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Roadtrippin’ 2022: Visiting Pilgrim Hot Springs; ‘It’s got its own little oasis, middle of nowhere’

Roadtrippin’ 2022: Visiting Pilgrim Hot Springs
Published: Jun. 23, 2022 at 8:16 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - About 60 miles northeast of Nome, nestled within the Kigluaik Mountain range, is Pilgrim Hot Springs. The turn for the retreat is marked by an old yellow dozer that sits rusting in the brush.

The 320-acre property is owned by a group of Native groups that purchased the land from the Catholic Church in late 2009, but the history here began more than 100 years ago.

According to Kevin Bahnke, who takes care of the property, when the flu spread through Alaska in the 1900s killing thousands of people, the Catholic Church erected buildings and a church here to house the children left behind. According to the state, the vast majority of people killed were Alaska Natives.

“When the epidemic flu hit Western Alaska this is where a lot of the Native children were brought,” Bahnke said. “Here the Catholic Church had started an orphanage back in there, in the trees. That’s where the kids that were leftover, that weren’t dying, or their parents had died, that’s where they were brought.”

The orphanage operated until 1941.

Today the building is boarded up, and it tilts to the right on one side. Across from the children’s housing is the nuns’ cabin. Facing both buildings is a small church.

“You’re in the middle of nowhere. No cars. No trains,” Bahnke said. “I mean this is it what they had, so everything that was brought here, was done by dog team.”

On the same property, Bahnke said, is a mass grave for the children who died here as well as three white crosses for priests who also died during their time at Pilgrim.

“It was very harsh,” said Bahnke, about the conditions.

The plan now is to fix the buildings and turn the property into a healing retreat. After visitors tour the buildings they can relax in the natural hot springs.

Bahnke said almost 10,000 people visit the hot springs annually.

“It’s gorgeous out here, it’s got its own little oasis, middle of nowhere, you look around you, pretty barren, but here it’s got its own little oasis,” Bahnke said.

According to the Pilgrim Hot Springs website the hot springs have a rich history within Alaska Native communities: “The business name ‘Unaatuq’ is similar to: ‘Uunaqtuq’ which is the Iñupiaq Qawiaraq dialect place name for Pilgrim Hot Springs. Unnaqtuq translates to English as: ‘it is warm or hot.’ Many have referred to Unaatuq as meaning ‘warm waters.’”

Bahnke said many people in the area snowmachine out in the winter to soak in the pool, although the hot springs are only open during the summer months.

Three rustic cabins can be rented for about $250, according to the website. There are also camping spaces for tents.

Bahnke said visitors can helicopter in for about $650 or drive the bump road past musk oxen and lynx.

“Now it’s turned into more or less a retreat,” Bahnke said.

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