The Legend of Ogopogo
…And more great Canadian lake monster stories to tell around the campfire.
The amber glow of twilight reflects eerily off the mirror-like surface of B.C.’s Lake Okanagan. The unearthly silence is suddenly broken when a long sinuous wave erupts in the middle of the lake. It doesn’t speed towards shore as waves do. Instead, it holds a steady course on the ever-darkening waters…
First Nations of the Okanagan Valley speak with reverence of N’ha-a-a-itk, protector of the lake. A spirit being able to manifest in physical form, ancient petroglyphs depicted it as a 25-metre-long serpent with a smooth green or black body, swimming freely around the lake, snacking on kokanee salmon.
Early settlers to the Okanagan Valley also describe encounters with a gargantuan sea serpent. In 1872, a local author wrote of seeing an enormous snake undulating across the lake. Similar sightings sparked widespread hysteria that a large aquatic creature was on the prowl. In the 1920s, local tourism officials began referring to N’ha-a-a-itk as Ogopogo, after a popular British dance tune—an attempt to give it a less harrowing-sounding moniker. In spite of the rebranding, sightings of a fearsome lake creature continued, and as recently as 2020, a local television station aired a video of something dark—allegedly Ogopogo—bobbing in the waves.
According to Bill Stecuik, an avid Ogopogo researcher who manages the website OgopogoQuest.com, a popular theory is that it’s a prehistoric whale, Basilosaurus cetoides, that calls the lake home.
For decades the legend of Ogopogo has attracted visitors to the Okanagan Valley. In the 1980s , the mania reached new heights when the region’s tourist association offered $1-million for proof of the creature’s existence. Out of an abundance of caution for Ogopogo’s wellbeing, this prompted the environmental group Greenpeace to list it as an endangered species not to be harmed or captured.
Photo: RL0328 / Shutterstock.com
From terrifying lake monster to beloved tourist attraction, the shoreline is now graced by a large plaster statue, paying homage to a grinning Ogopogo—great for a selfie if you missed seeing the real McCoy. And the legend of Ogopogo continues to evolve. The Okanagan Heritage Museum features a display explaining how N’ha-a-a-itk, the lake spirit, became Ogopogo the lake monster. In this tale, the ethereal lake serpent sacred to Okanagan Valley First Nations is revered. Ogopogo remains a cultural icon, but now as a being that inhabits both the spiritual and physical realms and can watch unfettered all that happens on Lake Okanagan.
Regional Variations on the Legend of Ogopogo
Similar to the legend of Ogopogo, Indigenous folklore describes a serpent living in Crescent Lake, Newfoundland and Labrador.
One of the most notable sightings of the creature—now known as “Cressie”—dates back to 1991, when a retired schoolteacher claimed to witness a 6-metre-long eel swimming close to shore. When the History Channel aired an episode on Cressie as part of its MonsterQuest series in 2008, it was suggested there wasn’t one creature, but in fact dozens living on the lake’s murky bottom.
Whatever their number, Cressie and “friends” are camera shy, making it impossible to say if there’s anything unusual skulking in Lake Crescent. This doesn’t bother the town of Robert’s Arm on the lake’s edge, though. Like the Legend of Ogopogo, Cressie’s good for tourism—and a great yarn after some Newfoundland screech.
Something so terrifying lurks in Quebec’s Lake Memphremagog that local First Nations told early settlers they were too frightened to swim there.
Whatever’s in the water isn’t shy. A University of Sherbrooke research project discovered there’d been 215 sightings of the Memphre in the 20th century alone, including an incident in 1961 when two fishermen claimed a 12-metre long serpent swam under their boat. Talk about the one that got away!
In 2011, the Canadian Mint immortalized the Memphre issuing an oversized coloured quarter with its likeness as part of its mythical creature series.
In 1881, a surveyor working in the marshes surrounding Ontario’s Lake Simcoe told a local newspaper he saw a creature bigger than a human slithering out of the rushes into the lake.
Commonly referred to as Kempenfelt Kelly, after the bay extending out from the City of Barrie, the creature has latterly been described as having a long, thick neck and the head of a dog.
When sightings dried up in the 1970s, many believed Kelly had met its demise. But not to be counted out, in 1991, a grainy video showed something larger than the lake’s resident beavers rise vertically out of the water. The footage brought the Kelly legend back to life. A wily creature, a search by the Discovery Channel in 2005 proved inconclusive. The question remains: when will Kelly resurface?
Straight out of Jurassic Park, Manipogo’s reptilian body is said to rise out of the waters of western Manitoba’s Lake Winnipegosis with a blood curdling shriek.
The lake links up with Lake Manitoba, and a creature matching Manipogo’s description has been seen there, as well. Most alarming, though, is that on August 10th, 1960, 17 witnesses claimed to see three Manipogo swimming together. To put an end to the speculation once and for all, a professor from the University of Manitoba launched an exhaustive search in the early 1960s, but found no evidence to suggest one or more of the creatures ever inhabited Manitoba’s waterways.
But, like the legend of Ogopogo, sightings continue. In 2011, security teams patrolling flood zones in southern Manitoba reported seeing something large with protruding humps swimming in washed-out streets and fields.
Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories is North America’s deepest lake, and the perfect place for an underwater lair. Rooted in Indigenous folklore, the Dene of the Northwest Territories have spoken for centuries about a dragon living in the lake and surrounding waterways. Naysayers claim it’s just a big fish, but in 2004, a Roman Catholic priest told local media he had seen a dragon-headed serpent rise out of the water.
Whether it’s the legend of Ogopogo, Ol’Slavey or The Memphre, these great Canadian sea serpent stories certainly spark the imagination. Who knows what might suddenly manifest on a moonlit lake, while you sit by a campfire on the shore’s edge, roasting marshmallows?
Next, check out the most haunted places in Canada.