The Bear Trap Swim Club 1984

Back in the Day

Pat Hill  |   Wednesday Apr. 1st, 2015

Norris Hot Springs, located 30-some miles west of Bozeman, is a lovely place to enjoy natural hot springs, get a tasty meal made with local, organic ingredients, and even catch some live music. The place has come a long way since I first started going there in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, when the appeal was a bit more rustic, and there was a loosely-knit (and barely clad) organization called the Beartrap Swim Club. All that was required for membership was the lack of a swimming suit.
I first went on a trip out to “Naked Night at Norris” in December of 1979, before those evenings were tagged with a club title. I was in the Navy at the time, home in Bozeman from San Diego for Christmas leave, and ready for some adventure (Sailors Have More Fun was a recruiting slogan for that branch of the service back then, and I sure went out of my way to prove it). Though I’d heard about Naked Night, that was one adventure I hadn’t yet partaken in, and my friends seemed eager to introduce me to it.

So we piled into the gas guzzlers and headed west. The road to Norris had more of a twist and a turn to it back then, but that only seemed to entice those boys with their big block Chevys and such. As we neared the place, I looked down from the road at a tall wooden fence surrounding a cloud of steam on all four sides. The night was still, and a fountain of water shot upward from the steam about 20 feet or so, before making a perfect arc back down. A few wooden structures resembling outhouses leaned just inside the fence, and a small building stood on the Tobacco Root side of the enclave. A few dim floodlights illuminated the scene.

We pulled down into the parking lot and the boys and girls headed toward the building, occupied that night by Mike and Doris Zankowski, who owned the place. Both Mike and Doris were gruff, no-nonsense proprietors with a reputation for zero tolerance regarding backtalk and bullshit. I got to be friends with both Mike and Doris in later years, but never forgot my initial meeting with them, as I paid for my soak and was advised not to take any beverages in glass containers into the pool area.

There were about 20 of us in attendance that night. After paying, we proceeded through a hinged wooden door in the fence to the pool area. The two structures leaning together, with towels hung over the entrances instead of doors, turned out to be the changing rooms, and, as it turned out, were not two separate structures after all, but one, separated by a piece of plywood with a few holes in it, allowing for the separated sexes to observe each other on the sly. But that night there was no bother to change into anything, so we slipped out of our clothes, and made our way down the wooden steps and into the hot water. The couples among us headed to the far corners of the wooden-lined pool, and the rest of us congregated in the “hot” southwest corner, where the steps led into the water. As I settled in, with a cold can of Rainier beer to accompany me, I noticed a couple of my friends slipping under the steps, for illicit purposes, as it turned out. Soon a pungent, ropy odor emerged from under those steps and mingled with the steam rising from the water.

After a few beers, complete with the requisite soaking and joking, I heard someone shout “Sharks and Minnows!” The crew directly took up sides on opposite sides of the pool: guys to the north, girls to the south. The guys were tapped to be the first-round minnows that evening. The object of the game--swim underwater to the other side and make it through the line of sharks waiting to un-submerge you. If the sharks bring you up, you too become a shark.

Well, I gotta tell you, those girls cheated when it came to Sharks and Minnows.
After a few rounds of the game, refreshment was required. Some retreated into the hot corner, where a few of the gang began to engage in somersaulting from the railing along the steps--at least one of them went home that night with a hell of a bruise on the tail end. After a nice massage provided by the geyser-like stream of water shooting into the air and back into the pool, which was meant to cool off the hot mineral water a tad, I retreated to the hot corner, and just leaned back and let the evening sink in. Presently my revery was interrupted by a loud female voice coming from the direction of the gate: “Time to GET OUT!”

That was a command one was wise not to ignore during the Mike and Doris days--as I said, they were no-nonsense folks (once Mike jumped right into the pool with shotgun in hand to roust a friend of mine out of the water). So we reluctantly got on out, picked up our empties, put our clothes back on, and headed back to Bozeman.

I carried the memory of that night back to San Diego with me, but I didn’t make it back to Norris Hot Springs until 1983, when I got out of the Navy and returned to Bozeman. A soak at Norris was high on my list of things to do as a newly-indoctrinated civilian. Mike and Doris still had the place, which looked just as I’d remembered it. And Naked Night was still intact, too, but now folks who desired a soak in the buff became card-carrying members of what was dubbed the Beartrap Swim Club. There were no extra added benefits at the hot springs for Beartrap Swim Club members; if the night wasn’t designated as a naked one, they still had to wear a swimming suit. But the tradition had lived on, and soon I too was packing a card, though none of those subsequent Naked Nights lived on in my memory like the first one.

Although I moved to Missoula a few years later, I would still make the trip down for a soak at Norris occasionally, and I last saw Mike in 1988, shortly before he became ill. Doris sold a portion of the property, including the hot springs, to another party the next year, and things reportedly got a bit raucous and randy at times. I never made it to Norris when Artie owned the place, but Doris ended up owning the whole shebang again within a few years. She sold the property to Holly Heinzmann in 2004, and Holly has done wonders with the hot springs. The food and beverage selection is wonderful, a dining area has been established poolside, and most of the fence is now gone, so soakers can enjoy the view and the wildlife. A bandshell houses the bands which play poolside three nights a week. There’s even camping available.  

But you better keep your swimming suit on.

About the Author(s)

Pat Hill

Pat Hill is a freelance writer in Bozeman. A native Montanan and former advisor to Montana State University’s Exponent newspaper, Pat has been writing about the history and politics of the Treasure State for nearly three decades.

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