There are over 100 natural Hot Springs in Alaska. Throughout history Native people have been visiting Hot Springs and sweat houses for both cleansing and social interactions. These spaces were also used to cleanse before, during and after ceremonies. Hot Springs are still frequented today and in addition to cleansing and social interaction, they are also visited for their healing properties for ailments that range from arthritis to colds, from insect bites to psychological stress and increasing general well-being. The hot baths create an intoxicating effect which, it is believed, enhance the participants’ spiritual journeys.
Serpentine Hot Spring
Serpentine Hot Springs is tucked into a valley in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. It’s about 100 miles North of Nome as the crow flies. The Eskimo calls these Hot Springs Ivat which means ‘cooking pot’ or ‘a site for cooking’ and relates more to one’s spiritual experience here than the typography and hot water. There are two hot pools about half a mile apart with a bunkhouse where you sleep and eat and a bath house where there is a hot pool lined with planks for bathing.
With temperatures of between 140°F to 170°F Serpentine Hot Springs are accessible throughout the year. In the summer you can reach Serpentine Hot Springs by plane, bike and then hiking and in the winter by snow mobile and hiking. While this is the case, local people believe that visiting the springs in the winter is best as the mineral content in the water is not diluted by melted snow.
People of all ages visit the springs, both for recreation and medical purposes. Medical problems like arthritis, back pain, hip pain, skin rashes and strained muscles lead people to visit the springs. In many cases participants visit the springs after seeking treatment for their ailments from Western trained physicians and Eskimo medical practitioners.
History of healing at Serpentine Hot Springs
According to some Eskimo elders western miners in the area were the first to use the Hot Springs for healing in the early 1900’s. They were later joined by the Eskimos when they converted to Christianity and were then able to frequent the spring without concern for the influences that the Eskimos had previously believed to control the Hot Springs.
Retreats to the Hot Springs
In the 80’s Maniilaq (a Native non profit corporation for the Kotzebue area) in conjunction with Eskimo practitioners held retreats to the Serpentine Hot Springs. Patricia Book had the opportunity to accompany them and documented the activities in her article titled Native American Healing (co- authored by Mim Dixon and Scott Khirchner, published in The Western Journal of Medicine in 1983).
The article explains how water from the Hot Springs are combined with cooler water from the creek to regulate the temperature in the pool. More water gets added continuously to keep the water at a “comfortably hot” temperature. As the bath progresses hot water gets added until the temperature can only be tolerated by keeping very still.
These retreats mostly followed cycles of bathing, eating and sleeping. There were three baths taken each day with men and women taking separate baths.
Before entering the bath participants are encouraged to drink half a cup to a cup of hot spring water to assist their bodies to adjust to the warm water environment. This, it is believed, also helps participants to obtain more healing benefits from the bath. In order to become accustomed to the heat participants also splash themselves with the water as they enter the bath.
The bathing time is spent in social interaction with other bathers while sitting in the hot water for about 20 minutes at a time. During this time Eskimo healers monitor participants’ blood pressure, body temperature and general well-being.
Eskimo healers join the participants in the water and assist them with some stretching exercising and rubbing tender areas on their bodies. To heal the eyes participants descend underwater while keeping their eyes open.
After each session in the bath, participants would get dressed and get into their sleeping bags where they would either nap or relax while sweating out impurities.
In between sessions participants drink fruit juice to rehydrate and eat traditional Eskimo meals. During this time participants interact socially, tell stories, play games or hunt. Some even work on maintaining the bunkhouse. More treatment is administered by the traditional Eskimo healers. The healers make use of various traditional techniques including ilusiig – a technique that manipulates the abdomen to diagnose and treat internal problems. Natural resources are also used for treatments. This includes algae that grow near the springs and a mixture of this algae mixed with vitamin A rich seal oil.
According to the participants of this retreat all of them had some improvement in the conditions that brought them to the Hot Springs. Half of the participants saw a marked change in their conditions.
It is believed that a number of factors contribute to the healing that occurs at these Hot Springs. These factors include the healing nature of the warm water and minerals in the water in combination with additional natural healing techniques carried out by the traditional healers and the social interaction and support that the participants provide to each other.
The social atmosphere encourages participants to bond with each other throughout the experience. Participants also assist healers in healing each other through holding shoulders or legs of those who are being healed. This creates an environment of support and shared growth and healing.
While the experience is not singularly focussed on the spiritual, spiritual rituals make out a part of the retreat. Before entering the pool participants would say a prayer and healers would do the same before assisting one of the participants with healing techniques. The surrounding beauty of the Serpentine Hot Springs, mixed with being relaxed and light-headed from the heat is conducive to stimulate thoughts on oneself, how you fit into the world around you and about how it and you relate to a higher power. All of this combines to provide participants a mystical experience that fosters both healing and spiritual growth.
Today Hot Springs are visited by both Native people and visitors who seek out their healing properties and to experience the beautiful natural surroundings where these springs are located.