13 Hours at 35 Below
Updated: Dec 4, 2020
My Thirteen-Hour Soak
One time, my wife and I survived a freezing winter storm by spending thirteen hours in a natural hot spring. We were three miles from the trailhead and her diesel Volkswagen Golf wouldn’t start when the temperature dropped below freezing. It got down to thirty-five below zero that night…
Let me go back to the beginning and how we got into this mess. It was 2012 and I had been dating my wife for just over a year. At twenty-two years old I was into my third year of college, majoring in forestry at the University of Montana. My wife and I really wanted to go somewhere a bit warmer for our spring break. We had a week off school. Lots of our friends at the time suggested Utah. In the southern part of the state, it could be decent weather for spring camping. With Google we looked at a few national parks and saw their temperatures were above freezing. That’s when we made the plan. We were going camping in Utah, hell or high water.
One thing to know about me is when I make a plan I do it, especially when it sounds like fun. I always try to motivate people to join in with me. Sometimes this blind trust that whatever I’m about to do is going to be awesome, no matter what, gets me into trouble. My dad used to tell me, “If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up doing things twice.” This is because whatever it may be, we do the damn thing; we make it work. Then when it breaks or falls through (which things tend to do when you force them) we see why it didn’t work and either fix the mistake or start over from scratch. It happens to me all too often. I do things twice a lot.
As we planned this trip to Utah, I was in a phase of my life where I never looked at the weather forecast before doing something outside. Spring break arrived and a major storm hit. I can’t remember what the storm’s name was, or if it had a name, but it produced a blizzard that covered most of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and northern Utah.
We woke up, prepped and readied to leave for a week of spring camping. We filled the VW Golf to the roof with camping gear and were about to leave. Our parents advised us against going anywhere in the storm, but we had been looking forward to this camping trip for weeks. Since it was snowing pretty hard, we decided to look up the road report. The interstates were packed ice the entire way to Utah. I’d driven on snow-covered roads for years at this point and felt confident we could make it. The Golf had snow tires. My wife showed me the storm tracker for the western US and southern Utah was right on the edge of the storm. “Great,” I thought. “We can still camp there!”
After deliberating on which route would be best to take to Utah, we hopped into the Golf and set off on our adventure. I had grown up under the impressive tutelage of my father’s winter driving skills. As North Dakotans, we can drive through anything, damn it. I made it about fifteen miles before turning around. The interstate was a slab of ice, packed about four inches thick from berm to berm. The ice slab was ribbed like washboards on a dirt road. We were sliding all over the place at only thirty-five miles an hour. You would think we gave up there, but no, when I do things the wrong way, I do it the wrong way, all the way.
I pulled out an old trick that my dad uses when driving across Montana to North Dakota for family holidays in the winter. Take the state highways when conditions are bad like that, they’re driven less and by afternoon are usually plowed. By this point it was already afternoon and we had wasted most of the day trying to get out of Missoula, but I was determined. My wife wasn’t convinced about my theory that the state highway would be better driving, but I told her if the conditions were the same as the interstate we would turn back.
We left Missoula and started driving down the Bitterroot Valley, south on Highway 93. And wouldn’t you know it, the road was actually pretty good for having just been hit by a blizzard. We were feeling good spirited now. It was beginning to look like we might make it to Utah after all. The problem now was that we had wasted most of the day trying to figure out how to get out of Missoula and the sun was going down.
There’s a natural hot spring near Salmon, Idaho that’s up in the mountains about three miles. It’s called Gold Bug and was one of our favorite places to soak. We decided it would be a perfect place to camp. We could soak in the warm hot spring and spend the night snuggling in our tent. We pulled off the highway and into Gold Bug’s parking lot. It’s kind of a strange trailhead in that there are a few homes sharing the parking lot. It looks private but there’s a BLM access trail to hike up into Gold Bug Canyon. It was well past dark when we arrived. My wife and I turned on our headlights, pulled out our camping gear, and started hiking in.
Almost immediately we could tell it was darn cold. My wife started to say her toes and hands were going numb. I encouraged her to continue hiking to get the blood flowing. It was freezing, but we had gloves, hats, and boots. Heck, there was creek with a pool of hot water up in those hills. After one hell of a miserable mile-and-a-half of hiking, we reached the first flat area to pitch a tent. By this point, my wife thought she was getting frost bite and I was realizing that camping in this cold of weather was not a good idea. It was the kind of cold that makes your nose hairs stick together when you inhale. I quickly assessed our options. We were halfway to the hot spring, it was well below zero, and we had our camping gear. My wife’s diesel car didn’t like to start after sitting in the cold. It definitely wouldn’t start now that we had let it sit in below zero weather for over a half hour. We were basically screwed. The warm water of the hot springs was really the only way to get out of the situation I had stubbornly dug us into.
Since my wife’s toes were about to fall off from being so cold, I quickly pitched the tent. We rolled out our sleeping bags and I had her take her boots off. I put her bare feet under my jacket and directly on my stomach; another trick my dad taught me. It works pretty good too. After about a half hour of shivering, we knew we wouldn’t make it if we stayed in the tent or went back to the car. The Golf wouldn’t start and the homes at the parking lot had all the lights off. It looked like nobody was home. I guess we could’ve broken in, but that never crossed my mind. I was thinking, it’s the hot springs or we’ll freeze to death. We got my wife’s socks and boots back on and set out for the warm waters.
We trudged on the well-packed trail and were getting nearer the hot springs, when suddenly we saw a person’s headlamp. They were coming down the trail. Someone else was stupid enough to be camping up here! I wondered if we might be able to get a ride or some kind of help from whoever it was. As we stopped on the trail waiting to talk with the stranger, he came into view. He was rough looking. Had a nasty tangle of long hair, scraggily beard, weathered and scabbed face. When he smiled at us, most of his teeth were missing. The guy looked like a meth addict wandering the woods at night. I was not about to ask him for a ride when we had a perfectly good hot spring a quarter mile away.
He passed by us with a lingering glare that sent a different kind of chill up our spines. He continued to look back at us as he walked down the trail. We started hiking much faster. I was worried about what he might be thinking. We were alone in the woods and it was really cold. After about a couple of minutes, we saw his headlight coming back up the trail. My wife pointed it out to me. I pulled out my pocketknife. Normally I wouldn’t be that paranoid, but the guy looked the part of someone who might try to ‘get’ us, and it was so cold out. I didn’t know what he might try to do. We basically ran the rest of the way up to the hot spring.
Gold Bug has a couple of pools, as it’s just a creek that is flowing down the canyon with hot water coming up in a few different places. The best and largest pool has about a two-foot waterfall at the upstream end. The pool spreads out in an eye drop shaped oval. We quickly turned off our lights, stripped to our bathing suits, and jumped into the warm water. I must say, after the incredibly cold hike to get there, the water felt amazing.
We watched the stranger’s light move back up the trail and toward the creek. I kept thinking, maybe he just forgot something and happened to turn around when he saw us. The guy’s headlight came down the creek and stopped just short of the pool. My wife and I stayed low in the water. We tucked up against the rocks, hiding. The head light’s beam swept over the waters searching back and forth for a minute, then he turned around. We watched as he continued to search upstream for about an hour, then eventually left. For all I know, he was just looking for something he forgot. But after the way he looked at us, I’m very grateful we never saw him again.
It was about nine o’clock in the evening and we had made it to our oasis. The steam dampened my hair and it was so frozen that I probably could’ve broken it clean off. With the Volkswagen really not going to start until it warmed up, we were stuck there for the night. Once you get wet and it’s that cold, you don’t want to get out.
We brought plenty of water and had a bag of goldfish with us, so we would stay fed and hydrated. There was no good place to try and lay down in the shallows. It was pretty miserable and uncomfortable being in there for the entire night, but we knew that we wouldn’t freeze to death as long as we stayed low in the water. Thirteen hours in a hot pool of water is a long time, especially when you can’t sleep.
By morning, we were giant prunes and more than ready to leave, but our clothes and towels were frozen stiff. The car wouldn’t start either, not until the sun had a chance to warm it up. At ten o’clock in the morning we decided to get out. Using a frozen towel to dry off and putting our frozen clothes on wasn’t very comforting, knowing we still had a three-mile hike out.
We hiked back down to the tent, packed it up and made our way back to the car. We tried starting it and it didn’t go. It was still too cold. There was only a couple of options for us. There wasn’t cell phone service in the canyon. We could try the houses and see if anyone was home, though, it didn’t look like it. Or we could try to hitchhike to Salmon and get a tow. There wasn’t anyone out driving, so we went banging on doors. To our surprise, there was a man home in one of the trailers at the parking lot. He agreed to give us a jump. After hooking up the battery and letting it charge for a while, the VW Golf started. We were good to go.
What if I told you we pushed through and went camping in Utah for another week? Well that didn’t happen, ha ha. We drove straight back to Missoula, never wanting to spend another night out in the cold again. We didn’t tell any of our friends that we were back, had a staycation, and chilled out at my apartment. We pushed the bed out into the living room and watched movies, worked on puzzles, and relaxed in the warmth of the indoors for the rest of the break.
My wife and I looked up how cold it got that night in Salmon, Idaho. It was negative thirty-five degrees Fahrenheit at the low. I check the weather forecast now before we go camping.