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WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - Already snug in her swimming suit, Audrey Spalding drives her pickup to the front of the Spa Hot Springs Motel.

Carefully, her husband, Don, walks from their nearby room across the icy parking lot. Dressed in slippers, swimsuit and a red flannel bath robe, Don helps Audrey out of the truck.

They walk arm-in-arm the short distance to the motel's 98-degree outdoor pool and its soothing, sulfurous waters.

"It's just something we do for relaxation and to get out of Bozeman," Audrey said. "It's just that nice water. It makes your skin feel so soft."

The hot springs visits are squeezed in amid a busy schedule for the retired couple.

Typically, they're skiing at Bridger Bowl but have been

sidelined by injuries this

season.

They also fiddle, dance and play bingo and pinochle. Bozeman is their winter retreat from northern Idaho, where they live and log their property during the warm seasons.

Hot draw

White Sulphur's public hot springs are a cool attraction to the remote town tucked between the Castle and Little Belt mountains. Because of its location, the surrounding area is a huge draw for outdoors folks - for anglers who come to float the famed Smith River, hunters pursuing elk, and in the winter skiers who carve turns down nearby Showdown mountain, as well as snowmobilers and cross-country skiers.

"We get people here from all over the state," said motel owner Gene Gudmundson, 61. "But our favorite guest is the one who comes in just for the hot springs, no matter the season."

A chiropractor and acupuncturist, Gudmundson grew up in Miles City.

He established a practice outside Chicago, but the lure of Montana eventually brought him back. Although he planned on settling in Billings, he got sidetracked. Gudmundson is a calm, grandfatherly presence. It's hard to imagine his making a snap decision to buy the hot springs. But back in 1988 after a visit and a soak, he fell in love with the place and set about buying the 21-room motel and hot springs from Merritt Smith.

Centuries of soaking

The history of the hot springs was part of the lure.

Legend has it that American Indian tribes agreed not to fight in the area of the swampy hot springs, making it a valley of peace where all could come to use the healing waters.

"It seems to be there was a truce that held here," Gudmundson said. "There's no history of battles in this valley."

In 1866, 10 years before Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn, James Brewer started charging for a soak and a drink of whisky at the springs.

"To my knowledge, it was the first commercial hot springs in the state," Gudmundson said.

In the 1920s, famed circus man John Ringling proposed to build a 220-room hotel at the springs. He brought in a German chemist to analyze the waters. He found them to be almost identical chemically to the famed Baden-Baden hot springs in Germany, which have attracted Europe's elite since the 1800s.

"So we like to say Baden-Baden is almost, but not quite as good, as White Sulphur Springs," Gudmundson said.

Ringling's hotel never got off the ground, a casualty of the Great Depression.

Water, and more

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Conceding that he's biased, Gudmundson said the springs are the most healing around, thanks to a high concentration of sulfur along with magnesium and lithium.

He touts the springs as especially good before and after chiropractic treatments, as they relax the muscles and increase circulation.

Some even drink the water, he said, claiming it has curative properties for stomach ailments.

The water is even used in creating a line of locally made soaps.

But the water also serves another, more practical, need - heating the adjoining hotel and office.

Pumped up from a 35-foot-deep well, the 130-degree water circulates throughout the hotel complex, losing about 8 to 10 degrees in the process. After its circuitous route through a plumber's nightmare, the water is pumped into the 30-foot-by-35-foot outdoor pool and the smaller, hotter indoor pool. The outdoor pool is usually cooled to 98 degrees, while the 10-by-15-foot indoor plunge is kept around 105 degrees.

Every night at around 11, the plugs are pulled and the pools are drained, cleaned and refilled.

"My claim is it's the cleanest hot springs you will ever come across," Gudmundson said.

Although on a busy weekend day, the pool may see 100 to 200 visitors, more often the scene is more low-key - a local rancher, children playing on floating toys - all surrounded by colorful murals that depict a fierce grizzly bear, an eagle and the American Indian history of the springs.

It's that low-key atmosphere, and of course the water, that keeps the Spaldings coming back.

"It's not as hot as Chico; it's just a much better temperature," Spalding said, referring to the hot springs near Pray. "And it's quiet. Chico attracts a lot more people. I don't know why."

Contact Brett French at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

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