When asked to recall some standout memories from his 25 years as the owner of Wild Horse Hot Springs, Denny Larson jokingly asked if those within ear shot had a few hours to spare.
He described the afternoon a Maserati with a California license plate barreled down Camp Aqua Road located 2 miles south off Montana 28 in Sanders County, carrying a group of Hollywood natives in search of a Montana experience. They proceeded to soak in the pools, sans swimsuits.
There was the night a singer from his favorite local band serenaded the dipping pools at midnight with “Amazing Grace.” The instrumentals were the crickets and bullfrogs.
Then there was the time a man came to the springs in a wheelchair and departed without it, his disability apparently healed by the site’s artesian waters. Larson said that tale has yet to be confirmed as fact or fiction.
“Some of the stories I could tell you would just about bring a tear to your eye,” Larson said.
It’s easy to recognize there is no shortage of stories big and small that have been passed on, shared, and created in the turquoise plunge pools of Wild Horse Hot Springs, which has been a staple of the Hot Springs area since 1912.
The majority of these memories are happy. But there is one story that elicits a very different set of emotions.
In May of 2013, Polson resident Melvin Madplume Jr. arrived intoxicated at Wild Horse Hot Springs with his cousin Laurence Kenmille of Elmo. The two stepped into one of the plunge pools, but only Madplume emerged alive, claiming at the time his relative had slipped and hit his head.
One year later, Madplume would be charged with raping and killing Kenmille and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. District Judge John Larson deemed the crime “horrendous and calculated.”
The tragedy rocked the hot springs and surrounding communities and ultimately prompted a temporary shutdown of Wild Horse. Infrequently for the last six or so years, a few patrons — mostly friends and locals — have sauntered in for a soak, often doing so for free.
“That murder was a difficult time for a lot of people. There is no denying that,” Larson said.
But rather than keep Wild Horse under wraps, Larson and his Missoula-based business partner, John Porterfield, began looking for ways to transform the appearance and the soul of the springs.
And they now have their eyes set on tentatively relaunching in October.
The pool in which Kenmille died has been sealed up. The tin siding of the soaking structure, which previously gave a bit of a claustrophobic feel, was torn down to expose soakers to rolling hills and nighttime canvases. And an overhaul cleanup of the grounds began, as did the brainstorming for a rejuvenated Wild Horse Hot Springs that would offer guests a complete health and wellness experience.
“For years the motto of the community has been ‘limp in, leap out,’” Porterfield said. “That’s something that we want to continue providing — an immersive healing experience.”
One of their capital projects is already underway. A deck extending toward wetlands to the west is currently under construction and eventually will hold six new pools to complement the existing ones. Porterfield said the pair hope to open the new pools up to sponsors whose names will be displayed on the individual pool they funded.
Larson and Porterfield say the geothermal waters, rich in lithium and other minerals, will always be a steadfast attractant for locals and visitors alike. The new pools are a way to capitalize on that plentiful resource.
“If a fire swept through this entire area for some reason, leveling homes and businesses, people would still drive through looking for the springs, asking ‘we heard there are geothermal pools here,’” Porterfield said. “I think most people around here would agree, this valley would be nothing without these waters.”
It’s the water source that feeds the nearby town of Hot Springs and brings people to the popular Symes Hot Springs Hotel and Mineral Baths. It’s also the abundant resource that one farmer discovered by accident more than a century ago at what is now Wild Horse, after drilling a hole into the ground and being greeted by a geyser spewing 128-degree water into the air.
The stream created a deep pool in the earth. Trough-like structures were placed into the sides of the new hole - barely immersed below the water line - allowing people the opportunity to soak after they combined the 128-degree water with chilled water from a nearby barrel. The natural pool no longer exists, but a photo of it hangs on the wall at Wild Horse.
“It’s crazy to look at that [photo] and see what this place was like 100 years ago,” Larson said.
In addition to the additional pools, the business partners would like to erect a wellness center and lodging facility on the property that extends beyond the currently available camping spaces, RV hookups and tepees on site.
“I think the big thing here is getting to a point where we have a lot more overnight lodging. That’s the larger item on the capital project list that we believe will really accelerate Wild Horse,” Porterfield said.
Porterfield, who came on board in 2016, has had his hands in many tourism projects in Flathead Valley over the years and owns Ignimbrite Minerals. He sees a thriving business and tourism opportunity at the springs for people in need of a spiritual and physical healing, either short-term or long-term.
“Centering a business on the hot springs experience is foundational. With the knowledge that I have and Denny has, we are going to build an experience that will hopefully change peoples’ lives in some way,” Porterfield said.
Larson said the game plan in the next few years is to have a lodge established and a market/restaurant of sorts. They hope to increase the property’s sustainability with greenhouses and by harnessing the hot water to cut electricity bills. In the meantime, they are also working on offerings that would complement the concept of healing, such as growing hemp, a process that has already begun in a field adjacent to the springs.
“We really want to reach the people who need a place like Wild Horse,” Larson said. “There is nothing like coming here. Either by yourself or with your family or your spouse and taking a soak. It makes the world go around.”
Larson and Porterfield also hope to better-connect with the local Lonepine and Hot Springs communities that also thrive largely off the artesian waters. This fall, Porterfield said a year-long awareness effort known as H20 Fest will launch. Local businesses will have the opportunity to host public gatherings focused on celebrating the area’s shared asset: water.
On the schedule for 2020 is a Bathrobe Ball, among other events.
For more information on the springs or H20 Fest, email firstname.lastname@example.org