Vision Quest Rock Art in BC’s Stein Valley

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 native tribes 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.

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.

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. 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 of about 2-1/2 hours.

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, you may be 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.

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. In the words of local expert, Annie York, “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.”

When anthropologist James Teit wrote a treatise on aboriginal rock paintings in 1918, he could easily have been describing the Stein Valley: “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.”