Editor’s Note: In recognition of Canada’s 150th birthday The Herald is publishing historical local stories from our archives. For the next several weeks we are republishing stories on prominent residents from our area. This historical story first appeared in The Herald in 2007.
It remains as perhaps the Okanagan’s best-known unsolved mystery of the past 100 years. Since the first recorded sighting in 1872, Ogopogo has become the subject of books, film documentaries and numerous news stories.
Locals and tourists alike began recording their sightings and eventually, photographs and film footage were taken in an attempt to offer visual proof, to give credence to the creature’s existence.
Although no conclusive evidence exists to this day, such extensive publicity entrenched the serpent-like creature said to loom in the murky depths of the lake as part of local lore.
Ogopogo became fodder for debate as to whether it was a plesiosaur that survived the ice age or if perhaps it was an unusually large sturgeon.
Ogopogo has also played a vital tourism role in Penticton and throughout the Okanagan. For the past several decades, one would be hard-pressed to find a resident to whom the name fails to resonate with some sort of familiarity.
Then, there are the seemingly endless accounts of reported sightings, along with words such as snake or serpent-like, with a head resembling a cow, horse or a goat used in its description.
Those living in the Penticton area may have either seen, or know of someone who claims to have seen the Ogopogo.
However, any sightings of the creature — particularly during the past 30 or so years — may be just wishful thinking sparked by a lot of hype brought on by tourism industry that has used the Ogopogo to help market the Okanagan to visitors, says First Nation language teacher Richard Armstrong.
Armstrong said in accordance with their customs and traditions, Ogopogo is different than the version with which Western society has become familiar.
Armstrong, who teaches Syilx (the language of the Okanagan First Nation) at the En’owkin Centre on the Penticton Indian Reserve, said the name Ogopogo doesn’t originate from their culture.
“Ogopogo is word put on by Western society,” said Armstrong. “I think it was a historical society in Vernon years ago who put the name Ogopogo on it. It’s not even a word from our language.”
Armstrong said his people offer a different word, one far more difficult to pronounce.
The English spelling for the creature in Syilx is N’ha-a-tik, which means sacred of the water.
And by sacred, Armstrong pointed out it doesn’t mean sacred in the sense of being something that was prayed to.
“It’s different because we realize that the creator can make such different things,” said Armstrong. “It’s not like a deer or moose or something that’s normal. It’s out of the ordinary and it’s sacred because it’s special like that.”
According to one legend from years ago, Chief Timbasket was visiting the Okanagan with his family, and ignored the warnings of native elders who told him to sacrifice a small animal to the lake creature or face its wrath.
The story goes on to say the chief did not heed these warnings, nor did he follow instructions to paddle his canoe a specific distance from shore and, amid a sudden, violent burst of lashing water, the chief and his family disappeared.
Armstrong, 62, pointed out how attitudes toward Ogopogo have changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“People started talking about it differently. Before that . . . you couldn’t get anybody really to talk about it because it was something that was in the category you didn’t want to spend too much time talking to somebody about.
“I think that it was mostly for respect of the creature,” said Armstrong. “Anything that we hold high and in respect like that is not mentioned frivolously all the time.”
Ironically, about the same time interest in the Ogopogo began to increase with non-aboriginal people was also the time First Nations people believed the creature might have died.
“I think our people don’t believe in it being a myth. Our people believe that it existed . . . (but) not any more. They know that it probably is dead.
“They believe the Ogopogo has either moved or died or something like that, simply because of the people and pollution. Our people kind of chuckle when others say they’ve spotted it last year, last month.”
It was during the heat of a typical summer’s day many years ago as a teenager that Armstrong claimed to have had his only encounter with what he believed could have been the Ogopogo. He was swimming with his cousins near the old ferry wharf near Westbank before construction of the Okanagan Lake Bridge.
“Right below us, we saw this thing. We could see down in the water quite a ways. You couldn’t really make out what it was, but it looked like it was like a big, round snake, green and with kind of dark splotches on it.
“It moved like a snake back and it kind of went around the edge of the dock and went out of sight. It was just that fast.”
He said the ominous creature undulating through the water was estimated to be seven-and-a-half to nine metres in length and only a couple of metres away from them. Just thinking about it was enough to keep them away from that area for quite some time.
“What do I think I saw?” Armstrong asked. “From not knowing what an Ogopogo looks like, to me that was the thing that I had equated it with.
“It didn’t move like a fish; it didn’t move like anything else so we among us decided that it had to be the Ogopogo. What else could it be?”
Darlene Culbert, travel counsellor at the Penticton and Wine Country Information Centre, said the centre carries a variety of items which cater to youngsters and some which people purchase as souvenirs.
There are stuffed Ogopogo toys and colouring books, along with letter openers, pewter table ornaments and books. Interest and curiosity in the lake creature hasn’t waned since Culbert began working at the centre in 1987.
Every year people come in inquiring about Ogopogo, said Culbert — including moms and dads who used to come here as children. She added the legend also fascinates visitors from Scotland "when we tell them that it’s a cousin to the Loch Ness monster."
Ogopogo also has piqued the interest of film companies that have attempted to capture footage. "Nobody has ever found anything yet," said Culbert, adding she believes a majority of people who visit Penticton on vacation aren’t expecting to see anything unusual. ìI think they know it’s a myth."
When asked for her take on the Ogopogo, Culbert takes the line of many locals.
"Personally, I think it could be a sturgeon or something. The natives figured something was there many years ago.
"But who knows — it’s nothing I’ve ever seen."
Culbert said a former manager at the centre was out boating and, like others in similar situations, "swears she saw something."
If the day should ever come when someone proves the Ogopogo is alive and well in Okanagan Lake, it will make for some pretty interesting headlines. But until then, the skeptics will continue to hold the upper hand.