Ogopogo: British Colombia Serpentine Demon or Ancestral Water Spirit? TAP TO GET PODCAST
If you find yourself heading to the Pacific Northwest to visit Okanagan Lake, you might want to bring a special gift. According to Canadian folklore, British Colombia is said to be home to a dark serpentine creature awaiting travelers to extend an offering upon crossing the lake to appease its ancestral appetite.
I’m Cody, and you’re touring Cryptids Across the Atlas.
As he drove along the water, he expected to see some spectacular scenery, but what he witnessed next would leave him speechless. While driving along Highway 97, a stretch of road that winds along Okanagan Lake in Southern British Columbia, Canada, Art Folden just so happened to catch a peculiar pattern in the corner of his eye as it bobbed about in the water below.
Not sure if what he saw was real or if he was just losing it, he cranked the wheel of his car and skidded to a stop on the graveled shoulder of the road. Sure enough, when he looked out the window, he learned his eyes had not deceived him after all. Quickly, he reached into his back seat and grabbed his 8mm video camera, hopped out of the car, and filmed what appeared to be a large, serpentine creature bobbing in and out of the water about 300 yards offshore.
To many, this would have felt like a supernatural event. Something so beyond possibility that they would spend the rest of their lives trying to comprehend what they witnessed but here in the Okanagan Valley, folks knew exactly what Art had captured in 4k… or at least in the 1968 equivalent. There, burned into that 8mm Kodak film, was visual proof of the monster that had provoked a curious fear and revered wonder into the hearts of folks long before the first Europeans learned of it from the local natives. It would seem that the Ogopogo had made an appearance once again.
And while sightings, photos, and videos of the Ogopogo reach all the way into the present time, the belief in this creature is far from a modern idea.
His mother was an earwig; his father was a whale; a little bit of head; and hardly any tail; and Ogopogo was his name.
This banger of a tune might have been nothing more than a much beloved English folk song, sure to rock your knickers off back in its prime, but to settlers in British Columbia, the monster that borrowed its name from these lyrics was as real as the lake it resided in. When European fur traders arrived in what is now the city of Kelowna, tales began to spread that the waters of Okanagan Lake weren’t as inviting as they seemed.
As settlers, well, um… settled into their new way of life in the Okanagan Valley, they quickly picked up on a strange and unfamiliar ritual the local natives performed before undocking their canoes. The Syilx people had learned over the 12,000 or so years they had inhabited the land how to appease what missionaries had come to believe was a water demon. Over and over again, these fur traders watched the Syilx offer whatever lurked below the water a sample of their tobacco, sage, and even bits of salmon to quench the water devil’s appetite.
Described as around 45 feet long, dark in color, with the head of a horse and the antlers of a deer, pioneers passed around tales of the fury this beast could unleash should you not follow these ancient offering traditions. But one man, having had enough of the superstition, threw caution to the wind. And it worked. At least for a while.
John McDougall tied his horses to the back, then climbed aboard his canoe and began to paddle. The year was 1855. John had made this trip a dozen times before and had yet to offer any silly peace offering to some water serpent. He knew his route well. Out to Rattlesnake island, rest, and then cut across to the neighboring bank. But as John reached about the halfway mark on the first leg of his journey, the waters around him began to shift.
Suddenly, a current beyond anything he’d ever witnessed started to pull at his horses, swimming along right behind him. And the harder he paddled against it, the less progress he made. Before long, the current almost seemed to reach out and grab the horses, dragging them below the angry waters of Okanagan lake. Losing ground and not wanting to follow the fate of his equine companions, he reached back and cut the lead ropes attaching him to their bridles just in time. He then quickly paddled away, hoping that the horses offered enough backpay for his lack of offerings.
As more people settled in the Okanagan valley, more tales like this began to crop up. The idea that a bloodthirsty lake monster with dark, scaly skin patrolling the parameter of Rattlesnake island became firmly rooted in the area’s culture. People became scared, and what happens when people get scared? They take up arms!
Fear took over, and it became common to see men from the settlement camps patrolling the edge of the water, rifles in hand, just hoping to spot the water demon and put an end to its thirst for blood. But as months turned to years and first-hand sightings shifted into secondhand folktales, people’s perception of the watery monster began to change. By the 1920s, the tourism department coined that beloved name borrowing from our aforementioned folk song titled, “The Ogo-Pogo: The Funny Fox-Trot.” Or maybe the song was named after the creature? It’s up for debate.
Either way, the monster that was once believed to be a bloodthirsty menace slowly became more of a mascot for the town. Before long, souvenir shops started offering up gimmick jars full of “Ogopogo eggs.” The Ogopogo, or “Oggy” as it is often lovingly referred to as became a central figure in the annual parade. A green and tan cartoonish statue was even added along the waterside so tourists wouldn’t miss their photo op with this rising star.
By the 1980s, the Ogopogo was a national icon adored both for the team spirit she brought to the community, as well as the mystery and lore the idea of her offered. People were so fascinated by the idea of the Ogopogo that a 1 million dollar bounty was offered to anyone who could provide tangible proof of her existence. Around the same time, Oggy was even written into the Fisheries Act and declared an endangered species by the Attorney General. And as awareness of the creature grew and as camera tech progressed, so too did the photos and videos.
In 1980, a group of tourists watched what they believed to be the Ogopogo swimming about for about 45 minutes. They all described the creature as long and dark, with a series of humps that bobbed in and out of the water.
On July 24th, 1992, Paul Demara filmed a creature swimming at about 5 miles (or 8 kilometers) per hour just under the lake’s glassy surface.
In August 2008, Sean Viloria, a local photographer, was enjoying a day at the lake with his girlfriend, Jessica Weagers. As they sat on the shore, they noticed multiple large, dark-colored bumps slinking through the lake. Sean snapped a single photo of the creature, but his camera died before he could take more. 11 days later, they spotted the creature again, and this time, he took a dozen or so more photos.
And the list goes on and on. If you want to get lost for an afternoon, just google Ogopogo Sightings and enjoy the ride. But with all the alleged sightings and photographic proof out there, there’s still a ton left unanswered. Namely, how come a creature that has been spotted so many times has yet to turn up any physical evidence?
Many believe the Ogopogo is easy enough to disprove. Many claim it to be a large sturgeon, even though there have never been sturgeon spotted in the lake before. Others say that it could be otters or beavers. It’s also worth mentioning that there are literally thousands of old logs floating out in the lake left over from the lumber mill days. Surly, that could account for a good chunk of those reported sightings.
Then there’s a strange phenomenon that occurs in early spring and late fall. As seasons shift and the weather cools and warms, respectively, the water begins to separate, creating what almost resembles layers. These layers of varying temperature follow the currents of the lake and create a winding, slithering motion if you look at them from just the right angle.
But the biggest critique of the idea of the Ogopogo isn’t the blurry photos or wild sightings but rather if this creature really is out there and has been seen so frequently, why have we yet to find a body? But once you know the history a bit more, the answer is pretty obvious. We have yet to find the body of the Ogopogo because the Ogopogo doesn’t have an actual body.
In order to understand how this whole legend got started, we need to head back to where we started with European settlers arriving in British Columbia to trap furs. This land was unfamiliar. These people had only been here a few short months or years. So as they watched the Syilx people offering up bits of their crop and food to the waters to pay homage to a spirit they call the n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ (n-ha-ha-it-koo), which means sacred spirit of the lake, to the settlers, it looked more like animal sacrifice than a revered tribute.
As the misunderstanding grew, rumors spread through their settlements that this sacred spirit was less a keeper of the waters and more a monstrous terror that you had to bribe to keep from getting swallowed whole. But to the Syilx people, the n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ is the spiritual embodiment of the lake herself. A small offering to show respect to a body of water that has provided nourishment to a group of people for over 12,000 years.
Now I want to make mention here that every time anything involving white settlers and native locals gets brought up, people tend to flock to our comment sections on social media to um… discuss their views. So let’s just clear the air right here, right now. Yes, the settlers took the way too literally the native’s practices. They were a group of people completely oblivious to how the Syilx had lived for centuries and, to their detriment, didn’t bother learning.
Did they take the creature at face value? Yes. Did they bother to try and understand the local’s ways? No. No, they did not. Would many of us at that time have done the exact same thing given the times and understandings they had? If we are honest with ourselves? Probably.
I mention that because though there has been tension in Kelowna over the complete disregard for the Native’s beliefs, recently, huge strides have been made to reconcile everyone’s experiences. The Okanagan Heritage Museum and the Westbank First Nation have teamed up to bring awareness to both sides of the story: Both the spiritual practices of the indigenous people and the encounters the settlers had. Every side of the story makes up the history of this city.
The n ̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ and the Ogopogo are almost like two facets of the same coin. On the one side, we have that ancient guardian of the water, offering its rich nourishment to bring life to those that rest along its banks, and on the other, we have a physical manifestation that brings about that curious desire for wonder.
So if you ever find yourself at the Okanagan lake in the southwestern corner of Canada, take a drive along the coast to see if you can spot Nessie’s distant cousin for yourself. Stop off in town and grab a photo with Oggy’s statue. And pay a visit to the Okanagan Heritage Museum to learn about the Syilx people’s rich culture. Because while the Ogopogo might be enough to draw you in, the people and their stories are what will make you want to stay.
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Thanks for touring Cryptids Across the Atlas. Until next time, keep your eyes open. You never know what you might see just on the edge of the road.