Travel to a popular lake in British Columbia and chances are you’ll find a beach, a few boats, and a story about some kind of unidentified creature lurking below the surface.
“When we talk about water, there’s a mystery inherent to it. I think it’s because we don’t understand the full potential and power of water itself,” says Westbank First Nation Coun. Jordan Coble.
He is one of his community members tasked with telling the story of the n̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ, also known as Ogopogo, the snake-like creature that is perhaps BC’s best-known lake monster.
“It intrigues people. It inspires people to be more aware,” Coble said.
In addition to the n̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ in Okanagan Lake, there is the story of the Shuswaggi in Shuswap Lake. At Sproat Lake, a sign says some of the historical petroglyphs carved into the rock faces could represent mythical sea serpents.
Around Harrison Lake, meanwhile, a cottage industry has long centered around the legendary Sasquatch.
CLOCK | A look at the geological and indigenous history of Sproat Lake:
So, what do the lakes of this province have, more than rivers, oceans, mountains or forests, that inspire such stories?
“We have always had a fertile imagination”
John Kirk, president of the British Columbia Club for Scientific Cryptozoology, has a theory.
“As humans throughout the centuries, we have always had fertile imaginations when it comes to places that are inaccessible, like the deepest parts of a lake,” he said.
Kirk has been studying lake cryptids—creatures that have been sighted but never proven to exist by science—since 1987. He says the abundance of BC’s deep lakes surrounded by forests provide an environment where all sorts of creatures can thrive. thrive, but where people can only catch a glimpse of what it really is.
“You might think it’s a sturgeon, or a large brown or rainbow trout, maybe a bunch of them swimming in a line, maybe a group of otters swimming in a line. You go to logic [explanations] first,” he said.
“When you’ve eliminated them all, what are you left with? You are left with the mystery. And that mystery is what has kept us going.”
While passionate about the subject, Kirk cautions people not to think there are a ton of undiscovered creatures out there. There have been sightings of the unidentified creatures in 42 different BC lakes, he said, but further investigation into such claims has shown nothing conclusive.
“Evidence collection is extremely difficult because they are the most slippery creatures that have ever lived,” he said.
“This won’t stop until we really figure out what’s out there, and I’ll probably be doing this for the rest of my life.”
‘It is a law that we have to respect’
Whether the lore of the lake becomes part of the paranormal or simply used for tourism purposes, Coble wants people to remember that the story of the n̓x̌ax̌aitkʷ centers on the creature revealing itself to be a spirit, meant to remind people the need to protect the lake.
“It is more than a being or an entity… it is a law that we must respect, and it simply refers to being aware of our responsibilities to protect water for all walks of life, human and animal alike,” he said.
“We have to… live in reciprocity, to make sure we do everything we can to protect the good things that are in the water and defend ourselves against the things that are not.”
The question of agency and ownership over the lake stories entered the public conversation two years ago when the City of Vernon transferred the copyright to the name “Ogopogo” to the Sylix Nation.
Coble believes it is an opportunity for indigenous peoples to reclaim how these stories are told in ways that center the values of their communities.
At the same time, he knows that as long as there are lakes, there will always be sightings that cannot be fully explained, and people’s imaginations will always run wild.
“There’s a bit of sensationalism, sure, within the modern media… but at the same time, we’ve had stories about large creatures in and out of water for hundreds of years,” he said.
“Everyone has a right to tell stories, and we have to be creative and critical in how we understand them…but at the same time, sometimes it’s nice to hear a good old tale and be in a moment.”