The Hidden Place it was called and hidden it remained for some 7000 years. To the Nlaka'pamux Indians who lived at its mouth it was a mystical valley, at once the abode of spirits and the provider of sustenance.
Early European explorers corrupted its Nlaka'pamux name to a more pronounceable Styne. The Hidden Place had been found. Yet as time and new traditions Anglicized its name to Stein, the valley remained largely untouched by the wanton greed that had begun to lay waste to other nearby wildernesses piece by piece. Geography and a marginal endowment of industrial resources have served the spirits of the Stein well. While every neighbouring watershed has endured the brutality of chainsaw and bulldozer the Stein remains today much the same as the Hidden Place that has long provided medicine and meals for the Nlaka'pamux.
Island in a Sea of Stumps
Often called an island in a sea of stumps, the Stein is characterized by rugged, steep-sided slopes, U-shaped from wave upon wave of glaciation The valley bottom is surprisingly flat with a nearly level pitch, making it ideal for hiking and backpacking. Fully six of the 12 biogeoclimatic zones found in B.C. are represented in the Stein watershed. Such diversity supports mountain goats, black bears, mule deer, moose, wolverine, coyote, marten, mink and beaver and provides the grizzly bear with its last refuge in the southwest corner of the province.
Such diversity moreover has traditionally provided the Nlaka'pamux with an abundance of fresh green shoots, berries, roots, tubers, meat and fish.
More than a larder, the Hidden Place is the last refuge of a pantheon of spirits who once guided all aspects of Nlaka'pamux civilization. The imprint of the gods is felt at every step along the river. Numerous "power spots" - high ledges, caves, natural grottos - dot the landscape, bearing yet the visions of dreamers and shamans in the form of wondrous rock paintings centuries old.
Of some 36 know heritage sites in the Stein, with as many more at its mouth, 14 have been daubed with the blood-red representations of mystical events. Often pictured on the rocky tableaux are images of guardian spirits who revealed themselves to native youths during solitary coming-of-age rituals.
The modern day hiker encountering these images can sometimes sense the true power and force of mystic imagination.
It should go without saying that these pictographs are treasures of the Nlaka'pamux and should be accorded all due respect. To mar, deface, or otherwise despoil these treasures is not only rude and ignorant, it is highly illegal. Since the skin contains oils and acids even lightly touching them can cause irreparable damage. Other vestiges of the Nlaka'pamux linger in the Stein. At its confluence with the Fraser where the Indians wintered in gigantic pithouses can still be found the shallow depressions of their winter storehouses. In the same area a boulder carved with petroglyphs can also be beheld. Upstream at Stryen, Teaspoon and Earl Creeks hikers will encounter numerous cedar trees with large, rectangular strips of bark missing. Somewhat unromantically labelled culturally modified trees (CMT's) by the archaeological community, these small groves of cedars were an important source of fibre for clothing, cord, roofing, insulation, basketry and even diapers. So rare and important in fact was cedar bark that the Nlaka'pamux were willing to walk some 22 km round trip to collect it.
Rough hack marks at the top and bottom of each bare patch, the work of sharp-edged stones, would date the harvest to before the appearance of Europeans with their high tech implements of steel. Only small patches of bark were removed to allow for the survival of the relatively rare cedar trees. That they continue to live today, attests to the truly conservationist nature of the Nlaka'pamux. The Stein watershed was formally declared Stein Valley Nlaka'pamux Heritage Park on November 23, 1995 following a hard-fought 20-year battle to protect the wilderness, historical and anthropological features of the region from industrial development. The park is jointly managed by the provincial government and the Lytton Indian Band.
The route as described through the lower canyon is part of a longer trail known variously as the Stein Traverse or the Stein River Heritage Trail. The 75 km traverse starts at the end of a remote four-wheel-drive road in the alpine and is not readily accessible via public transportation. The lower canyon of the Stein where the traverse ends is accessible however, leading to a wilderness area of striking diversity and beauty. The route detailed below takes a minimum of four days, including travel time, though the Stein Valley can be enjoyed as a simple overnighter. Alternately, many more days could easily be spent exploring this fascinating watershed.
With accessibility problems and requiring experience and route finding skills well beyond the scope of this book, the demanding Stein Traverse has not been included. The 51 km Mini-Traverse on the other hand follows a well-marked trail from Blowdown Pass to the headwaters of Cottonwood Creek then on down to the Stein River itself, following the lower canyon route described below in reverse.