The wine-growing Okanagan Valley in B.C. has a cryptic allure

Powerful search engines that put the world at our fingertips, combined with the rise of mass tourism, have leached most of the mystery out of travel, even for the most obscure corners of the planet.

But as a recent pandemic-related rise in UFO sightings will attest, we are as drawn to the unexplained as ever.

Look no further than the wine-growing Okanagan Valley of B.C.’s central Interior, where among the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays exists — so we are told — the long-in-the-tooth but still captivating Ogopogo.

Like Nessie, the mythical creature said to dwell in the gloomy depths of Loch Ness in Scotland, the Ogopogo has been variously described as being long and serpent-like in shape, with either the head of a snake, a horse or a sheep. Alleged sightings have reported several humps moving rapidly through the water.

Known as a cryptid, or animal whose existence has yet to be proved, Ogopogo is one of hundreds of such beasties reportedly roaming the Earth. The world’s lakes are especially rich breeding grounds for cryptids, with roughly 1,000 said to have recorded sightings of lake monsters.

It takes its name from the lyrics of an English music-hall song: “His mother was an earwig/ his father was a whale/ a little bit of head/ and hardly any tail/ and Ogopogo was his name.”

Though no definitive proof of its existence has ever been found, Lake Okanagan — a slender and murky body of water measuring 120 kilometres in length and up to 230 metres deep — could be hiding anything.

So, what are people seeing? Theories run the gamut: It’s a centenarian giant sturgeon; a prehistoric whale; a long-lost dinosaur; misinterpreted wave patterns; a log bobbing harmlessly in the water.

In an attempt to solve the mystery, a comprehensive search was launched in 1991 using a remote-controlled mini submarine that scoured the deepest part of the lake. It came up empty. But for many cryptozoologists, who research the netherworlds of our imagination, Ogopogo is a star candidate: The best-documented and most likely to be real.

The first of hundreds of sightings by early European settlers of what the Salish people called the “snake in the lake” came in 1872 when a woman reported a reptilian creature in the water near her home in Kelowna. Folklorists soon spread stories of a bloodthirsty serpent that required live animal sacrifices to ensure safe passage across the water. Nervous homesteaders patrolled the lake with guns trained on the rippling waters lest the beast attack.

By the 1920s, in the absence of any monstrous maulings, officials in the Okanagan rebranded the creature as Ogopogo to cash in on its tourism potential, launching a century-long marketing legacy that includes a hockey team mascot, a parade float, a beachside sculpture — and thousands of coffee mugs, tea towels and plush toys. Gift shops flogged Ogopogo “eggs” and even its “droppings.”

The hype reached its zenith in the 1980s when tourism executives offered a $1-million reward for proof of the lake’s most enigmatic denizen. Reality-television producers from the U.S. flooded north, and Greenpeace stepped up to declare Ogopogo an endangered species.

For the Indigenous peoples of the Okanagan Valley, however, the Ogopogo obsession is all wet. Among the Syilx Nation, the legend of the N’ha-a-itk dates back thousands of years and is not a serpentine menace to be feared or a cartoonish marketing gimmick, but rather a benign guardian.

“It’s not a really a monster,” explains Pat Raphael of the Westbank First Nation in Kelowna, speaking to the BBC. “It’s a spirit of the lake and it protects this valley from one end to the other.”

For curators at the Sncewips Heritage Museum, which delves into the Indigenous origins of the Ogopogo legend, what started as a “misunderstanding” by pioneers became “misappropriation” with the million-dollar reward campaign and Greenpeace’s endangered-species declaration.

“What was once a benevolent water spirit became this virgin-devouring sea demon because, when settlers came and they saw what they saw, they got spooked,” said museum assistant Coralee Miller, speaking to Infotel, a B.C. multimedia outlet serving B.C.’s Interior.

The visitors bureau in Kelowna, the biggest settlement in the Valley, no longer actively promotes its most-fabled ambassador. But that hasn’t stopped interest in the legend, and nor has it ended sightings.

As recently as May of this year a woman hiking in Summerland, south of Kelowna, noticed something disturbing the calm waters of the deserted lake. She’s adamant it was the Ogopogo. “It was huge and it was black and it was moving pretty fast, and it had a wake behind it,” she told the Castanet news service.

And in 2019 a south Okanagan man captured what he told Global News was a “definitive” sighting of a serpent-like beast some 35 metres long, with at least seven fins paddling in sync. “I can’t wait until everyone sees the video,” Jim La Rocque said. “It will make you a believer.”

Robert Young, an environmental scientist at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia who has studied the Ogopogo myth, isn’t so sure. People recoil from the unexplained, he told Global, so they invent legends. “It’s not surprising to me that people would want to hang on to the idea of a mythical lake monster.”

Monster or myth? Who knows? But keep this in mind should you find a whopper at the end of your fishing line: The Ogopogo was listed in 1989 under the B.C. Wildlife Act, making it illegal to hunt or disturb the species.

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