There are some trips that you know are going to be spectacular before you go. You’ve done your homework, seen other people’s photos and are ready to soak in the views yourself. And it lives up to all expectations.
Then there are other trips that you also expect to be spectacular but turn out to be so in ways unimaginable beforehand. Our so-called “mini traverse” of the Stein Valley watershed was one of those trips.
Our route started at Blowdown Pass (a place we hiked to in 2007) and followed the South Fork of Cottonwood Creek to its junction with the North Fork, continuing on downstream to the confluence of the Cottonwood and Stein. From there we followed the Stein River almost as far as the mighty muddy Fraser.
Day 1: Car shuffle and hike from Blowdown Pass trailhead to Blowdown Lake;
Day 2: Blowdown Lake to Cottonwood Junction;
Day 3: Cottonwood Junction to Cottonwood Camp;
Day 4: Cottonwood Camp to Ponderosa Shelter;
Day 5: Ponderosa Shelter to Lower Crossing;
Day 6: Lower Crossing to Devil’s Staircase;
Day 7: Devil’s Staircase to Lytton trailhead, drive home.
Seven days of backpacking, covering a distance of about 55 km. The elevation change was about +580 m from the starting point to Blowdown Pass, followed by a loss of 1950 m from the Pass to the Lytton trailhead. That elevation loss is a net loss – the difference between the starting and ending elevation. It’s impossible to take account of all the little ups and downs of 10 or a few 10s of metres that were so tiring with a heavy pack. Then there was the effort of climbing over or under fallen trees. A realization that dawned on me during the trip was that a trail isn’t necessarily easy just because you’re heading downhill!
Curiously the Stein didn’t instantly wow me with big scenery and pointy mountains (though it does have those too). But make no mistake – it is a spectacular place. It’s a place that makes you think and give out a quiet, respectful “Wow”. It’s a place that you experience, not somewhere you tick off in a hike book. It works its magic on you in subtle ways, rewarding your hard work, gently (and sometimes not so gently) putting you in your place – a reprimand here, a sweet moment there. All of which makes it almost impossible to explain to someone in simple terms why it is so spectacular. You just have to go there and “be” there. Never have I felt the title of this blog to be more apt than when in the Stein Valley. Being in the Stein really is about Being in the Stein.
But why does it have that effect while, say, Grouse Mountain does not? Here we get to some of the reasons why the Stein is so special. Reason number 1: the Stein Valley is a complete watershed that has not experienced commercial logging. It is the nearest thing to a “pristine” valley ecosystem within a day’s drive of Vancouver. It is one of the very few unlogged watersheds in British Columbia and is now preserved as a provincial park. That in itself makes the valley worth experiencing. Living in Vancouver, you get used to seeing big tree stumps surrounded by bare earth (and conifer needles) and ramrod-straight second-growth trees. The Stein doesn’t have that. It has scores of trees, and not all of them are of the same kind (diversity!). The second major reason is its cultural heritage. The full name of the park is the Stein Valley Nlaka’pamux Heritage Park. The Stein is the Hidden Place of the Nlaka’pamux people who live near present-day Lytton (the name is derived from a native word of that meaning). Historically (and currently), the valley has been vitally important in their lives, both materially and spiritually.
For me, one of the reasons for the impact of the Stein is the realization that people lived their “traditional” lives in these valleys until very recently. Less than 150 years ago. Coming from the UK, we have a couple of thousand years of visible history to pick and choose from. But the UK is so transformed from its natural state that it’s all old, been and gone and as such difficult to appreciate. The concept of a “traditional” existence has changed many times since the first Britons settled in, err, Britain. You can see the history, but sometimes it’s hard to feel it. The Stein Valley is almost the opposite: it’s not always easy to see the history, but when you do, you can really feel it. That is the power of the Hidden Place.
I thought of a number of possible taglines for this hike. My favourite was “From 0 to 25 in 7 days”, referring to the change in temperature (degrees C) between the start and end of the hike. I think I’ll stick with that.