One afternoon this winter, Tom Walker brought a colleague home to bask in the hot tub installed in the backyard of his Jasper, Alberta, home. It was nothing unusual for Walker, who dips daily after work. But when his wife, Carla, arrived home, she simply gaped at the men.
“How long have you guys been in there?”
“About an hour. Why?”
The two men hadn’t noticed, between sips of wine, that their hair had frozen until it looked as if two sculpted haystacks were bobbing on the water’s surface. The temperature was —41°C.
Sitting around outside in a barrel during winter sounds as inviting as the Wreck of the Hesperus, but Western Canadians who have latched onto the laid-back lifestyle of hot tubbing claim the experience is gorgeous. A dripping tap sets them to rhapsodizing about the stimulating, invigorating, relaxing effects of fresh, crisp air and hot, bubbling water. Their refrain is hypnotic; more and more westerners are taking to the tub for a morning wake-up, a noon quickie, a late-night wind-down. The fancy has caught on best in Calgary and Edmonton, but Jasper boasts four tubs, with another four planned, the town of Hinton (population 7,000) has six, for a total of perhaps 100 scattered throughout the province and into Saskatchewan. Meanwhile, in the relative banana belt of British Columbia, sales are up anywhere from 80 to 300 per cent over last year. Vancouver lawyers and salesmen are even having them installed in offices for intimate business conferences and after-work relaxation, and the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association set up a temporary tub in the Bayshore Inn for a Vancouver symposium.
Californians, naturally, were the first converts to the watery version of an executive sandbox. Like all myths, the origins of hot tubs are buried in obscurity, but there’s nothing obscure about sales figures: one company’s sales revenues amounted to $8 million in the U.S. last year.
South of the border, tubs are most popular in the sun belt, but Canadians are hardier. “It’s new, it’s luxurious, it’s got prestige,” says Calgary manufacturer Frank Meriwether. “And in Alberta’s boom economy, people are generally looking for something to spend their money on.” Actually, he adds, hot tubbing is a more sensible solution to winter than it appears at first splash. “There are a lot more things to do in California than lie in a tub. Here, you’re searching desperately for anything to do in winter.”
The manufacturers are working on that. They’re aiming at the disposable income market, wielded by those aged 25 to 50, with tubs in the $2,500 to $5,000 range. But, for those wanting to leapfrog the Joneses, installing a Supertub can cost $10,000. Then there are the accessories: huge bath towels, shelves that attach to the side of the tub, air rings for more bubbles, thermometers and floating air mattresses. But there’s a counterculture, too: the adventurous building their own with do-it-yourself plumbing kits and an American how-to paperback.
The idea is simplicity itself: a redwood or cedar container, ranging in diameter from three to eight feet, equipped with four or more massaging jets to swirl water heated to between
40°C and 46°C. (In Jasper, $1 a day keeps the tub heated with gas.) Because the wood “bleeds,” the water quickly becomes tea colored, and poorly constructed tubs seep. (Purists consider them a sham, but both problems can be circumvented by using Fiberglas.)
One-upmanship has overtaken the tub phenomenon: B.C.’s largest is a converted wine barrel, belonging to Adrian Woods of Victoria, that has held as many as 33 people. His claim will soon be overshadowed by a monstrous 14footer built by a wealthy Edmontonian on the Saanich peninsula, north of Victoria—a multi-level tub to be installed in sections by helicopter at an estimated cost of $20,000.
Tub hosts regularly find it cosy to cram 15 people into a four-foot diameter tub. “At parties, someone always ends up in the tub sooner or later,” says Calgarian Debbie Wong. “We sit and sip wine and listen to music from speakers hooked onto the balcony. Just float around and relax.” Rick Negus, 34, who claims title to Vancouver’s second hot tub, agrees. “They’re fantastic. When we have a party, the wine flows, the glasses are set around the edge of the tub and people talk for hours. It allows everyone to be themselves.” Families take a more pragmatic approach. Small boys home from hockey practice leap willingly into a hot tub; a nurse, coming off shift at 11 p.m., shares a
nightly before-bed soak with her husband.
Sex might sell hot tubs, but that’s not what most devotees are into them for. Protocol says they can go in naked if they’re comfortable—swimsuits are optional. While some share with just about anyone, the more modest keep tubs en famille. “My husband feels it would be like sharing his bathtub if guests got in,” confesses one woman. But a man says, “Everyone at my house goes in without a suit, from the kids to my 60-year-old mother. No one feels
awkward.” In a world that shares the hallowed atmosphere of immersion baptism, a subtle etiquette is evolving. The naked and the suited can mingle unless there are girls under 16 tubbing with older men. No unsolicited touching. Don’t break the wine glasses. And dry off before the dash to the house or you will create an ice rink on the way. The addicted or the addled recommend a roll in the snow to end the experience.
Buffs claim the tubs satisfy the human need for togetherness, while the therapeutic effects are lauded by bronchitis victims and the arthritic. “The hot tub affords a person an intimacy that is rare in our society,” says University of British Columbia psychologist and tub owner Dr. Robert Conry. “It reduces stress by what I call the hot-tub ritual.” But some physicians worry about fungus growths on the dark insides, waterborne viruses and the bacteria breeding ground provided by porous wood. “It’s like sharing your bath water,” grimaces Dr. Roberta Ongley of UBC’s faculty of medicine. California reports skin rashes and vaginal infections associated with the tubs—and public tubs are generally frowned upon. B.C. has already set up stringent regulations for any proposed in hotels, motels and health clubs.
Tub trendies insist that with proper care and maintenance, the tubs are perfectly safe. They cite the case of San Luis Obispo, California, where a bunch of skin rashes erupted at local health centres. “The rashes seemed to be associated with hot tubs on a hillside near a spring,” says Greg Clark, director of environmental health in Santa Barbara County. “But it turned out people were going off into the bushes and getting into poison oak.”
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