Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon
Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon
The yellow pine sapling in the canyon is now as tall as a man. A deer browses on its needles. Inching up the yellow pine’s trunk is a caterpillar wanting to nibble the needles, too. Near the treetop, a blue grouse snatches a bundle of needles for building her nest.
The deer pricks its ears at a rumbling sound. The ground trembles. Wild horses thunder past the sheer rock wall in the canyon. They can run no farther. They are trapped by the Okanagan people.
The wild horses neigh, snort and mill about. They will be tamed. The Okanagan people will ride them throughout the Okanagan Valley and use them to carry heavy loads.
Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon offers fascinating insight into a less well-known chapter of Canadian history. Its focus is the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, centred on Wild Horse Canyon in Okanagan Mountain Provincial Park. This region is popular today for tourism and noteworthy icons: Ogopogo (non-Indigenous name given to a sacred lake spirit of the syilx/Okanagan people), the Kettle Valley Railway-turned hiking/biking trail, and the devastating 2003 wildfire. Some may know of the valley through reading about 19th century fur trade personalities such as David Stuart, Alexander Ross, or David Douglas, botanist-explorer. In the mid-1800s, gold rush activity along the Fraser River and in the Cariboo region saw some gold-seekers travel through the valley. But this book delves more specifically into the past in greater detail, using the Wild Horse Canyon as its basis for exploring First Nations history, European settlement and natural history. A yellow pine seedling at various stages of its growth is the device used to guide the reader through two centuries of events that had a profound effect on the habitat and its inhabitants, both human and animal.
Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon is almost like two books in one. The first two-thirds is aimed at younger readers (the marketing notes suggest ages 7-10). A timeline list encompassing glacial times (13,000 years ago) to present day marks the switch in the middle of the book to the final third which describes some aspects of the history in more depth, written at a higher reading level. Taken together, it is like a picture book with more than the usual amount of back matter. A map, along with Glossary and Pronunciation Guide for Syilx (the original inhabitants of the region) Words is found at the front of the book. An Index at the back will help readers locate specific references.
The accessible storytelling style of the first part, written in present tense, engages the reader with an overview of the lifestyle of the syilx/Okanagan people, beginning in 1780 in a canyon where the pine seedling takes root. The people share the territory with wild horses which they trap and tame to ride, use as pack animals and in sporting events. Locally found plants (saskatoon berries, mariposa lily bulbs) are gathered for food, and bighorn sheep and elk are hunted. Fur traders appear in the early 1800s, making deals to secure horses. The pine, growing steadily, is renamed ponderosa by David Douglas. The wild horses thrive as settlements and missions are established. In the early 20th century, the traditional lives of the syilx/Okanagan people are forever changed as they are confined to reserves while settlers sail sternwheeler ships on the lake and build a railway to carry ore and fruit. Many are even sold to the Russian army. The wild horse population diminishes as settlers sell them and the land they occupied becomes a provincial park. The pine survives for 223 years but is finally destroyed in a wildfire in 2003. The park has taken on a more open aspect and is now populated by bighorn sheep. A herd of free-roaming wild horses occupy nearby reserve land of the syilx/Okanagan people.
This first part of Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon is enlivened with exquisite paintings depicting the lifestyle of the people and events that affect the horses throughout their history. The paintings are particularly appealing for their animation and attention to detail, showing the artist’s special skill in bringing the horses to life.
The second section, entitled “More about Wild Horse Canyon and Area”, takes a more mature, factual tone (in past tense) for its closer look at the syilx/Okanagan people in terms of their location, pictograph records, their historical relationship with the wild horses and the environment, with fur traders and the gold rush, and with missionaries, other settlers and ranchers who all brought such profound changes to their society. Extra detail about the yellow/ponderosa pine is included. Recent provincial park designation (1973) demands more natural use of the land. The 2003 fire that destroyed much of the forest has allowed ponderosa pine regrowth as well as creation of accessible habitat for different birds and animals. The syilx/Okanagan people embrace the environment that is still part of their ancestral home to preserve their culture and its historical ties to the wild horses that occupy nearby lands. This second part is illustrated with a combination of thumbnails of the earlier paintings along with archival photos.
Most interesting for its original choice of topic, Growing Up in Wild Horse Canyon will attract different readerships. Younger readers can simply enjoy the picture book section while more sophisticated readers can satisfy their curiosity further with the extra detail in the last section. The author acknowledges close cooperation with local First Nations to ensure accuracy and a respectful approach. As both author and illustrator live in the region, their firsthand knowledge and excellent research has infused the book with genuine passion for the topic. The publisher has developed a teacher’s guide, giving the book a place within the educational curriculum.
Gillian Richardson is a freelance writer living in British Columbia.