And I Recommend It!
We recently spent a half day at Evans Plunge in Hot Springs, and I’m ready to go again. I’ll wear my bathing suit under sweatpants and sweatshirt so as soon as we’re admitted, we can head to the Men’s and Women’s changing rooms.
Furnished with curtained booths for undressing, the rooms have long benches near the lockers for those who are less modest. Another room has individual showers so you can clean up before or after your soak in the pool. Don’t expect a hot shower, however; the water that comes from the faucet is the same temperature as that in the pools. Toilets are also private and numerous.
The locker system can be confusing, so bring a handful of quarters and read the instructions on the wall. Once the locker is closed and locked, you’ll need either a key or a quarter to open it again. I undress quickly, down to my swim suit, and stuff my socks, shoes, pants and sweatshirt into the locker. I gave up wearing sandals in the pool; they aren’t necessary, and you only have to keep track of them. I keep my towel, but put my glasses safely away with my box of quarters before locking the door. I pin the key to my swim suit and within minutes I’ve hung my towel on a convenient hook and am strolling along the side of the huge pool. Chairs along the sides and at both ends allow places to sit and observe the swimmers, or to dry out or rest.
Evans Plunge is fed by five thousand gallons of water per minute flowing from a spring at the north end of the pool. Mineral-laden natural springs are found in a wide region around the town, and the nearby Fall River is about the same temperature as the pool: 87 degrees.
Before you leap into the pool, however, think about that figure. The advertising mentions “the warm mineral waters,” but the average temperature of the human body is 98.2 degrees. We’ve stepped inside from a 20-degree, snow-covered landscape, so the water feels warm.
The Big Pool:
In one corner is a slide shaped like the head of a frog with an open mouth that dribbles water and small children down the tongue and into a shallow pool under the watchful gazes of lifeguards and mothers. Opposite them are the “jet slide,” reaching nearly to the lofty roof, and the “whale slide.” Water runs through both as they twist and circle and gyrate before spilling their riders into the pool. This is the noisy end of the pool: children shriek in glee, and teenagers bellow and whoop as they fling themselves into the slides and explode out the other end. But the building is so immense and filled with echoes that the noise seldom seems intrusive; it washes over you as gently as the water ripples down those slides.
We stroll past a set of concrete steps leading down into the shimmering aqua water, admiring the colorful natural pebbles that create a floor. Gradually the water deepens to five feet as we approach the end reserved for lap swimmers, though if they are not present that part of the pool is open to everyone.
Families dominate at the shallow end as fathers and mothers mind multiple children, younger ones wearing water wings or life preservers. Some folks swim earnestly from one side of the pool to the other, clearly exercising. An older woman stands in five-foot-deep water, lifting arm weights. Two men with enormous bellies hanging over their tiny trunks stride by, exercising by walking around and around the pool between swimming and steaming.
Overhead, metal struts support a massive roof and windows that admit light even on cloudy days. Supplementary floodlights make sure no shadows lurk. On the walls, brightly-colored murals depict some of the history and beauty of the area, showing rock formations sculpted by this mineral-laden water throughout the valley.
The Swing Rings:
Hanging from the ceiling are five rings about the size of a man’s head, dangling on long ropes perhaps five feet above the water’s surface. These provide a test of strength, agility and—what many of those who attempt the crossing don’t realize—timing. From one side of the pool you can grab one ring, swing to the next, catch it, and swing to the next. If you are successful, you can cross the pool without getting wet. I once saw a supremely confident young man kick off his shoes and cross fully clothed without getting a droplet of water on him. This is not what happens to most who try, however.
Arm strength is important, as is a firm grip. Once you’ve caught the first ring, likely slippery and wet from the last user, you need to swing vigorously to reach the next ring, and the next. Most of those who try SPLASH down below the second ring.
Timing is more important than strength. Once the rings are moving because someone has crossed, it’s possible to catch the first ring and swing out at the precise time that the second ring reaches the point closest to the first ring, so the swinger doesn’t have to reach as far. Most times, however, the potential swinger reaches the most distant point of the first ring just as just as the second ring swings away from them. SPLASH! Some of them get it immediately. They go back to the edge, catch the first ring, and take time to watch how the second one swings. If they choose correctly, they arrive at each successive ring just as it reaches its closest point to the desperately swinging figure.
No one laughs—except the hapless swinger’s friends if they are in a jolly mood—when someone hits the water. Some manage to drop in feet first, but a fair number land on their faces with a mighty WHOOSH! Still, when someone swings across with grace and finesse, many people applaud.
The Hot Tubs, Steam Room and Sauna:
At one end of the pool, behind a gate which can be fastened shut (probably to deter small children) are the main reasons I like to visit the Plunge: two hot tubs, a steam room, and a sauna.
The hot tubs sit on raised platforms. On the wall near each is a button that will turn on a whirlpool effect which lasts for the 15 minutes or so that one should spend in each of these hotter atmospheres. Each hot tub is about the size of those sold for home use, with contoured seats, so they will comfortably seat four or five people. Lighting in this area is bright, but the two remaining rooms are deliberately kept nearly dark, presumably for the relaxing effect.
Down the hall are the doors opening into the steam room and sauna. Both rooms are small. The sauna has two levels of slatted benches, the lower slightly cooler, as well as a shower in the corner so occupants can cool off right in the room.
The steam room has a single bench along three of its four walls, facing a vent from which steam issues constantly. The floor is crusted unevenly with the minerals in the water.
On our most recent visit, I entered the steam room and was nearly blinded by the rolling steam. Gingerly, I stepped forward until I could see a spot to sit on the bench beside two burly men. Both nodded and shifted a little to show me I had room to sit. Before long, three more men entered; none of them weighed less than three hundred pounds. We were packed in there like sardines, thigh to sweaty thigh, but I never felt threatened. The conversation was of football, with nothing that could offend the ears of a female of any age.
And my experience, I think, demonstrates one of the most important elements of a visit to The Plunge: the atmosphere. Truly enjoying the experience requires more than a swimsuit. This is a family-oriented experience, and much of the enjoyable mood depends upon mutual respect for other visitors. Many of the customers are elderly, so large men with bellies hanging precariously over their tiny little trunks stroll the perimeter of the pool and gasp in the steam room. White-haired women with tightly curled hairdos tip-toe carefully down the concrete steps into the shallow end. The day we were there, most of the customers were long out of their teen years, and everyone behaved with respect and decorum. Perhaps the two lifeguards continually patrolling the pool’s edges suggest not only a safe place, but one that is comfortable for everyone.
Sometimes, however, folks who are new to the experience fail to understand the etiquette. Here’s an example: Once when Jerry and I were the only two people in the steam room, two teen-age girls came to the door, opened it, and stood there giggling and debating whether to go inside. The steam we had been enjoying rolled out the door, while they obliviously ruined our experience. We didn’t explain, and they didn’t understand how rude they were being. Eventually, they shut the door and went away. We sighed and waited for the steam to build up.
Then they came back: with a half-dozen giggling friends. They made quite a production out of peering into the dark, twittering, shrieking, and grabbing one another—again letting out most of the steam before they found places to sit. We knew they wouldn’t stay long, so we headed for the pool to cool off.
After we spend a quarter hour or so in the steam room or sauna, we head down the concrete steps into the big pool and gasp when the waves strike. Still, the point is to cool down so we can go back to the heat, so while Jerry swims from one side to the other, I lie back and immerse myself, enjoying the feel of the smooth stones under my feet. I learned to swim once, when I was about ten, but I’m not good at it, and fortunately at The Plunge, I don’t have to be.
The Evans Plunge is probably the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, originally built in 1890, but the modernized facility is sparkling with light, bright tiles, and smooth natural pebbles. According to ultimatewaterpark.com, it remains the world’s largest warm water indoor swimming pool and waterpark.
The park is owned and operated by the City, and open year round (with some specific exceptions) at 1145 N. River Street in Hot Springs, an hour south of Rapid City. General admission for a day is $14, but various rates apply for seniors, for long-term admission, and other possibilities allowing a cheaper experience.
Those exceptions: the Plunge is usually closed for a week or so in February for cleaning, and is not open on Tuesdays. Otherwise, the hours are generous, winter and summer. Call 605-745-5165 for details, or look at www.evansplunge.com.
Besides the pool, the building houses a weight room with every kind of exercise machine I’ve ever seen, and a few more, as well as a cardio room and a spinning room, with spinning classes on particular days. You can enjoy water basketball and volleyball, water aerobics, and “Boot Camp” water aerobics from September to May, as well as arthritic water aerobics. Besides all this, the website indicates Open Golf, with a net set up to catch the balls during cold weather. And there’s talk of introducing yoga classes!
In warm weather, the outdoor pool is also open, featuring another slide. Food and beverages are available, as is a gift shop, and no doubt the place bubbles with happy tourists.
We probably won’t be going to the Plunge much after the weather warms up. But while the temperature drops to the teens or twenties every night, I’ll keep my Plunge tote packed with towels, swim suit, and quarters for the lockers.
Oh yes: underwear, so I don’t have to wear the wet suit home.
With our day pass, we’ll likely spend several mornings steaming and enjoying the sauna, have lunch, and then debate whether to go again before we head home. Last time the desire for naps won out, but maybe we can stay awake longer next time.
Maybe I’ll see you there!
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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