam the steep mountains that surround Harrison is the sasquatch, and the town has bought in to the image of the shaggy beast in a bigfoot way. For such an elusive creature, he’s everywhere, from signage to sculptures to sasquatch chocolate bars.
In some small way, I like to think that I contributed to the ancient ape-man legend when I emerged naked from the lake and scrambled through the shoreline trees, giving that unwitting family at the beach a glimpse of what could have been a sasquatch – albeit a somewhat gimpy, undersized and mangy one, with a serious case of shrinkage.