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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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.

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