An ancient power spot in a wilderness near Vancouver, BC, the Stein Valley is easier to find now that the area has become a provincial park
Text and photos by Robert Scheer
For 5,000 years the Stein Valley was like a university, where young natives came to learn the secrets of Mother Earth. When a boy or girl from one of the local First Nations was ready — usually between the ages of ten and fifteen — their puberty training would culminate with a vision quest in the Stein.
Often the training would be instructed by a grandparent, a boy’s grandfather or a girl’s grandmother. Some of the exercises the youth might undergo included prayers, purification rites, fasting and vigils at places of power. Dreams were an important aspect of these vigils. A novice would hope to have dreams that contained messages from the spirits. In order to preserve and magnify the power of these dreams, they would paint images from their dreams on nearby rocks. These symbolic rock paintings can still be found in the Stein Valley, one of the largest known rock art sites in Canada.
A remarkable book is devoted to these rock paintings. They write their dreams on the rock forever, by Annie York, Richard Daly and Chris Arnett, was published in 1993 by Talonbooks of Vancouver, BC. Annie York was a native of the Nlaka’pamux Nation (formerly called the Lytton native band) who died in 1991. One of the last of her people to have been trained in the old ways, Annie caused some controversy when she revealed secrets about herbal medicine and native spirituality to Daly and Arnett, as well as to filmmaker Jan-Marie Martell, whose documentary about Annie, Bowl of Bone, is distributed by the National Film Board of Canada.
“In the morning an old man preaches the young people what to do,” Annie says in her book. “It’s to go up in these mountains like that Stein. They go up there, and they sleep, and this dream tells them. Then he writes his dream on the rock. That’s left there forever.”
In the 1970s, logging threatened to destroy this pristine wilderness, located only four hours from Vancouver, BC. Efforts to protect the Stein, led by Lytton and Mount Currie First Nations and environmentalists, finally resulted in its designation as a Provincial Park in 1995.
Unsuccessful attempts to visit
As reported in the June/July ’97 issue of Power Trips, we tried unsuccessfully to visit the Stein in late March of that year. Although it was spring in Vancouver, the Stein trail was still blanketed by several inches of snow. Later, the melting snow caused a mudslide, resulting in a major train derailment, forcing highway closures in the area. In May, when things seemed back to normal, we phoned the park service to make sure the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park was indeed finally open again. It wasn’t. A “bad bear” had been causing trouble, and the park was closed until it could be captured and relocated, high up in the mountains. In July, after phoning to make sure the bear was safely gone, we drove to Lytton only to learn that heavy rains had raised the level of the Fraser River so high that the tiny, two-vehicle Lytton ferry could not operate. Summer is not a good time to hike the Stein. It is often one of the hottest spots in Canada from July through September, with temperatures peaking well over 110-degrees F (mid 40s C.) So it wasn’t until early June of 1998 that we finally made our visit. It turned out to be a nearly perfect experience.
We left Vancouver Friday evening and stayed overnight in Lytton, in order to be on the first ferry Saturday morning. Especially for someone who’s over 50 and doesn’t exercise on a regular basis, it’s easier to hike up and down mountain trails for half a day after a good night’s sleep than after a four-hour drive. Fortunately, there are several very reasonably priced motels in Lytton. Our suite for two with kitchen in the Braeden Lodge was more large than luxurious, but it cost only CDN$48 (US$34) plus tax.
The Lytton ferry is amazing. Large enough for only two vehicles at a time, it moves along a cable, powered only by the current of the Fraser River. It’s a free service, running from 6:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., with four regularly-scheduled interruptions for coffee and meals. You can also get across the river by a longer route, the Duffy Lake road from Lillooet.
Once you’re on the west side of the Fraser, it’s now much easier to find the trailhead than before the valley became a provincial park. The road to the Stein crosses First Nations land, and some of the Nlaka’pamux used to discourage white intruders by taking down the signs that pointed the way. Today, with the parkland jointly managed by First Nations and BC Parks, there’s a permanent “Stein Trail Rd.” sign marking where you turn left, 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the ferry dock. It’s a rough, dirt and gravel road, less than one mile long. If you don’t drive a high-clearance 4×4 (and we didn’t) you’ll have to go very slowly and carefully to avoid the large rocks and deep ruts.
At the trailhead are plenty of parking space, campsites, fire-rings, some picnic tables and two pit toilets, but no potable water. BC Parks advises you not to drink the Stein water without treating it first, but we forgot to pack our mini-filter so we drank it anyway, after the water bottles we had brought with us were empty, and we suffered no ill-effects. It was freezing cold and absolutely delicious. Still, it doesn’t take many giardia microbes to make you feel very bad! Next time, we’ll bring the filter.
Asking Rock a traditional stop
From the trailhead parking lot it’s a hike of only a few minutes down a lightly-forested hillside and across a rustic bridge to the Stein River. Immediately on your left is the first power spot, a large rock with a two concave hollows, large enough for a person to lie in. Known as the Asking Rock, this is where visitors traditionally stop and ask the spirits for permission to come into the valley and for good weather. We saw braids of sweetgrass, piles of tobacco, feathers, coins and other gifts stuffed into cracks and around the base of the rock. A few badly-faded rock paintings can be seen here. Asking Rock is also known as Birthing Rock, because native women used to line the stone ledges with fir boughs and have their children in this sacred place, baptizing their newborn babies in the river, a few feet across the trail. From here to the next significant area of rock paintings is a hike that took us about 2-1/2 hours.
The first stretch is the easiest. The ground is basically flat, and you’re walking among Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine trees. You’re almost never out of sight of the river, and even when you can’t see it, its powerful roar keeps reminding you of its presence.
One minor drawback, since the Stein has become an official BC Park, is that camping is now restricted. You used to be able to pitch your tent anywhere. Now, you’re only supposed to use designated camping areas. There is one about 15 minutes along the trail, and it’s equipped with a new bear-proof metal cache, where campers are encouraged to store their food. We didn’t see any bears, bear tracks or bear-droppings. If you don’t wear a bear bell on your pack, it’s a good idea to walk loudly, so that you don’t surprise any bears who might be on the trail ahead of you.
The solitude of the Stein is wonderful. We were the only hikers on the trail all morning. Although there had been three or four other vehicles in the parking lot, it wasn’t until we were on our way back that we met any other people. Perhaps there were ten or twelve altogether, and we had been on the most widely-used section of the trail! A city dweller, I have learned not to hear the annoying drone of traffic noise that constantly assaults my ears. Wilderness, such as the Stein, is marvelously calming. The only sounds, sights and smells are those of Mother Earth. We were pleasantly surprised several times when her earth-tone color scheme was suddenly accented with a flash of bright red berries or blue wildflowers. There were few birds to be seen on this trip, although in the past we have sighted woodpeckers among the trees and water ouzels flying in and out of the mountain stream.
The Devil’s Staircase
About 2-1/2 miles (4 km) from the trailhead, you arrive at the foot of the Devil’s Staircase and the hike stops being easy. Steep switchbacks take you up the forested hillside. As you continue to rise above the river, the ground gets rockier. Then it gets very rocky indeed. There is a talus slope of loose, sharp stones that can be quite slippery in places. You probably could make it up in tennis shoes, but stiff-soled hiking boots are more comfortable and give you safer footing. At the top of the slope you’re rewarded with a dramatic view of the valley, the river and surrounding mountains. We used the photo-opportunity here as a good excuse to gasp for breath and rest for a several minutes. Then we pressed on, down the equally-steep, rocky hillside, knowing we had nearly reached our destination.
If there is a name for the power spot were heading for, I don’t know what it is. In the Annie York book, it’s just referred to as EbRk2. About 2-1/4 hours from the trailhead, the Devil’s Staircase ends with a lightly wooded, hilly section. After you finally arrive back down to the river, just as the trail turns to the left, a small fallen tree conceals another trail leading to the right. About 100 feet along this trail is the power spot, a granite cliff which is one of the single largest rock writing sites in Canada. Over 160 images have been identified on a section of rock that’s about 50 feet long. Sadly, most of these images are now very faded or worn. Still, we were able to locate the famous “Stein Owl” painting which was used as the symbol for the world-famous “Save the Stein” music festivals held in the ’70s and ’80s.
Annie York said the so-called owl is actually a spirit that brings power to people whose dreams it enters. In the painting, two deer-like animals can be seen under the spirit’s outstretched wings. The painting may commemorate a vision in which the spirit revealed how to hunt these animals. Another painting we found, one of the least faded in the area, showed a human figure, likely a hunter, carrying what is probably a bow.
The paint used to create the images was made from powdered hematite, or red ochre. It was mixed with burned tamarack pitch and saliva, applied by hand. The red color symbolized life, luck and goodness. The paintings are fragile, and they must not be touched. Annie York said, “The reason why Indians strongly demand that they must NEVER be disturbed is because that writing — all those rock writings — they are there to remind the young people that there was a person with knowledge on this earth for thousands of years before people came from Europe.”
Even if there were no rock paintings, this site would be spectacular and well worth the effort it takes to get here. It’s a natural campsite, (or it would be if camping weren’t now prohibited here) with a small, sandy beach giving easy access to the river. When James Teit wrote his anthropological treatise on aboriginal rock paintings in 1918, he could easily have been describing this very spot: “These paintings are to be found in places such as cliffs, overlooking or close to lakes and streams, near waterfalls, within and around caves, on the walls of canyons, natural amphitheaters and on boulders near trails. Generally they are in lonely and secluded places near where Indians were in the habit of holding vigil and undergoing training during the period of their puberty ceremonies, when they generally acquired their manitous [guardian spirits]. These places were…considered mysterious, and were the haunts of ‘mysteries’ from whom they expected power.”
6,500 years of local history
In the early 1900s, Teit was told by local natives that the paintings had been made “from time immemorial.” People have been living in southern BC for at least 9,000 years, and evidence of human habitation in the Stein area has been dated at 6,500 years old. Creation of rock paintings declined after 1858, when the first Europeans arrived in the area, searching for gold, and most of the images now visible were probably made during this later period.
We enjoyed a leisurely lunch while lounging on a flat rock between the river and the cliff wall. It would have been wonderful to stay longer, perhaps to sleep and receive a vision from the spirits whose presence is still nearly perceptible, even after thousands of years of vision quests. But the wind was picking up and the beautiful, sunny morning had faded into an overcast afternoon. There were a few drops of rain in the air as we headed back up the hill toward the first set of switchbacks on the Devil’s Staircase.
There are a lot more downhill than uphill sections on the way back to the trailhead, so our return trip took less than two hours, including a stop to numb my sore feet in the icy water for a short while. In no time we were back in the car, across the river and onto the highway toward Vancouver. Even with a pit-stop for ice cream cones in Boston Bar, we were home well before dark. Somehow it always takes less time to return than it did to get there.
The next time we go to the Stein, I would like to take camping gear and spend the night at the power place, but I realize this is against the new rules. I know the spirits that were sought in ancient vision quests are still around. Maybe if I spend enough time there, I’ll learn how to hear what they have to teach me.
Like the Ten Commandments
Even if you never experience a spirit vision, the Stein is still a fine place to visit. Rosie Adams Fandrich, an Nlaka’pamux native who lives on the Stein River, is quoted in They write their dreams on the rock forever, saying it up far better than I could. “That Stein is like Moses’ mountain,” she said. “Those rock figures are sacred like the Commandments. If I have bad luck, or too much on my mind, I go into quiet places like that, and I sit. You can drum, and sing and dance if you like. Mostly I sit and I pray. After a while in there you feel better.”
About the author:
Robert Scheer is a travel writer based near Vancouver, BC and the editor of New Age Travel.