Oh No! Ogopogo! The biggest fish story of the year. By Daniel Wood
Is it Ogopogo? Is it an Otter? Or is it a misguided way to make a million?
This is a story about three minutes and 43 seconds of videotape. It could be one of the most valuable pieces of home video ever made. Or it could be a hoax. A lot depends on whether people choose to believe the man with the easy smile sitting next to me, the man holding the VCR control flipper, rewinding the machine, freezing frames on the video, narrating it, and discussing its market potential. He maintains that the thing on the TV monitor is the image of a creature most people don't believe exists. He claims to have captured on videotape this past summer the elusive Ogopogo, denizen of British Columbia's Okanagan Lake and Canada's premier Unidentified Swimming Object. Nine of his friends and relatives saw it too, some from as little as 25 meters away. The ones who saw it closest say it was flat-headed, greenish with chocolate-brown spots, five meters long, and moved with a snakelike grace. There is no such living animal known to science.
That is why, sitting comfortably with a beer, dressed in shorts and golf shirt, 43 years old Ken Chaplin looks like the cat that got the cream. A would be Vancouver agent has told him the tape might fetch, say, $1 million. Maybe $3 million. Chaplin's not counting his money. Not yet. But with the recent stories about his videotape in Time and the New York Times and offers from most major TV networks, he finds all the attention, well, tantalizing. He hopes the tape is the object of a media bidding-battle. He expects that. As a salesman for the last two decades, he knows he's on to his biggest deal.
Other, less charitable acquaintances say he's on to his biggest scam.
Three and a half months ago, Chaplin got a call from his mother. She told her son that she and her husband had seen something "really interesting", as she put it, on Okanagan Lake. She then passed the phone to her husband, Clem. As Ken Chaplin listened to his ailing, 77 years old father, he found himself reflecting, but not overly long, on the man whose voice had begun recounting a bizarre story. It was hard to believe. But his father was a descendant of pioneering settlers, a hard-working man, a sober man...
Clem Chaplin's family had arrived in Kelowna, a town on the shore of Okanagan Lake, over 80 years before. Clem drove Cats for a living and fished the 125 kilometers long lake for recreation. On one of these fishing trips, Clem told Ken, then 13, about his own father's meeting with Ogopogo. Ken's grandfather had seen what he'd first thought was a drifting log, but, as he approached it, the object suddenly dove. Clem confided to his son that he believed what many other residents of the valley believe: that Ogopogo is real.
The myth of Ogopogo is old. It goes back to Indian times. The natives claimed a creature called N'ha-a-itk lived in the lake, whipping up dangerous waves with its tail. They would offer it chickens in sacrifice and skirt a promontory now called Squally Point, 20 kilometers south of Kelowna, because that's where the lake monster lived. Over the generations, the legend gained credibility through retelling and hundreds of reported sightings. In 1924, locals christened the creature Ogopogo, a palindrome that sounded vaguely exotic. Orchardists, looking down from the sheer slopes along the lake, have regularly claimed to have spotted Ogopogo swimming on the surface. Boaters have recounted being mysteriously capsized by a bark, fast-moving, underwater form. Six times a year, on average, someone reports seeing the creature. Descriptions vary, but certain characteristics have been repeated through the decades: Ogopogo is greenish in color, snakelike, and ranges upward to 25 meters in length. Some say the head is horse like; others that it's reptilian. Many have photographed what they claim is Ogopogo, but the pictures, like those of its better-known counterpart, the Loch Ness Monster, have always been inconclusive.
Ken Chaplin grew up beside the lake. He knew the stories. Everyone in the Okanagan Valley did. But it wasn't until 1969 that, while boating with a friend, he, too, had a close encounter of the inconclusive kind. On the mirror-smooth lake that summer's day, his companion saw what she at first thought was a log. On closer approach, the log swam away. Friends on the shore shouted, "Ogopogo! Ogopogo!" All Chaplin saw was a series of inexplicable vortexes, churning across the calm surface.
So, as Chaplin listened on the phone exactly 20 years later to his father's strange story, both men knew they shared a belief in Ogopogo's existence. They didn't agree about much else. Ken had learned as a child, in fact, to hate his father, to fear his bullying manner, to flee his temper and his fists, to escape into fantasy. "I was always a real dreamer," he says, "always dreaming I could do something great."
He left home young, discovered the joys of selling, and studied books on success and sales endlessly. He read Think and Grow Rich. He read Grow Rich with Peace of Mind He overcame his youthful shyness by studying Norman Vincent Peale, always making a point of looking people in the eye and shaking hands firmly. He travelled central B.C. selling packaged toys for a while, listening as he drove to motivational tapes over and over and over again. If he learned one thing from his reading and listening, it is, he would say later, that to be a success as a salesman you must believe in your product. He sold mobile homes for a while, then wood burning stoves, then recreational vehicles, then boats. He was determined to prove himself to his father. He married twice and divorced twice. He had four children. He had money twice and lost all of it twice when his marriages went sour and his heart went out of his work. The last time, he declared bankruptcy. He had a mental breakdown, too. During treatment for that, he discovered the importance of trying to forgive his father. He was on his way up again, selling cars at Hilltop Toyota in nearby Salmon Arm, B.C., when his father's call came.
His father told him that in early July, while camping with his wife, Joyce, at Bear Creek Provincial Park, seven kilometers north of Kelowna, he'd gone down to the lakeshore one evening at 8:30 P.M. and had seen what he believed was a five metres-long pole floating in the water. Suddenly, however, object began to move. He'd called his wife, thinking that maybe he was hallucinating. Together, the two watched as the creature swam rapidly toward them across the lake's shallows and up into the 10 meters wide mouth of Bear Creek. When it was only a few meters away from them, it dove. They'd booth seen it clearly, unequivocally. Chaplin had no reason to doubt his father. He was not the kind of person to see things. He was not the kind of person to lie. Chaplin had learned from his father early that nothing mattered more than honesty. Chaplin's father asked him if he could get a video camera and drive the one-and-a-half-hour trip to Kelowna. Clem Chaplin had heard someplace that someone was offering $1 million for an incontestable picture of Ogopogo.
Catalyzed by Clem's conviction and the vague, but thrilling, possibility of wealth, Chaplin rented a Sony video camera and drove south. He chose not to tell his boss, Bill Harbottle, about his plans.
Highway 97 parallels Okanagan Lake for much of its length. Two-thousand-meter-high mountains, covered with ponderosa pine on their upper slopes and poplar along the lowest reaches, drop in the lapis lazuli-blue water, which reaches depths of 25 meters. During the summer months, houseboats, speedboats, and sailboats crisscross the lake. Cottages and campgrounds dot the shoreline. It is a tourist mecca.
A person could, if he were inclined, sleep in the Ogopogo Motel and get his car fixed at Ogopogo Automotive and buy a keychain or postcard or t-shirt imprinted with the creature's image at the Ogopogo Coin and Gift Shop. He could ride in the local taxis that carry Ogopogo pictures on their doors or stop at one of the four remaining signs erected by the Kelowna Chamber of Commerce (two were recently stolen) that read "Ogopogo Sighting Station". Kelowna's coat of arms features the monster and the city's waterfront park contains a comical, five-meter long, blue-eyed, giraffe-horned, green, concrete Ogopogo statute that kids are always climbing on.