Keep your camera handy: Stories of Manitoba lake monsters told for centuries but proof remains elusive

As the weather heats up for another Manitoba summer, don't forget the essential cottage country checklist: hat, sunscreen, bug repellent and binoculars for sighting lake monsters.

'Manitoba has a special place in the world of monsters,' says website Mysterious Universe

Bruce the mosasaur, seen in this 2009 file photo, was found just outside Morden, Man., in a farmer's field in 1974. Could a 'lake monster' still be living in Lake Manitoba? Reports of creatures in Manitoba lakes date back more than 100 years, says a Winnipeg science writer. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

As the weather heats up for another Manitoba summer, don't forget the essential cottage country checklist: hat, sunscreen, bug repellent, binoculars for sighting lake monsters.

Oh, and a camera. While there are plenty of stories, there's little proof of the beasts known as Manipogo and Winnipogo.

"For more than 100 years, many people in Manitoba have said that they have actually seen some sort of creature swimming and rearing up out of various lakes and waterways in Manitoba. It's sort of like our version of Loch Ness," said Chris Rutkowski, a Winnipeg science writer who "specializes in the strange and unusual" and is the author of Unnatural History: True Manitoba Mysteries.

"People have said these things really exist, but the trouble is that we don't have any really good scientific evidence. But we have this body of many witnesses reporting something, so what do you do in that instance other than try and listen, and try to make sense of what they've reported?"

Richard Vincent snapped this photo in 1962 of something he originally claimed to be a serpent in Lake Manitoba near Meadow Portage. The edge of the boat is in the foreground. (Richard Vincent)
What they have reported, fairly consistently, is a serpentine beast from four to 15 metres long with a brownish-black body and at least one hump that shows above the water.

Its head is sometimes compared to that of a horse, camel or sheep, while others have claimed it was flat and diamond-shaped.

Many have also purported to have heard a shriek or cry as it surfaces.

It was named Manipogo (a hybrid of Manitoba and Ogopogo, the famous Okanagan Lake, B.C., monster) in 1960, a year in which a number of sightings were reported.

The name was created by Tom Locke, a land inspector in charge of planning the provincial government's program for public playgrounds and recreational parks.

He also gave the name to a park created on the northwestern shore of Lake Manitoba, close to where many sightings had taken place — and not too far from his own sighting.

On Aug. 10, 1960, he and 16 others said they saw three creatures swimming near the area of Toutes Aides, a community 245 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, on the shore of Lake Manitoba.

Winnipogo is a similar hybrid name. though there is dispute over whether the first half is for Lake Winnipeg or Lake Winnipegosis — there have been sightings in both.

Chris Rutkowski is a Winnipeg science writer who 'specializes in the strange and unusual.' (CBC)

First Nations stories of Manipogo go back centuries, while the first documented sighting by a white settler came in 1909, when Hudson's Bay Company fur trader Valentine McKay claimed to see a huge creature in Cedar Lake.

Timber inspector C.F. Ross and a friend were next, saying they saw a single-horned creature that looked like a dinosaur in 1935.

And in 1948, C.P. Alric claimed to see something rise up from Lake Manitoba and let out a "prehistoric type of dinosaur cry," according to books and websites on cryptids — animals reported in folklore, for which absolute scientific evidence is lacking.

"Manitoba has a special place in the world of monsters," says the website Mysterious Universe, noting the term cryptid was actually coined by Manitoban John Wall to describe unexplained creatures, particularly sasquatch.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology, an organization dedicated to cryptozoology, calls Manitoba "a wonderland for cryptids," with its more than 110,000 lakes, 263,000 square kilometres of forest, and plenty of "hills and prairies, swamps and rivers, and flora and fauna of all sorts" in which the unknown could roam.

"When you look at the overall picture there are many, many unusual and fascinating aspects of Manitoba," said Rutkowski.

"So if you're out on the lakes or by the shore or at the beaches this summer, keep an eye out because you never know what that ripple in the water offshore might be," he said.

"You don't really have to go far to have a truly mysterious Manitoba vacation this summer."

Long history of reported sightings

As for the lake monsters, other reported sightings on Lake Manitoba, according to the Manipogo Wikipedia page, include:

  • 1957: Louis Belcher and Eddie Nipanik say they saw a giant serpent-like creature in the lake.
  • Aug. 12, 1962: Two fishermen, Richard Vincent and John Konefall, claim to have seen a large creature, like a serpent or giant snake from their boat on Lake Manitoba near the mouth of the Waterhen River.
  • 1960s: A couple say they saw a "reptile-like beast" surfacing about 10 metres from their boat.
  • 1989: Sean Smith and family, visiting from Minneapolis on a camping trip, stayed at Shallow Point Campground, off Highway 6 on Lake Manitoba. He described seeing "many humps" in the lake, about 25 metres offshore.
  • 1997: Several reports by cross-country campers from Quebec staying at the Lundar Beach Campground describe what appeared to be a large reptile head rising and falling in the water, more than 100 metres offshore. Swimmers were asked to leave the water, but the "head" only appeared one time. It was dismissed as a floating log, but no log was seen afterward.
  • 2004: Commercial fisherman Keith Haden, originally from Newfoundland and Labrador, reported that several of his fishing nets on Lake Manitoba near the narrows were torn up by what seemed like an ocean shark or killer whale. The fish that were in the nets were not nibbled on, but actually torn in half, he said, by what seemed like huge bites.
  • 2009: Several residents at Twin Lakes Beach reported seeing several humps a few hundred metres from their lakefront cottages. No photos were taken.
  • 2011: Many sightings of several humps emerging and then submerging, seen from offshore, were reported at locations like Marshy Point, Scotch Bay, and Laurentia Beach by security personal patrolling flooded cottage and home areas.
  • Aug. 9, 2012: A report claimed that just offshore of the outlet at Twin Beach Road, something surfaced twice, showing a scaled/sawtooth jagged back, like that of a giant sturgeon.

Cedar Lake snake

Sonya Ballantyne, a writer and filmmaker originally from Misipawistik Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, said her grandma used to tell her stories about the "huge water snake" in Cedar Lake.

Her grandma lived in nearby Chemawawin Cree Nation when it was located at the confluence of the Saskatchewan River and Cedar Lake, not far from Grand Rapids.

The entire Chemawawin community was forced to relocate in the early 1960s when their land was flooded out by the new Grand Rapids generating station. The reservoir created by the dam swallowed the old community, save for a small island still occupied by a lone church.

It's something people have been fascinated with for many, many years and the fact reports still come in suggests that the enchantment is still there. People have embraced it.- Chris Rutkowski

A new reserve was created near Easterville, on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake. Ballantyne said her grandmother never went back to visit what was left of the old community, afraid of the snake in the water that now surrounded it.

While the stories stuck with Ballantyne, they inspired rather than scared her.

"I wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid, so I was hoping to see a snake. I loved the idea of water creatures," she said.

She added that she never did see any creature "but my mum is convinced he is still out there."

"It's something people have been fascinated with for many, many years and the fact reports still come in suggests that the enchantment is still there. People have embraced it," said Rutkowski, adding sightings have also come from West Hawk Lake, Traverse Bay on Lake Winnipeg, Crane River and Waterhen Lake.

The reports are "really all over the place but it's unlikely from a zoological perspective, simply because of how many of these [beasts] would be needed to survive a population over the years," he said.

"Although, you know, between Lake Manitoba and Winnipeg, there are some very large limestone deposits and there's been a theory that perhaps there's an underground cavern or rivers that travel between the lakes, and that's where they stay in winter."

The search for Manipogo

There have been attempts to try and find Manipogo, Rutkowski noted. In the 1960s, professor and zoologist James McLeod was inspired by the stories and the discovery decades earlier of a vertebra next to one of the lakes.

He explored some caves and crevasses in the lakes but found nothing to support the monster claims. As for the bone, it was discounted as likely being from an ancient sea beast that once swam the inland sea covering the province after the last Ice Age.

The only photo to ever surface from a Manipogo witness was taken by Richard Vincent in August 1962, when he and John Konefall were on a fishing trip near Meadow Portage, a stretch of land between Lake Winnipegosis and Lake Manitoba.

They followed the creature to get a picture but it moved quickly and kept out of reach of their 10-horsepower boat. All Vincent could do was snap a blurry photo from several metres away.

Critics dismissed it as a log with limbs and also pointed to the fact there is no wake visible in the photo — which should exist if the creature was swimming faster than a boat.

Vincent and Konefall in subsequent years were reluctant to discuss the sighting, with Vincent no longer calling it a monster, but just "something" in the lake.

Photos of a moose cow and calf swimming can appear like a two-humped sea creature. (Frontiers of Zoology)
A 'lake monster' recognized as a swimming moose in Muskrat Lake, northwest of Ottawa. (Frontiers of Zoology)

"Some people have suggested, just like Loch Ness, that it's some kind of prehistoric monster, like a plesiosaur or something with a long neck that lives in the water," Rutkowski said.

"At this point we don't have any real scientific evidence that is what's going on, but it's fascinating to hear all the stories.

"But what we have to emphasize is that a lot of what people are seeing is playing with their imagination."

Rutkowski, who ​is head of the Ufology Research Centre in Winnipeg and has been researching the phenomenon for nearly 30 years, is well aware of things people think they see.

More recently, during the 2011 flooding around Lake Manitoba, he received phone calls and emails about something in the water.

"Very likely we're talking about logs and other things because the flooding really disrupted the timber along shore," he said.

A lake sturgeon breaches and does a tail walk, in a pose that makes it look like the neck and head of a sea serpent. (Maddie Grant)
Other explanations are that the so-called beast is actually a swimming moose with its head — long like a horse's — above the surface and its humped back showing as well.

Moose are known to grunt and bleat when swimming, which could explain the cries some people have heard.

Another possibility — it could be a sturgeon, which are common in Manitoba.

Louis Breteche, who saw what he described as a serpentine animal in 1957, claimed it lifted its head out of the water about three feet and then slapped it down on the water again. He said it did that a couple of times.

Some of those details could fit with the characteristics of sturgeon.

According to Manitoba Hydro, lake sturgeon never stop growing and are the largest freshwater fish in Manitoba. The average size is about 1.5 metres, though they can grow up to 2.5 metres and weigh over 140 kilograms.

Lake sturgeon never stop growing and are the largest freshwater fish in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Hydro, which says the average size is about 1.5 metres, though they can grow up to 2.5 metres and weigh over 140 kilograms. (Emanuel Kowalkowski/YouTube)

When swimming, their length can appear exaggerated because of the slow wake behind them.

The brown and black fish can live for more than 150 years and enjoy tail walking — standing above the water on their tails — according to Hydro.

They have also been observed swimming upside down on their backs, possibly to feed on insects on the surface of the water, given their mouths are under a long, flat head.

"One can just imagine that a sturgeon rolling on its belly might appear very strange indeed," Rutkowski said.

"But when you talk to people who say 'No, no this wasn't a fish, this was something with humps and it had a long neck that rose out of the water,' what do you do with those cases other than add it to the great body of mythology that surrounds this wonderful phenomenon?

"And adding a little mystery to our lives might be exactly what we need."

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt began his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009.

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