A quarter of a century ago my forestry class examined the Stein Valley of southwest British Columbia. It was slated to be logged. Conservationists, natives and activists, including Dr. David Suzuki and the late John Denver, persuaded the government in 1995 to create a park — a global legacy.

There are conservatively 10 million different forms of life on our planet. All living organisms are made up of the same seven major atoms and come from the blueprint of life — DNA. Grizzly bears, wolves or dolphins share over 75 percent of DNA that is identical in humans.

The challenge for conservation biologists in the 21st century is to protect the genetic tapestry of all life forms.

The Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Park is a remarkable biological jewel. It’s about a three-hour drive from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Named after the Stein River it is the largest unlogged watershed in southwest British Columbia with an area of 410 square miles including three small glaciers.

It’s truly a unique valley because it straddles two climatic regions — the cool, wet (80 inches of precipitation) coast and the hot, dry (18 inches of precipitation) interior. Temperate rain forest vegetation, drought tolerant and lightning-induced specialists and life clinging on the edge of Mt. Skihist some 9,660 feet above sea level. This place has it all!

The Stein River feeds the mighty Fraser River at a junction where the Thompson River also joins forces. Once upon a time, giant sturgeon over 8 feet long and tens of millions of salmon, more than 100 miles from the ocean, called this home.

Today this park is crucial habitat for the monarch of the wilderness grizzly bears, black bears, mountain lions, wolverines, martens, mountain goats, moose, beavers, eagles, spotted owls, loons, hummingbirds and more.

The Stein Valley has also been home to the Nlaka’pamux people for at least the last 7,500 years.

It contains some of Canada’s highest density and richest pictographs and cave art including pictographs on culturally modified western red cedars. Cedar bark was stripped off in long sheets and used for baskets, hats, and walls in sweat lodges, floors and lining underground winter food caches.

As a matter of fact, in the late 1980s I discovered one of those culturally modified cedars with unusual pictographs.

The Nlaka’pamux youth developed a close relationship with nature, spending at least four months but sometimes a year or more in isolation in the mountains surrounding the Stein River.

Initially a young boy or girl would travel into the Stein Valley, climb one of its mountains and seek a ledge overlooking the river; a fire was lit and the youth sang and danced until daybreak. Exhausted sometime in the middle of the night, sleep set in.

During the sleep, an animal spirit spoke and sang to the young person. It is believed that the numerous rock paintings along the lower 20-mile corridor of the Stein River where done by the boys and girls during their puberty training. The images of grizzly bears, owls, eagles, mountain goats, lakes, the moon and lightning drawn in red ochre on the rocks came from their dreams and visions.

Our class examined the pictographs along Stryen Creek. Further up the river at Devil’s Staircase there are panels of paintings at the base of two cliffs. The upstream panel is one of the largest painting sites in British Columbia.

The wide array of plants and animals provided the Nlaka’pamux peoples with all their food, clothing and medicines. For instance, balsmroot, nodding onion, mariposa and bitterroot were staples along with wild strawberries, huckleberries, gooseberries, saskatoon berries and raspberries with sweet sugars from summertime Douglas-fir pitch, and salmon caught in fall and dried. Also, in late fall deer were hunted as an important food source.

Labrador tealeaves were collected in the fall and used as a heart medicine, relief from indigestion and to relieve pain and induce relaxation for women after childbirth.

The spring snowmelt is essential for recharging the Stein River and all life. Lichen and leaves remove nutrients from the water and change its acidity. The forest floor adds and subtracts minerals from the incoming snowmelt too.

The springtime floodwaters alter the streamside vegetation and create new habitat for trout, which feed upon tiny spineless aquatic life forms including May and caddis flies.

Equally impressive are the different forested ecosystems that thrive in the Stein Valley. For example, at the mouth of the Stein are giant floodplain cottonwoods and just into the valley are the drought tolerant, butterscotch-smelling Ponderosa pines with Douglas-firs on the north-slope. Further up the valley the mid slopes support massive Engelemann spruce and lodgepole pines. Higher elevation forests are comprised of Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and on south facing slopes are the fire-specialists — lodgepole pines. Along the treeline it’s common to encounter the inseparable thousand-year-old gnarled whitebark pines and their seed dispersing partner’s — Clark’s nutcrackers.

On the western edge of the park one can find rain forest western red cedars and western hemlocks, and the pungent, high-elevation amabalis firs.

The park is open from April to October with both day and overnight hikes. It’s a special place to explore with your family and friends. I highly recommend it.


Dr. Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University. His upcoming children’s book is entitled “The Mysteries of the Redwood Forests with Bruni the Bear.” Follow him twitter.com/DrReeseHalter.

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