There are a number of similarities between Lake Okanagan in British Columbia and Scotland's Loch Ness. They are both long and narrow and lie at about the same latitude. And they are each famous for their resident monsters.
The best-known Canadian lake Monster, Ogopogo, actually made its media debut long before the Loch Ness Monster. In 1926, seven years before Nessie's came to the public's attention, Roy W. Brown, editor of the Vancouver Sun, wrote, " Too many reputable people have seen [the monster] to ignore the seriousness of actual facts." While there are serious questions about whether there are non-retroactive Nessie sightings before 1930, but there are archival records of Ogopogo's existence going back to 1872 and sightings have been reported regularly up to the present.
The creature is most often described as being one to two feet in diameter with a length of 15 to 20 feet. The head has been described variously as being horse or goat-like. One oft-mentioned characteristic of the monster is its resemblance to a log.
Cryptozoologist Roy P. Mackal believes that there is a "small population of aquatic fish-eating animals residing in Lake Okanagan." Mackal initially assumed that the type of animal in Lake Okanagan was the same creature that he believed is in Loch Ness, but after a careful examination of the available data, he determined that the creature must be a form of primitive whale, Basilosaurus cetoides. "The general appearance of Basilosaurus tallies almost exactly with the loglike descriptions of the [Ogopogos]. Mackal spells out a detailed case for Ogopogo being a primitive whale in his book Searching for Hidden Animals.
There are good size Indian reserves in the Okanagan Valley. The Indians believe that small, barren Rattlesnake Island is the home of the Okanagan Lake Monster. Indians called the Okanagan Lake Monster N'ha-a-tik, and there are pictographs that some feel depict the monster near the headwaters of Powers Creek. Other native references to the Okanagan Lake Monster include the Chinook wicked one and "great-beast-on-the-lake." In addition to the Salish N'ha-a-tik (or Na-ha-ha-itk), snake-in-the-lake was sometimes used.
The early inhabitants of the area saw the monster as a malevolent entity. Indians claimed that Monster Island's rocky beaches were sometimes covered with the parts of animals that they had attacked and ravaged. When crossing the lake during bad weather, the Indians always carried a small animal that they would toss overboard in the middle of the lake to appease the monster, according to material in the files of the Kelowna Archives.
Primrose Upton, in The History of Okanagan Mission, noted that no Indians would fish near Squally Point. When Europeans settled in the area, they too feared the aquatic monster and supposedly continued the custom of offering an animal to appease Ogopogo. According to Ogopogo expert Arlene Gaal, armed settlers patrolled the shoreline in case of attack by the monster.
In 1914 a group of Nicola Valley and Westbank Indians discovered the decomposing body of an unidentified creature across from Rattlesnake Island. Five-six feet long and estimated to weigh 400 pounds, it was blue-grey. It had a tail and flippers, and an amateur naturalist in the area felt that it was a manatee. No one knew how such a creature could have gotten into the lake, and Lake monster expert Peter Costello has hypothesized that the carcass was "actually an Ogopogo, as the details of this mammal with flippers and a broad tail and dark color are all that we would expect. But the carcass was mangled so much that the long neck was already gone."
Ogopogo footprints have also been found. Some have been irregularly shaped, others cup-like, some were like dinosaur tracks with three toes, and still others had a pad foot and eight toes! As Dr. Mackal has written, "The trouble with footprints is that anyone can fake them easily. Further, to assume that they were made by Naitaka is pure conjecture and supposition--certainly possible but without even a circumstantial link" to the few cases of Ogopogo land sightings that have been reported.
The name Ogopogo might suggest to some that it is an Indian word, but all evidence points to a modern origin. According to Mary Moon, author of Ogopogo: the Okanagan Mystery (1977), in 1924 a local named Bill Brimblecomb sang a song parodying a popular British music-hall tune at a Rotary Club luncheon in Vernon, a city in the northern Okanagan Valley. H.F. Beattie adapted the lyrics, which included the following:
I'm looking for the Ogopogo,
His mother was a mutton,
His father was a whale.
I'm going to put a little bit of salt on his tail.
Robert Columbo, in his book Mysterious Canada, notes that the Pogo Stick was a popular craze since its introduction in 1921 and this may have contributed to the name.
According to Arlene Gaal, author of Ogopogo: The True Story of the Okanagan Lake Million Dollar Monster, a Vancouver Province reporter named Ronald Kenvyn later parodied a popular British ditty and composed a song that included the following stanza:
His mother was an earwig;
His father was a whale;
A little bit of head And hardly any tail-
And Ogopogo was his name.
Thanks to these songs, the name Ogopogo stuck and the Indian name has been forgotten by all but monster buffs.
While Ogopogo has never attained the fame of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, the creature of lake Okanagan has regularly caused quite a stir in the international press. Monster hunters from all over the world have been drawn to the area for research purposes, and many of the sightings have been as strong or stronger than those at Loch Ness. Multiple witness sightings of Ogopogo, so rare with many other controversial phenomena, have occurred on many occasions.
On September 16, 1926, Ogopogo was watched by some 30 cars of people along an Okanagan Mission beach. Not many monsters have been seen at one time by so many people. The Ogopogo sightings of 1925/26 deserve some in-depth study.
Consider the appearance of Ogopogo on July 2, 1947, when a number of boaters saw the monster simultaneously. One of the witnesses, a Mr. Kray, described the animal as having "a long sinuous body, 30 feet in length, consisting of about five undulations, apparently separated from each other by about a two-foot space, in which that part of the undulations would have been underwater...There appeared to be a forked tail, of which only one-half came above the water. From time to time the whole thing submerged and came up again."
On July 17, 1959, Mr. and Mrs. R. H. Miller and Mr. and Mrs. Pat Marten saw a tremendous creature with a snake-like head and a blunt nose swimming some 250 feet behind their motor boat on British Columbia's Okanagan Lake. The group watched the unknown animal for over three minutes, after which it submerged.
More recently, in the summer of 1989, hunting guide Ernie Giroux and his wife were standing on the banks of Okanagan Lake when a bizarre animal emerged from the otherwise placid waters. "It was about 15 feet long and swam real gracefully and fast," Giroux told the press. The Girouxs claim to have see an animal with a round head "like a football;" at one point several feet of the creature's neck and body came up out of the water. The Girouxs saw the monster at the same spot where, in July 1989, British Columbian car salesman Ken Chaplin took a video of a what he described as a snake-like creature about 15 feet long and dark green in color. This columnist has viewed the Chaplin video and feels that it was probably a beaver.
"I've seen a lot of animals swimming in the wild and what we saw that night was definitely not a beaver," Ernie Giroux states emphatically.
Giroux is in good company. There have over 200 sightings by credible people including a priest, a sea captain, a surgeon, police officers, and so forth. The fact that the percipients are generally people of good repute is often mentioned in reports of sightings. Photos of Ogopogo are numerous and include the 1964 Parmenter photo; the 1976 Fletcher photo; the 1978, 1979 and 1981 Gaal photos, the 1981 Wachlin photo, the 1984 Svensson photograph.
There have now been half a dozen films and videos taken of an animate object in Lake Okanagan, but none of them are conclusive.
What would solve the Ogopogo enigma? Only the discovery of an actual beast or the carcass of one would admit these creatures into mainstream science. If Ogopogo exists, it is clearly an elusive creature. Ogopogo hunters have failed to come up with that piece of unimpeachable evidence that will prove to the world that the aquatic monster exists. Until that evidence is found, Canada's premiere lake monster will remain a classic mystery.
A shorter version of this article originally appeared in Fate magazine, August 1989.