We are pleased to share a guest post from Karen Autio, author of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon

Meet Wild Horse Canyon, the inspiration for my narrative nonfiction picture book, illustrated by Loraine Kemp. This majestic canyon, tucked in the middle of Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park, in the Okanagan Valley, B.C., is accessible only by foot, horseback, mountain bike, or boat.

Lake Okanagan with mountains.

Looking at this view makes me want to jump in a boat, cross the lake, hike uphill, and explore.

Soon after moving to Kelowna in 1996, I learned that Wild Horse Canyon had been used by First Nations people to trap wild horses. A list of questions took shape in my mind:

  • Where did the wild horses come from?
  • When did First Nations people start trapping them?
  • What happened to the horses after they were caught?

These questions rattled around in the back of my brain, and in 2006 I began collecting every bit of historical and contemporary data that came my way, including articles about reintroducing bighorn sheep to the area after the 2003 firestorm transformed the closed forest back into grassland.

When my third historical novel was about to be released in 2013, I revisited my story ideas file to decide which project to focus on next. Wild Horse Canyon shouted the loudest. My list of questions had grown:

  • Who used the East Side Trail through Wild Horse Canyon and why?
  • When did Wild Horse Canyon get its name?
  • What occurred in Wild Horse Canyon over the centuries?

    a map of the Okanagan

    Green shading added to show the East Side Trail with the darker green section through Wild Horse Canyon.

I read everything I could find and visited museum archives to pore over old maps.

But how do you turn masses of research into a narrative? First I organized my notes—the key events—into a detailed timeline which became the outline. Next I had to determine the point of view for the story. Would I write from the perspective of a person, place, or thing? When I learned the potential age of ponderosa pines, I imagined one tree growing beside East Side Trail and what could have happened nearby during its lifespan of 200+ years.

What else could be a common link for the historical facts? Of course! Wild horses!

I knew a history of the area had to include the local First Nation’s perspective. Once I had a complete draft written, I contacted Kelowna Museums for a recommendation of a Westbank First Nation reviewer for the historical and cultural Indigenous content of my manuscript. Enter Jordan Coble, Cultural and Operations Administrator at Sncəwips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna. Jordan became our advising editor, reviewing several drafts of the text as well as Loraine’s drawings for her illustrations. I learned that for thousands of years, the syilx/Okanagan people found useful resources in Wild Horse Canyon through hunting animals and utilizing berries and plants. But they also gained inspiration within the canyon during quests.

In my search for photographs of Wild Horse Canyon, I discovered a website with George Benmore’s stunning images of its terrain, flora, and wildlife. George lives in Kelowna, and for over twenty years he hiked to the canyon regularly. He was overjoyed to guide Loraine and me on hikes to the canyon and share his vast knowledge with us.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting another local person who loves Wild Horse Canyon named Sheila Paynter. This matriarch of the Westbank pioneer family walked around Okanagan Lake in 1989. It was Wild Horse Canyon that inspired her adventure. In her book First Time Around, she wrote about her day hiking in the canyon: “We can imagine herds of wild horses galloping over the path we’re sitting on, urged along by early native people, other early settlers or just running loose.”

In being inspired by the remote and sacred Wild Horse Canyon, I am not alone.

Now Loraine and I have the opportunity to visit schools and libraries to share our collaborative project with readers. May it inspire them to appreciate and learn more about their heritage.

Are you inspired? Read more about Karen’s book Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon