Nx̌aʔx̌ʔitkʷ, known as Ogopogo to those outside of British Columbia, is an important part of the communities around Lake Okanagan, from Vernon to Kelowna to Penticton.
Pronounced n-ha-ha-it-kew, the spirit of the lake is both a spiritual and physical reminder of how important water is to both the natural environment and people.
To people outside of British Columbia, Ogopogo is as ubiquitous as Nessie is to Scotland, and for those who move to the community, like Linda Digby, it’s a beacon of Lake Okanagan’s culture and development.
“Many, many years ago, before I moved here, I knew two things about the Okanagan. One is it produced delicious tree fruit and wine, and the other is it was the home of Ogopogo. For many Canadians, that’s how it is,” the Executive Director of Kelowna Museum said. “Since coming here, I’ve learned so much more.”
Digby said settlers started arriving in the Okanagan Valley in the 1860s. Many heard about the spirit or creature in the lake and a lot of people experienced a lot of things there that “flummoxed” them.
“I watch the lake a lot, and sometimes I see a ripple pattern and thing, ‘What the heck was that?’” she said. “I think people have a great imagination.”
Digby pointed to the 1920s when the town’s local business and marketing community took the opportunity to appropriate Nx̌aʔx̌ʔitkʷ.
“They coined the name Ogopogo quite deliberately. They just made that up based on some non-related folk song. They knew it would be sticky, in marketing, and by golly they killed it,” Digby said. “Unfortunately, there was some collateral damage in terms of obliterating the actual more meaningful and deep origins of where that came from.”
Don Levers’ children’s book, Ogopogo: The Misunderstood Lake Monster prompted a discussion about the ownership of the name of the water spirit. The author was going to renew the copyright.
In March 2021, the copyright for Ogopogo was repatriated to the Syilx First Nation. The City of Vernon had held the copyright since 1956 after broadcaster Gil Seabrooke applied for one in 1952 and granted it to the city.
Kelowna’s Museum has installations tipping the hat to both the cultural relevance and history of Nx̌aʔx̌ʔitkʷ. The LGBTQ+ community has embraced the image of the sea serpent, with its pink mascot Homopogo, as well as the local Western Hockey League team, the Kelowna Rockets, which has used Ogopogo as part of their logo since 2000.
“There are so many local ways over the years in which locals have, with the best of intentions, made this really compelling story and iconic figure their own,” Digby said. “It just captures our fascination.”
Kelowna’s most iconic statue on the Waterfront Promenade off Bernard Avenue is also a cartoonish reminder of the lake’s denizen. Some people, including those of the Westbank First Nation, appreciate the image. However, some from the Sylix First Nation community don’t see any humour in the image represented in the public park.
The importance of water
Coralee Miller is the Museum Assistant and Informational Guide at the Sncewips Heritage Museum in West Kelowna.
Every year there is a water ceremony performed by the Syilx Okanagan First Nations. They place tobacco in the water and pray that the water provides for them: keeping the droughts away, that they have medicine and that water continues to hear their prayers and connect them, as well as the land.
“This is where it gets a little confusing for a lot of people, and the misunderstanding comes from,” Miller admitted. “The first settlers came through the valley in 1810, and during this time lots of people came through and they had seen our water spirit and got spooked.”
They also observed Syilx and Westbank First Nations place meat in the water, and Miller assured it is symbolic.
“It’s a water spirit. A water spirit likes tobacco. It likes sage. It likes to be sung to,” the 30-year-old said, during an April phone conversation.
It has two forms, Miller shared: the spiritual form where it has the head of a horse and two antlers like a deer, and then its physical form — the water itself.
“Of course, when the missionaries came over too, they see this and they have this habit of demonizing our spiritual beliefs. So, this benevolent water spirit became this virgin-devouring sea demon,” Miller said, adding that the handing over the copyright for Ogopogo to the First Nations was refreshing for Miller.
“I was pleasantly surprised because it looks like some progress is being made,” she said. “People are beginning to understand that cultural appropriation is damaging.”
That appropriation takes the focus away from the water and places it on the physical — the alleged dinosaur that inhabits the lake.
“People are so focused on the physical, the animal, that they forget what is important to us and that is the water,” Miller said. “We are so disrespectful to our water. We are channelling it. We are disrupting the environment. We are hurting a lot of animals that need water. We’re disrupting beaver dams. We are boating. We are dumping sewage into our lake. I see beer cans and baby diapers and all kinds of garbage.”
A lot of the blessings and curses that come with the land stem from the mistreatment of water.
Unfortunately, when many people learn about the water spirit, it comes down to climate issues, Miller said.
“People forget how deep the importance of water goes. As humans, we are made up of water. Women carry that sacred water in our wombs when we are pregnant. Water connects us through the different waterways. We’re able to float down and meet other people because trade and match-making was a huge part of how we did business,” she shared. “It can be so devastating and so wonderful. It reminds us whatever we do upstream, we’re going to affect what’s happening downstream.”
A brush with the water spirit
For some visitors to British Columbia’s interior, a brush with the infamous denizen either leaves them startled or fishing for answers.
The first detailed account of Ogopogo by settlers was in 1872 by Canadian author and pioneer Susan Allison.
Global News shared Jim La Rocque’s 2019 video during a news segment, and they spoke with resident legend hunter Bill Steciuk, as well as UBC Okanagan environmental scientist Dr. Robert Young, to help explain what La Rocque witnessed.
For David Halbauer, who originally shared his 2018 experience in West Kelowna with Global News, it was one of pure bafflement.
He had been at Bear Creek Campground with his brother Keith and his wife, who were visiting from Edmonton. David Halbauer made the trip to see them along the waterline. They were having a conversation close to a houseboat that’s permanently anchored in the lake.
Then something surfaced in front of the houseboat.
“At first, I was sort of stunned,” he said, during a September 2020 phone conversation. “What could I possibly be looking at here? It took me a second to get my brother’s attention.”
It was large, grey and cylindrical, Halbauer recalled.
“As it rolled, it seemed as though it was rotating as it moved. That might have been the water rolling off its back. As it rolled, another section of it emerged behind it,” he added, explaining it appeared like a hump. His estimated length of the creature was 40 feet.
“I can’t say how long it really was because I have no idea how much of it was submerged,” Halbauer admitted. “I’m just basing that on the size that I saw above the water.”
He managed to capture what he saw on his mobile phone in a video. Unfortunately, the sun was in his eyes during the filming.
“You’re sitting on the beach one day, and you don’t expect a dinosaur to come out of the water,” he said. “How do you react to that? You’re in shock.”
The entire experience lasted for about two minutes. The creature was moving parallel to the shore and into the lake. Finally, it submerged itself under logs that were tethered just offshore.
“I knew about Ogopogo. I had heard reports about it, but I didn’t really have an opinion on it. I thought it might be, it might not be, I’ve never seen it,” Halbauer said. “That was the view I held before that day.”
His brother Keith and his wife had their perspectives changed as well after their experience.
For those who see the physical form of Nx̌aʔx̌ʔitkʷ, they are most definitely left stunned, but also in touch with an entity that has more meaning than just the inexplicable.