HAGERMAN — Swimming holes are summer hits, and this one is sure not to disappoint. Hidden just downriver from Miracle Hot Springs and Banbury Hot Springs in Hagerman, Blue Heart Springs offers up what feels like a Caribbean oasis — in the heart of the Snake River.
Just how did this glacial blue spring land in the heart of Idaho? The theory is that it was left behind by a whirlpool in the Bonneville flood — some 15,000 years ago.
One sizzling Tuesday, I rented a Triumph kayak from Banbury Hot Springs and dragged it down to the shore, loaded with my lunch, some refreshments and a boatload of water. It was nearly 90 degrees at noon and I had booked my craft for four hours. With everything I needed aboard, I set out for an adventure to the legendary cove I had heard about since moving to the Magic Valley.
The sit-on-top 13-foot vessel I had secured for the day led me smoothly through mucky waters, the surface littered with river weeds and debris. Each stroke pushed me further into the belly of the stream, and fresh springs fed the river from the hillside as I rowed, hugging the east bank. Spewing clear water into a surface I couldn't see through, I pushed on against the stream, moving north — each stroke led me closer to a hidden gem on the river.
Blue herons swooped above me and flocks yellow butterflies played on the bow of my kayak as I slid across the water. On the right side of the river, jagged boulder walls grew in immensity — black rock towering above the water — and faded to gray and white at the edge of the water.
About 45 minutes into my moving meditation of paddling right, then left, Box Canyon came into clear view and I looked up the rock wall and into a whitewater rush just below it. The springs were near.
Slowly but noticeably, the water shifted. It turned from a brown-green to rust, then slowly to a deep green with hints of blue. As the river began to bend west, I entered the cove, shaped like a heart that rests just below Box Canyon. I paddled swiftly into the inlet, distracted by the pudgy river otters beneath my boat, skimming the plant life and fish that swam beneath me. The small mammals dug the river bottom with their noses, and it occurred to me that I was looking right through the water as if it were glass while I admired their determined quest to upturn the river bottom. Layers of slick fur swept with the stream back and forth as they plundered into the sand below me, one after the next.
The cove was a sanctuary that brought back visions of every Caribbean locale I have ever visited — the surface of the water is crystalline and shadows loom off its surface like mirrored glass — crisp, clean and perfectly outlined.
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I dipped my fingers in the cool water. At only 58 degrees, it was refreshing as the outside temperature continued to climb. I paddled deeper into the cove and discovered I was not alone. Three different parties of boaters and two pet German shepherds were basking in the sun inside the pristine formation.
A blend of laughter and barking echoed against the cove walls and up into the sky. Gazing across the sapphire surface, a sleek water snake looked back at me, then followed me nimbly as I glided into a corner of the cove for a rest.
It didn't feel like a Tuesday anymore. It was more like a Caribbean vacation as I extracted my fresh carrots and soda, munching and chatting with other cove visitors, equally stunned by the fragile ecosystem and the crystalline springs bubbling up from below as if the riverbed was breathing.
Even more surprising? It's not just humans who frequent the cove. A resident fox lurked near the water's edge, likely awaiting snacks from visitors. Fortunately, today's crop of folks was too smart to feed the beautiful creature, an unusual sight in broad daylight. But he didn't give up his post and continued to look on with fixed eyes, his marmalade coat shining in the sun.
Boat after boat of kayaks and canoes spilled their occupants into the gleaming water, and all came up smiling, gasping for air.
The afternoon passed slowly, with hardly any sound besides the soft reverberation of voices inside the cove and birds calling above.
Nearly closed off from the main body of the river, it was like being in another realm, staring up the scree-filled walls surrounding the cove. I didn't spot any hikers, but it is possible to descend into the cove as well, accessible via Box Canyon.
As the sun sank in the sky, I reluctantly paddled back into the main waters and headed for the dock I set out from with no paddlers in sight and the wide open river ahead, a deep green-gray, its surface impermeable as if protecting a secret.
For those who need a vacation, but can't spring for airfare to a deserted isle in the Caribbean, the cove is a close second — and it's right here in Magic Valley's backyard.