Canada's mysterious lake monster
For generations, a mythical beast has been said to lurk in the depths of Okanagan Lake. But now a new view on British Columbia's most revered serpent is taking hold.
BBC Travel, March 10, 2020
Not long after I moved to Kelowna, a city in southern British Columbia known for its wineries, water sports and hiking trails, I saw a news story about a monster sighting. Two brothers had seen something undulating across the water in the middle of Okanagan Lake, an 84-mile long lake that curves down the Okanagan Valley past Kelowna in the shape of a serpent. The wave crested and fanned out like a wake, but there wasn’t a boat in sight. They were adamant it was Ogopogo.
You can’t live in Kelowna for any length of time without hearing about its mysterious lake creature. Ogopogo is to Kelowna what Nessie is to Loch Ness: a yet-to-be-identified cryptid that reputedly resides in the lake’s depths and surfaces just often enough to keep the legend alive.
It’s been described as a multi-humped serpentine beast, with green or black skin and the head of a horse, snake or sheep. Drawings depict a coiling sea dragon like what you might see on an old mariner’s map where it says, “Here there be monsters.” Around town, Ogopogo takes on a benign cartoonish form as a 15-foot-long green- and cream-coloured statue on the waterfront, the smiling mascot for the local WHL hockey team and as plush toys at souvenir shops. Like its palindrome name, its physical appearance – and very existence – is something no one can make heads nor tails of.
Ogopogo mania peaked in the 1980s when the region’s tourism association offered a $1m reward for proof of the creature’s existence. Greenpeace came forward and named it an endangered species, demanding that Ogopogo be captured only on film, and not in the flesh. American TV shows of the era, including In Search Of and Unsolved Mysteries, even reported on the Okanagan Valley’s mysterious inhabitant.
Yet, it wasn’t until I attended the International Indigenous Tourism Conference in Kelowna last autumn that I realised the Ogopogo of Canadian popular culture – a creature that 16% of British Columbians believe in – only came about through miscommunication between Canada’s early European settlers and the Okanagan Valley’s original inhabitants, the Okanagan/syilx.
“It’s not really a monster, it’s a spirit of the lake and it protects this valley from one end to the other,” said Pat Raphael of the Westbank First Nation, a member nation of the larger Okanagan/syilx Nation Alliance, who guided me through the syilx’s ancestral lands bordering Okanagan Lake. As our bus drove south along the water, she explained that while many in Canada know the creature as Ogopogo, to the syilx, it’s n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ (n-ha-ha-it-koo), which means “the sacred spirit of the lake.” Raphael pointed out the brown hump of Rattlesnake Island across the water, where the spirit is said to dwell. She also had us practice saying n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ in nsyilxcən, the syilx language.
“It’s not Ogopogo! What are you, colonised?” she joked when a few of us struggled with the pronunciation and reverted to saying Ogopogo.
Before European fur traders arrived in the valley in 1809, the syilx had been living in the area for at least 12,000 years. They had their own laws, justice system and beliefs. Chief among them was the importance of water, represented by n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ. It existed in two forms: a spiritual form and a physical, tangible form, which was embodied by the lake itself. Sometimes, though, the spirit would reveal itself from within the lake.
“In our stories, [n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is] actually very dark in colour and it’s got the head of a horse and the antlers of a deer,” said Coralee Miller, assistant manager at the new Sncəwips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna. “Missionaries saw our water spirit and the habit was to demonise our spiritual beliefs.”
The syilx fed n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ symbolically, with tobacco and sage, and occasionally an offering of Kokanee salmon to thank the lake for providing food and water. “That’s where I think that misunderstanding came from – settlers saw us throw a little bit of meat in the water,” Miller explained.
Pioneers were soon telling stories of a serpent in Okanagan Lake that needed a live animal sacrifice to appease it and ensure a safe passage across the water. Once the idea of a bloodthirsty lake serpent took hold, it grew out of control – settlers began patrolling the lake with guns because they were nervous the beast would attack.
But by the 1920s (and likely in the absence of any actual human predation), cooler heads prevailed. Tourism officials named the creature Ogopogo after a catchy English folk song, whose lyrics included: “His mother was an earwig; his father was a whale; a little bit of head; and hardly any tail; and Ogopogo was his name.” N ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ had transformed from a revered spirit into a cartoon-like creature that would lure tourists.
It’s hard to know just how many people have travelled to Kelowna over the last century in the hope of seeing the mythical lake monster, but over time, Ogopogo is what made Kelowna a household name in Canada. For years, the creature appeared on Kelowna’s parade float, both in town and at larger parades in the Pacific Northwest and Alberta. Gift shops hawked gimmick jars of Ogopogo’s “eggs” and even its “feces” that would fly off shelves. While the tourism office no longer actively promotes Ogopogo today, the legend remains as popular as ever.
Yet, the misappropriation and commodification of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is a sensitive issue. To Miller, a member of the Westbank First Nation, n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ and Ogopogo are two separate entities and shouldn’t be conflated. One of the museum’s missions is to tell the story of the area’s Indigenous people, and talk about the importance of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ in protecting the lake. It’s part of what she calls “de-programming;” questioning or deconstructing the colonial perspective on local history and culture. This is also an important step towards reconciliation, an ongoing, countrywide process of establishing and maintaining respectful relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.
This spring, Indigenous tour company Moccasin Trails is launching paddling tours on Okanagan Lake where guides will discuss
n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ as a spiritual talisman – not a physical lake monster – and explain how it became appropriated.
The canoe journeys begin with a feeding of the water ceremony. As the canoe glides across the lake’s glassy surface, a syilx cultural leader scatters sage and tobacco in the water while summoning the spirit world and telling his ancestors to keep everyone safe. Moccasin Trails co-owner Greg Hopf says the ceremony is powerful, and meant to illustrate the connection Indigenous people have with the earth, which is highly personal.
“It’s kind of what each person interprets the spirit to be,” he said. “We want people to leave our experiences with a better understanding of Indigenous culture.”
In downtown Kelowna, the Okanagan Heritage Museum works with the Westbank First Nation to tell a more thorough story of the region’s history. It redid its entire gallery in 2019 and represents syilx as a living culture, rather than focusing solely on the people’s way of life pre-colonisation. According to Kelowna Museums’ executive director, Linda Digby, sylix knowledge and perspective is now woven into every era depicted in the museum, and a display on Ogopogo explains how n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ was misunderstood by settlers and grew into a tourism boon.
“To settlers [Ogopogo] was a real thing,” said Digby. “They definitely misinterpreted what they heard from the Indigenous community and had no qualms about making up their own stories and appropriating from them, and it wouldn’t have even occurred to them they were doing that.”
As time wore on, the settlers’ inventory of stories grew – their neighbour saw the creature, or they themselves saw something strange in the lake. “You live here long enough everyone’s going to see something,” Digby said.
During my quest to understand n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, I encountered a few people who are true believers based on what they’ve seen in Okanagan Lake. And they are far from alone: the museum’s archives are filled with newspaper clippings of Ogopogo sightings over the decades, along with stories about how a lake monster is good for the city’s bottom line.
“Ogopogo is great for tourism. It adds colour and panache and atmosphere,” said Robert Young, a University of British Columbia Okanagan earth sciences professor who is often called on as a voice of reason when an Ogopogo sighting occurs or new “footage” surfaces.
For Young, Ogopogo isn’t a question in biology, it’s a question in earth science processes – the way water moves over the surface of the earth. Thermal stratification in a lake can cause a wave to appear from nowhere when a denser layer of water slides beneath a more buoyant layer, as often happens in the spring or autumn, he explained. He calls it an “Ogopogo wave”.
This theory offers a plausible explanation for what people might be seeing on the water. But while Young is all for critical thinking about Ogopogo, he’s also loathe to disprove its existence. It should persist, he says, saying that Ogopogo is a Canadian cultural icon, and
n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is an important part of syilx beliefs.
I don’t worry a lake creature will nibble my toes when I go for a dip, but the power of nature gives me pause. I’ve started many days with a morning walk that leads to a ridge ringed by mountains overlooking Okanagan Lake and the rounded hills and extinct volcanoes of the Thompson Plateau behind it. I’m in awe I live in such a stunning place. When the wind ripples the water and sways the ponderosa pine trees growing on the hillside, I feel a connection to the natural beauty of my home. Maybe that spirit of place is my interpretation of n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ.