Relative of Loch Ness Monster : Nessie's Canadian Cousin Warms to Tourists

United Press International

Believers say that the warm waters of summer bring the demon to the surface. Skeptics suggest that the dark dragon responds better to the ringing of cash registers.

The faithful argue that Ogopogo behaves in classic reptilian fashion, its hump-backed body slithering across Lake Okanagan until it dives again. Wags counter that it actually behaves in classic Chamber of Commerce fashion, showing up about the same time as the summer tourists and disappearing when they do.

Whichever is true, another tourist season has closed at Lake Okanagan and six more sightings of Canada's equivalent of the Loch Ness monster have been logged into the record books.

"I turned around and I saw this dark thing coming through the water," said Lionel Edmond, 33, who was fishing with a friend July 20 when he heard a loud rushing of water 30 yards behind him.

'Like a Submarine'

"It looked like a submarine surfacing, coming up toward my boat, he said. "As it came up perpendicular to the boat we could see six humps out of the water, each hump about 10 inches out of the water and each one creating a wake.

"It was cruising between 8 and 10 miles per hour. We followed it for 10 minutes. We saw no head or tail, but it must have been some 50 or 60 feet long."

Harold Thwait, the former mayor of nearby Peachland, describes the sightings differently.

"A pile of horse . . . ," he said, stopping to rephrase.

"I've never seen anything," he began again. "A lot of it's just tourist promotion. You'll see people rigging up truck tires in the water and taking pictures of them. The next thing you know, you're reading in the newspapers about a new Ogopogo sighting."

Legend of Lake Serpent

Legend holds that a kindly old Indian who once lived by the lake was killed by an evil wanderer. As punishment, the gods turned the killer into a giant lake serpent and doomed him to spend eternity at the scene of his crime.

Sightings of "the remorseful one" date back centuries. Indians who used to hunt and fish the area carried small animals to feed to the monster, whom they called Naitaka.

The first known sighting by a white settler was in 1872. Since then, hundreds have claimed to have seen something huge and mysterious rise out of the water.

Dozens of scratchy films, blurry photos and sharp sketches have been submitted as proof that a cousin of Scotland's Loch Ness monster resides in the 80-mile-long, mile-wide lake.

Some Authorities Convinced

British Columbia authorities were once so convinced of Ogopogo's existence that in 1926 they considered arming lake ferries to protect them from the creature. They were never able to decide, however, what weapon would be effective.

There is no record of the serpent attacking humans. But in the 1880s a team of horses was said to have mysteriously been pulled under water, never to be seen again.

Another Indian legend holds that a brave named Timbasket refused to heed the warnings of his elders, paddled his canoe too near Ogopogo's home--Rattlesnake Island--and disappeared. His canoe was found later, high on a nearby cliff.

Ogopogo's biographer, Arlene Gaal, has spent the last five years meeting people who swear they've seen the creature. She has made three sightings herself.

Fakes and Old Photos

Her dining room table is littered with photographs, some blurry, some out of focus and some obvious fakes. She holds up a snapshot of a dark figure passing under a bridge and pronounces it a hoax.

"This one was taken by a local motel owner," she said. "When I asked him to sign an affidavit, he admitted to drawing the figure on a piece of glass and holding it in front of his camera."

Gaal has written books on Ogopogo, but her most prized possession is a scratchy 8-millimeter film showing a large figure emerge from the lake and submerge three times.

The lake is a seven-hour drive east of Vancouver. Framed by mountains, the Okanagan Valley is one of the most scenic areas in western Canada. It is so ready-made for tourists that it's not surprising that people think Ogopogo is a Chamber of Commerce gimmick--a notion enhanced by the fact that many sightings have been made by chamber employees.

$1-Million Reward

Last year the chamber offered a $1-million reward to anyone who catches Ogopogo alive. Earlier it had offered $5,000 for valid pictures. The New York Times once offered $1,000 for a photograph.

No one has ever won.

Nevertheless, Ogopogo is a commercial success. Cartoon depictions of playful serpents are used to sell everything from pizza to fresh fruit. Roadside garbage cans are disguised as the creature.

Gaal doesn't think it's a coincidence that most sightings occur during tourist season.

"If the creature is reptilian, it will enjoy the warm weather and surface," she said. "We've only had three winter sightings, so it obviously enjoys the pleasures of a reptile."

No Serious Studies

No serious sonar or cartographic studies have ever been conducted on the lake. And, although there is little to uphold the existence of a monster, it is apparent that at least some witnesses have seen something.

Gaal believes that Ogopogo is related to the plesiosaur, an Ice Age dinosaur.

Skeptics believe it may be a freak wave or optical illusion created by waves, wind and floating logs. Another explanation is that it is a family of sturgeons, fish that grow to 18 feet in British Columbia waters.

But that doesn't sit well with people like Edmond.

"A sturgeon? You must be kidding. I know what a sturgeon looks like," he said. "The thing that I saw wasn't no sturgeon. It wasn't like anything I've ever seen before."

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