Where did Ogopogo go?

Canada Post issued a stamp in 1990 commemorating Canada's monsters. Ogopogo has been more reclusive than usual in the last few years.

Ogopogo sightings were once a regular feature of our long hot Okanagan summers. The elusive creature was usually seen in July or August, especially during the now-defunct, Kelowna International Regatta.

Sightings were often near Rattlesnake Island across from Peachland, or around Bear Creek Provincial Park, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, or even in the vicinity of the regatta itself. 

Residents may recall film crews arriving from Japan, and Germany and The History Channel, as well as the BBC, who said Prince Charles was among the curious.

Some arrived with elaborate viewing platforms, expensive sonar devices, high-powered lighting, submersibles, divers, and elaborate camera equipment in an attempt to capture or even photograph the elusive creature. Most made good television viewing but there was little, if any, scientific merit to their findings.

And then, there was the time when a million-dollar reward was offered for the capture of … was it a mammal? a prehistoric remnant? or a creature from a parallel universe? The hunt became so aggressive that Kelowna City Council requested the Ministry of the Environment declare the "world famous Ogopogo" an endangered species, though no one was quite sure this was possible for there was really no proof the creature actually existed.

But lately - other than the much-photographed friendly green monster at the foot of Bernard Avenue, we rarely hear about our lake monster. Most YouTube footage stops around 2006, and a more recent posting doesn't add any convincing new evidence.

It wasn't always so - and the creature wasn't always called Ogopogo. Evolving from the legends of the original Okanagan peoples, N'ha-a-tik was a much-revered though much-feared lake monster. It was said to be the embodiment of an evil wanderer who had murdered a kindly old man and been punished for doing so by being forced to remain near the scene of the crime for all eternity.  

Pictographs can still be found on the rock bluffs above the lake and Native stories told of small animal sacrifices to appease the creature. Those who scoffed at the legends and didn't show proper respect could find themselves caught in wild unexpected  storms, and risked being sucked under in great swirls of angry waves.

Early settlers were wary of the often-turbulent lake, and  told of horses being tied behind their canoes, or cattle being herded across open water, disappearing down in a great whirling vortex, and never resurfacing.

New settlers were terrified of the mysterious creature and patrolled the beaches, muskets at the ready, to protect their families. Other times, they strung great slabs of meat on iron hooks along the shoreline, in hopes of capturing the beast.

Descriptions of the monster have evolved over time, and it has lost some of its fearsomeness. However, the basics remain: it's either dark green or shiny black with bulging eyes; eel or snake-like, though its once narrow head has evolved into a more horse or sheep-like shape; and its upright ears have become tiny horns. Maybe it has a forked tail, and maybe it is 30 feet long, or is it 70 feet? It often moves against the wind or appears as a swell on a calm lake, and always moves too fast to be a swimmer.

Small boats, with scows attached, appeared in Kelowna in the early 1900s, as drivers of the town's increasing number of cars wanted to venture to Penticton or to the settlements in between. Okanagan Lake's narrowest crossing point was from the foot of Bernard Avenue to Siwash Point, on the west side. The enterprising and colourful characters who offered this ferry service reassured their passengers that their vessels were fully prepared, with appropriate devices, to repel any ferocious lake monsters.

Early Kelowna attracted many British settlers, and it didn't take long for them to appropriate the Native monster and change its name to Ogopogo - from a familiar British music hall ditty: 'His mother was an earwig, His father was a whale, A little bit of head and hardly any tail, And Ogopogo was his name.' In the process, the monster seemed to become more friendly and was transformed into a benign vegetarian.

The peak of Ogopogo fever was likely a sighting off Bear Creek Provincial Park in 1989, when videos were taken that 'conclusively' proved the monster existed. Offers of $25,000 for the film were turned down as the photographer thought it was worth much more. Walt Disney expressed interest, and the National Geographic Society enhanced the amateur film. An NBC TV crew arrived to film a segment for their popular Unsolved Mysteries program, and a three-minute 43-second video clip was aired to their vast network audience. Doubters were certain the creature shown was a beaver, while believers knew it was a young Ogopogo and were heartened by the thought of more Ogopogos to come.

Lately though, there have been few sightings of the elusive creature. Does it still live somewhere in Okanagan Lake? Perhaps the constant noisy summer boat traffic has driven it to quieter, less congested areas. Perhaps its algae diet has disappeared under the silt that blankets the lake bottom, and it has died from starvation.

The certainty of those who have seen the Ogopogo is unshakeable. Doubters love the myth and the quirkiness of the idea that they might be sharing Okanagan Lake with a monster. Neither side is deterred by the logic, or illogic, of the other's argument.

But there may be some resurgence of interest in the mysterious creature with the upcoming presentation of Loch Ness: Hidden Undercurrents, by Adrian Shine, leader of the Loch Ness and Morar Project, to be held at the Laurel Packinghouse on Wednesday at 7 p.m. A Quebec filmmaker is also planning to visit the Okanagan shortly to make yet-another documentary about our mysterious Ogopogo.

Sharron J Simpson is a long-time member of the Okanagan Historical Society and is currently the Kelowna Branch Editor for the society's well-received Annual Report. She is also the author of a number of books of local interest, including The Kelowna Story: An Okanagan History. This article is part of a series submitted by the Kelowna Branch, O.H.S.  Additional information would be welcome at P.O. Box  22105, Capri P.O., Kelowna, B.C. V1Y 9N9.

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