Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Canada: Land of the Lake Monsters

Canada is a nation superlatively blessed nation. Possessing of exquisite beauty and sublime wonder, overflowing with a bounty of natural resources, comfortably populated with a civil society and a relatively benign history, consistently one of the best economies and highest standards of living in the world, stretching from sea to sea to sea. A popular joke has God ordaining this most blessed nation to the chagrin of the angel who remarks "Really Lord, I'm not one to criticize, but aren't you giving these Canadians a bit too much?" To which He replies "Oh, wait 'till you see who I'm putting them next to."

The True North Strong and Free also boasts another embarrassment of riches: it also has the highest per capita population of lake monsters in the world.

A tally counts 17 such creatures, only three less than the absolute total held by the United States, which also has over nine times the human population. Canada's lake monsters stretch from one shore to the other, including honorary incumbent Cadborosaurus, a sea serpent said to haunt the Salish Sea surrounding Vancouver Island. The creature is named for Cadboro Bay near Victoria, British Columbia, which has been a fruitful spot for sightings of an elongated, serpentine creature with a horse- or camel-like head and flippers.

A Cadborosaurus carcass, c.1937?

The best documented material on Cadborosaurus originated in 1937 from a series of photographs taken at Naden Harbour on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands). Purported to have been recovered from the belly of a Sperm Whale, the creature was three metres long and matched eyewitness descriptions. Remnants of the specimen have since been lost, but the lack of material evidence did not stop Ed Bousfield, formerly of the Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal British Columbia Museum, and Paul LeBlond, Department of Oceanography, University of British Columbia, from controversially describing it as an extant plesiosaur and assigning it the formal scientific name of Cadborosaurus willsi. In the 1930's, the manufacture of Caddy carcasses and subsequent sale of photographic postcards became a small industry along the Pacific coast.

On the other side of the country, the province of New Brunswick cites the Lake Utopia Monster and Newfoundland speaks of Cressie. Said to occupy Crescent Lake on the island of Newfoundland, Cressie's pedigree goes back to local Native tribes who called it "Woodum Haoot" (Pond Devil) or "Haoot Tuwedyee" (Swimming Demon). Described as eel-like, settlers began sighting it in the early 1900's, but the most tantalizing piece of evidence is a pair of scuba divers scavenging a plane crash in the 1980's who reported having been attacked by a school of unusually large eels.

Ontario has a high population of lake monsters, the most famous of which is Igopogo. This mammal-like creature with a more canine head is rarely spotted in it's home waters of Lake Simcoe. Still, friendly competition exists between the towns along the shore of the lake. Those in Beaverton insist on calling it "Beaverton Bessie" while those at Kempenfelt Bay call it "Kempenfelt Kelly". Lake Simcoe, like much of Canada, is known for a healthy population of aquatic mammals like otters, mink, muskrat and beavers.

The inhabitants of the Muskrat Lake region are happy to promote the existence of Mussie, making reference to three species of Ice Age shrimp that survived from the ancient Champlain Sea. This sea was an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean that, in the wake of the great glaciers, flooded much of Ontario, Quebec, New York and Vermont along Lake Champlain and the Saint Lawrence River valley. Existence of the ancient inlet was determined by the discovery of Atlantic whale fossils and marine shells through the provinces. Serious devotees of Mussie also look to Seal Lake in Quebec, which hosts some 1000 landlocked Harbour Seals, suggesting that their creature may be another bunch of isolated marine mammals. Traditional descriptions are far more whimsical, including three eyes and a forked tongue.

Near Thunder Bay, Ontario, along the shores of Lake Superior, there have been reports of some manner of merbeing. Skeptics have suggested that the creature may be another seal, if it exists at all. Nevertheless, a 1942 article in Canada's vaunted historical magazine The Beaver sits alongside a grotesque merman sitting in a back room of the Indian Trading Post in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff, Alberta.

Postcard of the Banff merman, posed in front of Mount Rundle.

Built in 1903, the Indian Trading Post was the business of Banff pioneer Norman Luxton. One of the old time outfitters and property-owners (including the local newspaper, movie theatre, and a hotel), he conducted a close relationship with the Nakoda, T'suu Tina and Blackfoot First Nations adjacent to the park and sold their crafts in his shop while displaying their cultural artifacts in the neighbouring Buffalo Nations Museum. He was also an avid hunter and taxidermist himself, as well as a collector of oddities. One of these oddities is the merman, for which he could produce a shipping bill for "One fish-man" from Java.

La Belle Provence, Quebec, boasts three lake monsters of its own: Memphré in Lake Memphrémagog, Lizzie in Lac Decaire, and Ponik in Lac Pohénégamook. Manitoba lays claim to several of the largest lakes in Canada concentrated in the southern half of the province, and these are home to two monsters, being Manipogo in Lake Manitoba and Winnipogo in Lake Winnipegosis. Sightings of the serpentine Manipogo go back to 1908, and given that the whole system of lakes in the region is interconnected, Manipogo is probably the same creature as Winnipogo, if any such creature exists. Both were given their distinctive names, along with Igopogo, in the 1950's in honor of Canada's most well-known Cryptid... The queen of Canada's lake monsters... British Columbia's Ogopogo.

The majority of Canada's lake monsters are 20th century phenomena, or at the very least dating to after the surrounding regions were occupied by Euro-Canadian settlers. Ogopogo's vintage is far older, going back in Salish First Nations legend as N'ha-a-itk, the "demon of the waters." Living in the depths of the lake, the Salish believed that N'ha-a-itk controlled the winds and the waters, demanding sacrifice for safe passage over its surface. He was particularly dangerous around a promontory that came to be known as Squally Point, renowned for its foul weather. It was thought that Squally Point, adjacent to an island known variously as Rattlesnake Island and Monster Island, was the demon's home.

Not all were willing to cast a chicken or other small animal to the demon. Native legend tell of Timbasket, a skeptic, who refused to pay the toll. He was so defiant of convention that he even chose to row himself and his family close to Squally Point. As if on queue, N'ha-a-itk rose and whipped up the surface of the lake, dragging Timbasket and his retinue into the darkness amidst the storm. The first Euro-Canadian settlers continued to observe the custom, reinforced by an incident in 1854 or 55. John MacDougall tied a team of horses to his canoe and was swimming them across the lake near Squally Point when the surface was once more whipped up. The horses began to drown, threatening to pull MacDougall along with them until he cut the rope with his knife.

Illustration of N'ha-a-itk, c.1872.

The first documented sighting happened in 1872 by a Mrs. Susan Allison who saw what seemed to be a log floating against the current, and N'ha-a-itk was seen with some regularity by Euro-Canadians thereafter. He was seen again in 1880, at the ranche of a Judge Haynes while his employees were hewing rafts out of logs floated down the lake. Another sighting came in 1890 by Captain Thomas Shorts, who could not wheel his boat around fast enough to catch a clear look at a creature he described as being finned, approximately 16' long and possessing a head comparable to a ram's. These regular sightings spiked in the 1920's - including a 1926 sighting by a 30-strong autocade - when N'ha-a-itk was enshrined in popular song. Inspired by the pogo stick craze of the time, Vancouver reporter Ronald Kenvyn adapted a British drinking song, and in so doing, provided the water demon with a happier-sounding name:
His mother was an earwig;
His father was a whale;
A little bit of head
And hardly any tail
And Ogopogo was his name.

Since the song, Ogopogo has become a veritable tourism industry for the communities of Kelowna, Vernon and Penticton that front the lake. Theme parks have featured him as a mascot, souvenir stores sell plush varieties, amateur hockey teams incorporate him into their logos, and a statue sits at Kelowna's waterfront. Sightings continue, and video footage surfaces every few years. Most of this relies on observers unfamiliar with local wildlife or, incredibly, the action of waves on the narrow, windy, heavily used lake.

Statue of Ogopogo in Kelowna.

Lake Okanagan is 135km long and 4-5km wide throughout, with a maximum depth of 232m. Flanking the lake are the mountains of the British Columbia interior and fertile plains left in the wake of the larger glacial lake that once occupied the valley carved by Ice Age glaciers. These plains are used by local fruit orchards and vineyards, growing and pressing wares of high reputation throughout the country. Squally Point today is a popular spot for cliff-diving, as the cliff-face descends deep into the water, where no bottom is visible. Nearby Rattlesnake Island has many subsurface caves and amidst the waves and surf, an audible sucking sound can be regularly heard. Right now, the greatest threat to the residents of the Okanagan valley is not a lake monster, but a reduction in precipitation brought on by global climate change which is shrinking the lake's size and industries.

At this juncture, I feel that I should clearly outline my bias. I do believe that the scientific discipline of cryptozoology is valid, important and fascinating. Cryptozoology is the scientific study of previous undescribed animal species: animals either entirely unexpected, or ones previously thought extinct. This is to be distinguished from the fringe pseudo-science of cryptozoology that stands alongside UFOs, ghost photographs and Atlantis. Scientific cryptozoology is an evidence-based approach utilizing the Scientific Method, including publication in accredited, peer-reviewed scientific journals. The errors of Bousfield and LeBlond included naming their new species of Cadborosaurus from photographs without a physical specimen, which is verbotten by decree of the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. Another was in the ridiculously dubious identification of it as a plesiosaur,which could have been rectified by proper research on that group of marine reptiles. Despite pop-culture depictions, there are no marine creatures in history less like the image of undulating, serpentine sea monsters than are plesiosaurs.

The verifiable scientific record is enticing validation for scientific cryptozoology. Gorillas, for example, were not properly described until 1902. Okapi, the short-necked cousin of the Giraffe, were sighted in 1890 but not confirmed until 1901. The Vu Quang Ox of Vietnam was only known from horns, skulls, skins, and the reports of hunters until some were finally caught in 1994. Komodo Dragons were not confirmed until 1926, their discovery prompting a train of thought in the mind of movie producer Mirian C. Cooper that culminated in King Kong. In the depths of the ocean, the presumed long-extinct Coelacanth was dredged up in 1938 and the Megamouth Shark went undiscovered until 1976. Giant Squid, which had been known from legends of kraken since time immemorial and identified scientifically in the 1850s, still hadn't been photographed in its natural habitat until 2004. Up till then, all that was known of their biology and ecology was gleaned from evidence literally gathered from on and in Sperm Whales, as well as what washed up on shores around the world. The Bandolero Beaked Whale was only formally named in 1991 from specimens recovered in the 1970's and 80's. There are others.

This elaborate apology is simply to say that I believe there is inestiminable scientific value in the hunt for new forms of life here on earth. It is a quest that has yet to be exhausted. It is not, however, to say that I believe in the factual existence of Canada's bevy of lake monsters. This study has been a document of their cultural history. They have occupied a novel place in Canada's history and local economies, and I myself spent many a childhood family vacation in the Okanagan valley with eyes peeled for the creature whose plush effigy I held in my hands.

In fact, I still have him!

Or as I like to say, I believe that Ogopogo is real but I don't believe that he exists.


Ray Virzi said...

Thank you for the great article. I've had an interest in unexplained phenoms since childhood, which included Nessie of course. I never knew how many lake monsters there were in the world even closer than Ireland. Very enjoyable read.

Cory Gross said...

Thank you! Lake Monsters are a subject oddly near and dear to my heart as well... Probably because of that lil' Ogopogo guy ^_^

One thing I did leave out because I couldn't find enough solid information about it are the water serpents in traditional Blackfoot mythology. These were massive carnivorous snakes coursing through the rivers who would snatch unwary people trying to cross, pulling them down and away.

thiyavat said...

I was curious after reading this: have you ever heard about anything cryptozoologically-weird living in the Ottawa River? I know your topic is "lake monsters" as opposed to "river monsters," but I was just curious because I thought I heard some rumors when I used to live in the Ottawa area, and can't remember the exact details at the moment. Also, there are parts of the Ottawa River that are so wide and deep as to be comparable with some lakes anyway, as I recall...

Cory Gross said...

Hmm, offhand I don't know about anything supposedly in the Ottawa River. I'll have to look it up.