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Stein Valley park -- a biological jewel worth exploring

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    Stein Valley park -- a biological jewel worth exploring By Reese Halter, Calgary Herald February 28, 2010
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 1, 2010
      Stein Valley park -- a biological jewel worth exploring
      By Reese Halter, Calgary Herald
      February 28, 2010

      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 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 per cent of DNA found 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 intact, unclogged watershed in southwest B.C. with an area of 1,061 square kilometres, including three small glaciers.

      It's a truly unique valley because it straddles two climatic regions -- the cool, wet (2,000 millimetres precipitation) coast and the hot, dry (450 millimetres precipitation) interior.

      Temperate rainforest vegetation, drought-tolerant and lightning-induced specialists and life clinging on the edge of Mount Skihist some 2,944 metres 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 2.5 metres long and tens of millions of salmon, more than 160 kilometres from the ocean, called this home.

      Today this park is crucial habitat for grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolverines, mountain goats, 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, floors and lining underground winter food caches.

      In the late 1980s I discovered one of those cedars with unusual pictographs.

      The Nlaka'pamux youth developed a close relationship with nature, spending at least four months but sometimes a year 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 sleep time, an animal spirit spoke and sang to the young person. It is believed that the numerous rock paintings along the lower 32-kilometre corridor of the Stein River were done by the boys and girls during puberty training.

      The images of grizzly bears, owls, eagles, mountain goats, lakes, and lightning drawn in red ochre on the rocks came from their dreams and visions.

      Our class examined the pictographs along Stryen Creek, about four kilometres from the mouth of the Stein.

      The wide array of plants and animals provided the Nlaka'pamux peoples with all their food, clothing and medicines. For instance, nodding onion, mariposa and bitterroot were staples along with wild strawberries, saskatoon berries, raspberries and salmon caught in fall and dried.

      Labrador tea leaves 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 snow melt 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 snow melt too.

      The springtime flood waters alter the stream side vegetation and create new habitat for trout, which feed upon tiny spineless aquatic life forms.

      Equally impressive are the different forested ecosystems that thrive in the Stein Valley -- from the giant floodplain cottonwoods to the drought tolerant butterscotch-smelling Ponderosa pines to the fire-specialist lodgepole pines and the gnarled thousand-year-old subalpine white bark pines.

      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.

      Reese Halter is a conservation biologist at Cal Lutheran University. His latest book is Incomparable Honeybee. Follow him at twitter.com/DrReeseHalter

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