April 10, 2009 Features & Images » Feature Story

So… Ogopogo 

Or at least, here be something that feeds our collective appetite for big scary monsters. Belief sold separately

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Story and photos by Leslie Anthony

I am a stranger here. I did not even know such things existed. But I saw it so plainly. A head like a cow or horse that reared right out of the water. It was a wonderful sight. The coils glistened like two huge wheels...there were ragged edges like a saw along its back. It was so beautiful with the sun shining on it. It was all so clear, so extraordinary."

-Mrs. E.W. Campbell of Vancouver, July, 1952

 

Let's get one thing out of the way: with proper framing and the right photographic technique-blur, zoom, silhouette, ineptitude-even a rubber duck floating in a Canadian Tire wading pool can be made to look like a towering aquatic beast.

Add this fact to the now decade-old debunking of the iconic photo of Loch Ness's infamous monster-you know, that grainy shot with no point of reference that shows a dark, dinosaur-like head and neck swaying above an amorphous body just barely breaking a choppy surface-and there's no reason to believe that any story or theory ever advanced about the world's 250-plus lake monsters holds either water or a nano-grain of truth.

Why then, I wonder, am I peering expectantly into the depths, casting questioning glances toward every ripple as I kayak over an otherwise mirror calm Lake Okanagan on a sunny September day, feeling vaguely nervous and, with my ass below waterline, somewhat vulnerable despite my absolute certainty that there's no such thing as the mythical creature called Ogopogo?

Maybe it's this: Sometimes a myth's subject is less important to the human psyche than the existence of myth itself. If I'm not paddling to a spot where a giant Mesozoic reptile lurks, I'm most certainly paddling toward the leviathans of human imagination and conviction. These are what break the mental surface, swim through consciousness, submerge into memory. In the way one dismisses the illogic of a mermaid but yearns to understand what spawned it, what I'm really searching for in the water are traces of other people's beliefs. I am, I assure myself, merely seining for an idea.

As ideas go, Ogopogo is no withering notion. Large, serpentine, green (or brown...or black...or grey), it persists in the face of both scientific scrutiny and rabid development. Subject of books, television specials and movies. A celebrated phantom of national record, local gestalt and abundant iconography. Indeed the horse-headed, lolling-tongued animal featured on a hundred roadside signs is also working overtime in Kelowna's Yellow Pages, shilling everything from jet-skis to dental surgery to its own candy-flavoured feces. A veritable Logopogo.

Despite these pressing commercial commitments, it's still a shy, secretive animal, though less retiring than most, racking up multiple annual sightings. By all accounts (and there are plenty; Google will net you 132,000), it has inhabited this scenic, 135-kilometre-long lake in British Columbia's populous Okanagan Valley since long before white settlers lent a comic-book name to what has become a decidedly cartoon monster. At least Ogopogo rolls off the tongue somewhat more easily than N'ha-a-itk (or N'aahitka, or Naitaka), the lake demon of local First Nations.

The human species is neatly divided into those who are driven to believe and those who are driven to know, a dimorphism that presumably accrues some adaptive benefit. The same is true when it comes to Ogopogo, which boasts the expected legion of poo-pooers, but also more staunch advocates than you might imagine. (And, perhaps more importantly, plenty of wanna-believers.)

In the hands of the right skeptic, this story would be over now. But I'm not that guy. As Descartes (or maybe it was Walt Disney) noted: There's reason, and then there's reason . Even if there's no actual Ogopogo, I'm betting there's good reason why the idea won't go away.

So I'm kayaking across Ogopogo's swimming pool. My plan is to spend a night alone on tiny, empty Rattlesnake Island near Squally Point, where both legend and modern sightings place the monster's lair. I figure it's a good way to let the notion find footing; a starting point to understanding its appeal. But I've been paddling for two hours, the island seems no closer, and my neck is sore from constant craning (sorry, k.d.). It's so quiet I can hear the hum of every passing insect.

Then a fish jumps and scares the crap out of me.

 

 

Dave MacLean is principal of MacLean Group Marketing, a full-service agency in the Okanagan town of Kelowna. He was born and raised in Kelowna, and has lived here most of his life. His father, originally from Missouri, was living proof of its licence-plate slogan: The Show Me State. "I've got to see it to believe it," Dave's dad was fond of saying. He also liked to make fun of anyone claiming to have sighted Ogopogo. Dave was a two-year-old aboard a boat on Lake Okanagan when all that changed.

"It was 1963," Dave begins in the practised manner of someone reciting a favourite story. "We're near Rattlesnake Island in a little cabin cruiser; my father, my mother, myself and another couple. It's calm and we stop to drift while they make a drink-now remember, they haven't had one yet. Suddenly the boat starts to rock up and down like it's passing through a wake. Dad comes out of the cabin figuring to chew out some young guys in a passing boat. Instead, off the starboard he sees this: three-foot green hump, three feet of water, three-foot hump, three feet of water, three-foot hump. He realizes what it is and starts looking for a camera or binoculars. Just then a boat comes around the corner, and the instant the sound of the motor hits, the humps disappear."

The MacLeans' experience is a blueprint for the bulk of sightings, which more often than not are made from a boat-before and after happy hour. There's the preternatural calm, sudden rocking, sometimes a thumping sound, undulating dark shapes. Such was the case when John Casorso, scion of a prominent Okanagan family, made a celebrated sighting in August 2004.

Casorso and family were on a houseboat one morning when he heard thumping and thrashing beneath the boat, which then tilted sharply and rocked for several seconds. The lake was dead calm and there were no other boats. He saw what looked like a black, standing wave 30 feet away, picked up his camcorder and for about 15 minutes videotaped a "long writhing shape" submerging and surfacing. The video clearly shows a series of low humps. At times it looks like two parallel objects. To believers, it's the best video yet of Ogopogo.

"The only reason we noticed it is because it passed underneath the houseboat," Casorso told the Kelowna Daily Courier . "We could really feel the power and size of what it was."

And what , exactly, was it? Casorso was unsure enough that he didn't report the sighting until October. Asked why, his answer signals that we've entered a modern age of monster-marketing savvy. He'd shown the video to local Ogopogo expert Arlene Gaal, author of several books on the subject. Her advice had been to sit on it, take it slow, copyright the video. Maybe he retained a lawyer.

Casorso told the Courier he didn't want to rush into it too quickly "...because over the years lots of people have gotten pictures or footage and the response is not always favourable." Whether he was simply mindful of potential scorn and ridicule, or wanted to get his ducks in a row before cashing in with big-time media outlets, one thing is clear: Casorso wasn't the first to keep a sighting to himself. Gaal is certain that the nine other reported sightings that summer were part of a chronic underestimate. The experience of other locals bears her out.

Trudy and George Hess run the world-renowned Gray Monk Estate Winery, situated high above the eastern shore of Lake Okanagan's northern arm. Ever since there was a sighting below the winery years ago, visitors on one of the region's many wine tours have happily relaxed on Gray Monk's outdoor terrace, following the progress of a cheeky little Gewürztraminer Alsace Clone with one eye and scanning for monsters with the other. And who can blame them? The first thing they see in the parking lot is a large Chamber of Commerce sign designating the winery as an official "Ogopogo Viewing Station," offering a $2 million reward to anyone who can provide verifiable proof of its existence.

Most adults, certain the money is safe in the local treasury, are mildly amused by its whimsy, but kids take the sign as de facto proof the creature exists. George has received calls from children asking "Where does Ogopogo sleep?" and "What does Ogopogo eat?" Trudy chuckles as she relates this, then grows serious; she has a secret to share.

"One day we had a boatload of restaurant owners on the terrace. As we were cleaning up, one guy said, 'Look-it's Ogopogo.' I looked out at the water and there it was, swimming, diving, going up and down. It wasn't boat waves, they're very regular."

Trudy never told anyone, all too aware that whenever someone sees something-anything-in the lake, it's Ogopogo. She was also worried that they'd think she'd been drinking.

"You know how it is: when tourism is down there's always an Ogopogo sighting, so people don't trust it. And when it's not that, it's some Albertan who has been in the sun too long with a can of beer."

Yet despite John Casorso's delay in releasing his 2004 video, the footage won over skeptics in several news organizations, as well as waffling locals. Dave MacLean, who isn't sure he's a believer, also isn't sure that he's not. "It would be incredibly arrogant of us to think we've discovered every form of life on Earth," he allows. "Hey-at the turn of the last century we still thought gorillas were monsters. The mistake everyone makes is thinking it has to be like something we already know."

MacLean is adept at succinct and thoughtful sound bites, a skill honed as volunteer past-president of the chamber of commerce. It's most evident when my questions turn to Ogopogo's place in the pantheon of local attractions, the pressure of exponential increases in residents and visitors, and the negative impacts of Kelowna's currently rapacious sprawl.

"We hope to be a model for what is possible and not a warning for what can happen," he asserts when I lament that none of the world's other lake monsters have to contend with such rabid development. "But Kelowna offers so much more to the average traveller that Ogopogo is a minor element in the tourism equation."

Really? I ask Catherine Frechette, media relations manager for Tourism Kelowna, how many of the hundreds of visiting media she hosts each year want to know about Ogopogo. Her answer surprises.

"Pretty much everyone," she says. "At least 90 per cent of journalists I deal with say something to me. I expected western media to know about Ogopogo but I didn't think it was well-known in the rest of Canada. But writers from Toronto are all over it."

Indeed. It was in Toronto that I'd first read of the Casorso sighting. I've since watched a clip of the video (it's on YouTube.com ), and as someone with a fairly healthy background in vertebrate paleontology, quickly concluded there was nothing saurian about the strange standing humps it portrays.

Still, there's no denying it portrays something . Something weird and possibly inexplicable. Something big enough to flip a kayak.

 

 

Rattlesnake Island looms above me. It seems largish from water level, but it's actually quite small. I paddle through the narrow channel separating it from the mainland-the one that funnels wind through like a locomotive, creating violent wave trains-and around the island's west side, where a series of finger cliffs point southwest, and the aquamarine water reflecting off the rock webbing creates a grotto effect between each. In a tiny cove between the ring-finger and pinky, I pull up the kayak and toss out my gear. It feels good to be on land, no matter how insubstantial.

The paddle was eerie. Most of this part of the lake's south side is uninhabited, and 2003's devastating Okanagan Mountain fire burned right to the water along much of the shore, leaving gnarled charcoal mannequins and tilted black spires as ghostly sentinels and spooky waypoints. Boats are scarce this late in the season, and save for the occasional distant whine of Highway 97, you're completely removed from the smear of lakeside development engulfing Peachland and Westbank on the opposite shore. Instant isolation.

I climb to the island's crest, where a sudden wind is bending the straw grass flat, and gaze around. A tiny speck of rock cast adrift from a vast expanse of glacier-shattered geology seems an unlikely place for a legend. But the half-kilometre reach between here and Squally Point lies at the only bend in the main body of the lake, where the water is choppiest, coldest and swirls through deep, underwater caverns. Home of the lake demon.

Afraid of Naitaka, First Nations people typically avoided the area and, according to 19 th century accounts, always carried a chicken or a dog to drop in the water to appease the monster spirit. Disaster was said to befall those who chose to disregard the practice. In Canada's Monsters , Betty Sanders Garner relates a typical tale: "Despite warnings against incurring Naitaka's anger, [Chief Timbasket] set out with his family in a canoe to cross the lake. Halfway across there was a sudden upheaval in the water under his canoe and he and his family were swallowed up by the swirling foam and never seen again."

Indigenous peoples had Canada to themselves for a long time, and they saw plenty of monsters; pictographs all over the country show the typical serpentine body and even some with fore-flippers. Pick a big lake in B.C. and there's a native monster legend to go with it. None good.

The Okanagan's first white settlers extended these notions of a malevolent spirit with tales of being pursued on the water, as if something was hunting them down; they told of overturned boats, people disappearing, swimming horses being sucked underwater and consumed by a great beast.

It all seems pretty dramatic, but I think I understand. Looking left or right reveals a vastness that begs for more than a few squirming fish. Big lakes breed mystery. Like oceans, their unknown depths demand to be honoured. Fear and fantasy take over. Simple.

I wander back down to the cove and find a sheltered place to set up my tent. Then, nearby, I discover half a deer-torn down the middle like a sheet of paper. Jeezuz. Strange things are always washing up along this lake, but what could do something like that ? I move the tent. Then I move it again. Heat from the rocks is making me dizzy. I want to jump in the water but part of me resists leaping into the dragon's lair. I see nothing but churning water and the mist flying off it between here and Squally Point, and for a moment there's a strange feeling of being perched on the knife-edge of belief, feeling the weight of the unknown, and I can see how it happens to people-two parts of yourself locked in battle, and only one way for rational mind to win over hopeful heart...

I hit the water feet first from 15 feet up and sink far into the cold blackness. When I surface, it's all I can do to keep from swimming like hell.

 

 

"If this was America, I would be wearing a T-shirt saying 'I have seen the monster'."

Bibbi Hogstrom heads the tourist bureau in Ostersund, Sweden, and spotted that area's legendary creature when she was 13. "We really haven't exploited the lake monster and that's typical of this area of Sweden. We don't think it's really that special so we keep quiet about it."

Swedish reserve also accounts for their great lake monster being known simply as the Great Lake Monster. Inhabiting Storsjö (Swedish for, yes, Great Lake), about 600 km northwest of Stockholm, the 150-plus sightings date back to 1635. Coincidentally it's a place I visit fairly often, and though I learned about the monster on my first trip years ago-a tipsy taxi driver described seeing it while living on an island, and the vodka fumes filling the Volvo convinced me at least that much was true-I neither saw nor heard anything else until last fall, when I noticed a fancy new statue in the Ostersund airport.

The Great Lake Monster was out of the closet, and darned if it didn't look exactly like Ogopogo.

As it turns out, the Swedes-whose Viking ancestors controlled all of Scandinavia-have plenty to answer for when it comes to monster mythology. Sailors were ever-mindful of the Norse saga concerning the Milgaard Serpent, which battled the god Thor to his death, encircling the world with its tail in its mouth. And there was the "World Ash" Yggdrasil, a tree supporting the nine cosmological worlds of Odin, guarded at its roots by the great serpent, Jormungunder. So pervasive were sea-monstrosities with supernatural powers that the Norse countered by building their long-ships to resemble firedrakes (dragons)-head at the bow, long curling tail astern, wide body in the middle with oars resembling fins, sails for wings, and shields mounted on the gunnels like scales. Bishops Olaus Magnus of Sweden and Erik Pontoppidan of Norway both wrote extensively about sea monsters in the sixteenth century, seeding their countries' early literature with morality tales of vindictive beasts eking out retribution on greedy fishermen (B.C. Parks might want to consider a similar approach). So it's no surprise that the Swedes have a lake monster, and perhaps no coincidence that many of Canada's crowded stable of lake monsters occur in places that saw healthy tides of early Scandinavian immigrants.

In the 18 th and 19 th centuries, a gob-smacked European press excitedly reported on any and all curiosities from North America. Canada was the great unknown, a wilderness where anything was possible, though most monsters, at least persistent ones, seemed to thrive closer to population centres: a half-dozen critters in the Great Lakes; Manopogo and Winnipogo in Lakes Winnipeg and Winnipegosis; and only 60 km from Toronto, Lake Simcoe's Igopogo. The Lake Utopia Monster in New Brunswick ("Old Ned") is typical in having first been spotted by lumbermen (but we know what they were drinking). Quebec has more than its fair share, but then, it also has more than its fair share of large lakes-relict diverticula of the ancient Champlain Sea which, like Loch Ness, were only recently (in geological terms), cut off from the ocean, a fact that monster acolytes are wont to exploit. Accordingly, there are monsters in Lakes Champlain, Duchene, Memphramagog, Mocking, and Pohenegamook.

Of course some legends are just plain ridiculous, even to an open-minded cryptozoologist. Hapyxelor (or "Mussy"), the silver-green scourge of Muskrat Lake north of Ottawa, has three eyes, three ears, one big fin halfway down its back, two legs and a single, large, gleaming tooth in front. Clearly the mushroom-pickers who imagined this one never studied vertebrate anatomy or knew about the biological law of bilateral symmetry.

Still, that's a lot of goddamn monsters. What the hell were people seeing in these lakes?

There have been the usual fuzzy photos, but nothing revealing, prompting a litany of naysaying theories about optical illusions caused by the interplay of sun, wind or currents on wave patterns or boat wakes. And buzzkills like the infamous photo of Nessie. It was taken April 1, 1934, by a visiting surgeon who'd come to photograph birds. He claimed to have gotten a clear shot of the "serpentine head" before it slipped back into the lake. Scientists declared the photo a fake at the time, suspecting an April Fool's ruse. Years later, however, investigators scrutinizing the photo discovered faint concentric rings around the creature, indicating there was something larger below the water's surface, and it was enhanced by a NASA computer in 1972. But in March 1994, the "surgeon's picture" was revealed to be a practical joke by his son, who used a toy submarine and fake, wooden head.

Photos are a problem. Years spent paddling canoes on northern lakes have taught me that the calmer the conditions, the more difficult depth perception. Without the reference of wave action, distances collapse, and large geese far away might look like small ducks close by. Furthermore, a large goose might be visible at a certain distance, but if you were close to the water its body could be lost in the curvature of the surface. Parallax is rampant when photographing objects on water.

There aren't many biological phenomena that could account for a majority of Ogopogo sightings, but there's one that's frequently suggested which scientists agree may be a culprit: the sturgeon. The sturgeon is essentially a living fossil, unchanged for hundreds of millions of years. It can live for more than a century and grow to enormous sizes-over 5.5 metres and over 1,000 kilos. It's big, ugly, and somewhat horse-faced with knowing, unnerving eyes. A row of regularly spaced ridges runs down the centre of the dorsum; these could resemble humps with a sturgeon lolling on the surface. Largely a denizen of former glacial lakes and river systems, this elusive bottom-dweller rarely surfaces, making it hard to either find or catch without a struggle-a de facto freshwater monster.

It's a fishy anachronism capable of evoking plenty of reptilian speculation. As one internet ichthyophile notes: "If you...look into the eyes of a sturgeon, there are unfathomable depths there that take you back millennia; they take you back ages...And having looked into the eyes of a sturgeon, you can fully understand that these animals swim practically unchanged from the way they were when dinosaurs walked the earth."

There are sturgeon all over Okanagan Lake. In fact, divers working on the floating Westbank-Kelowna bridge frequently report being nudged by the giant, curious fish. I'd call that a pretty good reason for a lot of crazy ideas.

 

 

There are no rattlesnakes on Rattlesnake Island. The rabid Reverend Mackie from nearby Vernon made sure of that. In the 1930s, the biblical literalist launched a personal campaign to eradicate this scourge. He spent 20 years clubbing snakes, dynamiting dens, perpetuating the serpent's satanic image. The local populace followed suit. Rattlesnake Island got cleaned off early; any snakes that swim across the 150-foot channel these days get hacked up by the kids who party on the island. But back in the day, when they were busy cutting snakes in half with shovels and flinging the remains into the lake, no one caught the irony in vanquishing one monster to make money off another.

I'm thinking about rattlesnakes, religion and rationality when I climb into my tent. I try to sleep, but the night's endless audio distractions make it impossible: the wind moving what it will around, the sound of tiny animals going about inexplicably large business, and, of course, the restless lake, watery face of mayhem and mystery. In the end, I pass the hours burning handfuls of grass, listening to the waves play their soupy symphony along the grottos.

Rattlesnake Island was once owned by an eccentric Lebanese businessman named Eddie Haymour, who leveraged the notoriety of Ogopogo's putative den by building a theme park here, with a strange pyramid at its centre and an elaborate miniature golf course. The pyramid's crumbled foundations are now covered in broken beer bottles, and muddy run-off has caked over the golf holes. I tour Haymour's strangled concessions in the misty dawn. There's a visceral discomfort walking through the ruins of a modern commercial dream; none of the ancient spirituality radiating from a place like Stonehenge, just awareness of the shameful bricolage of attempted exploitation. It doesn't do a monster justice.

Or does it? All the touristy kitsch-the many roadside signs, the bags of "Ogopogo poop," the cheesy statue in downtown Kelowna that has been ridden by generations of children-do serve to keep the monster alive. There's something elemental at work in the collective protection of this myth.

The truth is that some ideas are like pit-bulls, hanging onto the human psyche long after you'd expect reality to dislodge them. You can easily rationalize why you don't believe in something but it's almost impossible to discredit the unknown reasons why someone else does. And so, it seems, we still have monsters. But maybe this is a good thing. After all, what would be worse for humanity, the failure of investigation, or the failure of imagination?

"Humans love mystery and discovery because it means there's more to learn," Dave MacLean had mused. "Life would be horrific if we knew everything there was to know. We want to believe there are things out there that can't be explained."

I'll go one better: I think we need to believe in the unexplained, that it's inherent in the fabric of the self-consciousness it co-evolved with. Nature will lose much of its identity when it's fully circumscribed, and so will we.

Which reminds me of the words of a famous Sasquatch aficionado. Although he spent huge amounts of personal time and money searching for it, in a moment of startling candour he'd told an interviewer: "It sure would be a shame if we actually found one. Without Bigfoot out there, there's no such thing as wilderness left."

So... Ogopogo.

 

 

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