Garry Umbrich hopes to transform the Takhini Hot Springs from its current incarnation as a concrete recreational pool into a more natural-looking setting.
The president of Takhini Hot Springs Ltd. is aiming for something similar to what’s found at Liard Hot Springs, outside Watson Lake, which is surrounded by trees and has pools with dirt walls and gravel on the bottom. Umbrich has been to hot springs around the world, and he’s found a lot of inspiration from the Liard site.
Umbrich’s recently completed conceptual plans for new pools and a building are based on the Japanese onsen design. It favours natural-looking pools surrounded by trees and plants. The company has been working with the Yukon Business Development Program and has been in talks with Mike Sato, a Japanese-Canadian who has developed over 20 natural-looking hot springs, including Meager Creek Hot Springs near Whistler, B.C.
If all goes well, the new pools and building will open by May 2016. Current services won’t be disrupted. The new pools will be located where the ice wall is now. A test pool should hopefully be ready by next summer, but Umbrich couldn’t say whether it will be open to the public. Most construction will happen in 2015, he said.
The plan is to build three or four smaller pools at the hot springs. Stones will cover much of the concrete, and they’ll be large rocks or benches for sitting. A Yukon-styled forest of low bushes, pine and spruce trees will surround the pools.
The new building will also have a heated corridor that will allow people to walk directly into the water. And it will be wheelchair-friendly, Umbrich said.
Once visitors get into the water, they’ll notice a big difference.
“They won’t be swimming pools,” said Umbrich. “They’ll be large soaking pools.”
Right now, the pools are between 35 and 39 degrees Celsius. The new pools will be between 40 and 42 degrees. And they’ll hold less water. Instead of being five-feet deep (1.5 m) in some places, water in these new pools will only measure around three feet.
“We’ve talked about it for years,” said Umbrich. But work began in earnest a couple of years ago. He wants to do more than simply change the buildings at the hot springs. He also wants to change the facility’s focus from a recreational site to more of a health spa.
Back in the early 1980s, the business was pretty much “the only game in town” for recreational attractions, he said. But that’s changed. Now, the hot springs competes with multiple golf courses, the wildlife preserve, Mt. Sima and the Canada Games Centre.
“There’s too many people we have to compete with in sort of a recreational market that are government funded. We’re a private facility, and it’s pretty hard for us to compete with facilities that are government funded,” said Umbrich.
A health spa will provide something unique to the area, he said. He wants the hot springs to become a place where people can go to relax and get away from the city. When guests leave the new pools, they can go into a sauna, or a relax room – similar to a sunroom. It will be heated to around 25 to 27 degrees and have lawn chairs for people to rest in.
The business plan should be complete in the next few months. Umbrich isn’t sure how much it will cost, but it should be in the ballpark of $1-1.5 million, he said.
But the new pools and building won’t be the end of the development.
In the future, the building may include massages, steam rooms, a room for yoga, manicures and pedicures. The hope is to also partner with an entrepreneur to provide local cuisine. And they may build greenhouses and gardens on the site to grow food, he said.
“But we’re taking it one step at a time,” said Umbrich. There’s no date for when all the new spa facilities will be running, but he hopes it will be soon after the new pools open, he said.
Ultimately, the goal is simple: to make the hot springs the territory’s top tourist destination, he said.
In the meantime, there has been a change at the Takhini Hot Springs Valley Retreat Centre. Umbrich and his wife, Carla Pitzel, who is a co-owner of the retreat centre, recently signed a long-term lease with National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) Yukon. The group will begin renting the facilities this September. Umbrich also hopes to continue to develop the campground at the hot springs and build a year-round hostel on the site, he said.
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