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The bathouse at Summer Lake Hot Springs. Photo by Lee Juillerat

Soaking up winter

SUMMER LAKE — What's better than summer in winter?

There's never a bad time to visit Summer Lake Hot Springs, but there's something especially satisfying about savoring a steamy soak when winter temperatures are barely hovering in double digits.

Located in northern Lake County, part of Oregon's Outback, Summer Lake Hot Springs isn't fancy or posh. Its main 15-by-30-foot pool is located inside a 1928 timber frame and corrugated metal bathhouse that some have compared to an over-sized chicken coop. In recent years, a trio of outdoor geothermally heated ponds have been added.

During wet and windy weather, the indoor pool — flanked on three sides by dressing areas, showers and bathrooms — is a place to stay dry and warm. Geothermal water from nearby underground aquifers typically ranges between 106 and 113 degrees when it's piped into the pool.

The small outside ponds — only one or two are heated during the cool winter months — are better for soaking or, most nights, star gazing. Because of its remoteness — Paisley, the nearest community, is six miles south, while the hamlet of Summer Lake is 22 miles north — there's little to interfere with the very alive night sky.

Archeological probings indicate the region has been inhabited for at least 9,000 years, and early Indians knew the area as "medicine springs." Early settlers have soaked in the springs since the late 1800s, and there are stories of cowboys using the waters to shave, bathe and do laundry. In 1904, before the bathhouse, it was known as Woodward Springs, named for owners Jonas and Lizzie Woodward, who charged 10 cents a visit.

Duane Graham, who bought the 145-acre property in 1997, first visited the hot springs in 1988 "on a little desert road trip. Then I kept coming back."

Graham, 54, a building contractor who previously lived in Portland, bought the hot springs from Jeff and Glenda McDaniel, who had a small cattle ranch, including 500 chickens, and had added barns, houses and a small RV park to the "resort."

"The draw is the hot water, the desert," Graham says of his personal allure. "I've always been drawn to the desert."

The first nine years he remained in Portland, with managers handling day-to-day tasks. On Nov. 2, 2006, when Graham moved in, it was a challenging transition — "I spent a lot of time out here, but never a season."

The historic focus, the bathhouse, is funky and fun. Its architecture has been described as incidental architecture because "you can't design or build that kind of building."

Graham has gradually added amenities. He built the outdoor ponds "so you could see the stars at night. It always felt a little confining in the bathhouse."

He's added cabins for overnighters because, "The cabins are what keeps it going" financially. Eight are completed, two are under construction, and he has plans for two more. There are a dozen RV spaces and another dozen campsites. Development has been slow and deliberate, with a desire to be eco-friendly and to maintain its kick-back atmosphere.

"It's not for everyone," he admits. "It's a little hippyish. I see it as a healing place, not a party place. I want to keep it similar to the way it is."

Hippyish or not, the resort's limited housing is usually occupied — Graham says the year-around occupancy rate is 80 percent plus — especially when winter temperatures discourage tent campers and RVers. The majority of visitors are from Bend, along with Portland — "Portlanders like to travel."

But it's common to meet hot springs aficionados from around the U.S. and world. During a recent visit, the outside tub was variously shared with regulars from Reno, a recently retired University of California professor, a pair of Southern Californian vagabonds, and two shaggy haired, bearded men whose families fled Communist Russia for China and Argentina before immigrating to Portland.

Many believe the silica-rich waters are healing.

"That's what gives your skin that smooth feeling," Graham says of the silica and other minerals. "To me, it just feels good."

While the hot springs are the prime attraction, nearby lures include petroglyphs at Picture Rock Pass, geologic curiosities like Crack in the Ground and Fort Rock, fishing along the Chewaucan River, backcountry roads and hiking trails along Winter Rim, occasional music festivals and retreats, birdlife at the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge, sunstone mines or just sitting and watching as clouds roll by.

"Most people come and create their own experience," Graham says.

And with a temporary lull from work-a-day duties, he strips down to his shorts, sinks into the toasty outdoor pool, and creates his own experience: savoring a Summer Lake Hot Springs soak as snowflakes, seemingly in no hurry to touch the earth, flutter in the winter sky.

— Lee Juillerat has been writing about outdoor adventures in Southern Oregon and elsewhere for more than 30 years. He can be reached at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.

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