New Brunswick

How a sea monster myth was born in west Saint John

For starters, you're going to need a quart of moonshine.

Stories about 'strange amphibian creature' in Reversing Falls have circulated since the 1950s

A rare image of the Ug Wug, based on a mural by artist Isabelle MacArthur on the wall of the Reversing Falls Trading Post in the 1950s. (Submitted by Harold Wright / 'Bridging Saint John Harbour')

Sea monsters are big business.

Loch Ness built a multimillion-dollar brand around theirs. Ditto Okanagan Lake, home of Ogopogo. Even little Robert's Arm, N.L., has  "Cressie," a monster allegedly lurking in Crescent Lake.

Lesser-known, however, is the mythical monster of west Saint John.

The Ug Wug is "a mysterious creature that lives in the caves beneath the surface at the Reversing Falls," said history buff and former Saint Johner Frances Helyar.

With its steep, rocky cliffs, large whirlpools, and frequent fog, Reversing Falls is the sort of place that inspires mysterious stories. (Julia Wright / CBC)

A handful of written sources variously claim that the creature is an old Inuit legend and that the story dates "all the way back to the Champlain era." 

Legend holds the creature is "about 30 metres long, half-salmon, half-seal — and you can see it in the spring when the moon is full and the tide is out," Helyar said.

Others have embellished the story with details about the monster's "big red eyes" and "massive appetite."

But where did the story come from? And more important — is there actually something weird lurking in the rapids?

Monsters aside, Reversing Falls is pretty active. 

Every day, water from the St. John River rushes through the narrow rock gorge and into the Bay of Fundy at 100,000 tonnes per second, only to be pushed back up the gorge at high tide.

A 1903 photo by naturalist William Francis Ganong of the whirlpools beneath Reversing Falls. While Ganong recorded the legend of the Lake Utopia monster, his writing is notably silent on the existence of Ug Wug. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick: Acccession #: 1987.17.1220.104)

The clashing currents have carved deep pools and hollows into the shale and marble cliffs. 

Perfect monster habitat, if you believe the stories. 

A number of strange tales are related in a typewritten essay by David D. Archibald circa the 1950s, tucked away in the vertical files of the Saint John Free Public Library.

The library card catalogue at the Saint John Free Public Library contains this entry for the mythical beast. (Julia Wright / CBC)

Archibald relates a Lovecraftian yarn about a diver who died of fright after exploring the falls. 

"When he was brought to the surface, his hair had turned chalk white from the experience of what he had seen in the murky depth!" 

What the man saw "will never be known, for he refused to tell what he had seen and died soon afterwards."

Another story describes how a man drowned in Lawlor Lake — "a body of water reported to be bottomless" along present-day Rothesay Road — "and his body was found weeks later on a ledge of the limestone gorge at the Falls."

Archibald theorized there are "underwater caverns which extend for many miles from one place to another."

'Strange amphibian creature'

The caves, he claims, are also home to a "strange amphibian creature" first recorded by hunters, who noticed it "following in the wake of the fish."

"Strange because of its resemblance to both a salmon and a seal; and amphibious because, becoming quite friendly with them, it would occasionally venture from its ocean lair and sit on the banks of the river basin."

An 1890 silver print of the head of Reversing Falls. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick. Accession # 1966.35A)

"Because of this affinity for both land and humans, the Eskimo christened the equinoxical visitor 'Ug Wug' meaning "the friendly animal."

Ug Wug, Archibald writes, "is still found in the lower basin below the whirlpools" — and will appear during certain times of the year if one employs the following "definite method."

"The time must be early in the spring during the shad run. The tide must be on the ebb (remember that time and tide wait for no man) and there are two other essential ingredients: an evening full of moonlight and a quart full of moonshine. After all necessities have been given proper attention, the Ug Wug will appear." 

Mural destroyed

Moonshine is this right word for this story. 

There's no evidence that Saint John was ever populated by the Inuit, for starters, or that "Ug Wug" means "friendly animal" in any language. 

"Samuel de Champlain collected a legend about the Gougou — a creature found in the warm water in the north of the province that could swallow a ship in one bite," said Saint John storyteller David Goss.

But there's no link between the Gougou and Reversing Falls.

In fact, there's no evidence to suggest the story existed prior to the 1950s, when John Morris Robinson, the operator of the Reversing Falls Trading Post, told the story to David D. Archibald.

J.M. Robinson, the Saint John tourism operator and thespian behind the Ug Wug myth. (Submitted by the Saint John Free Public Library)

Robinson, a former investment broker and president of the Saint John Theatre Guild, was a local authority on a "wealth of legends and stories connected with the lower part of the St. John River, and particularly the Falls themselves," Archibald writes.

An Ug Wug mural decorated the wall of the Reversing Falls Trading Post in 1951.

Robinson died in 1959 — and ultimately, the mural disappeared.

'After enough visitors complained, the Ug Wug was covered over and eventually destroyed,' according to local historian Harold Wright.

A much better-documented New Brunswick sea monster is the Lake Utopia monster, nicknamed Old Ned, sightings of which have been recorded dating back to the 19th century.

The Lake Utopia monster, pictured chasing two paddlers in an 1872 engraving by Saint John artist John Edward Russell, is much better documented than Ug Wug. (Submitted by Library and Archives Canada. Item # 3010)

Made-up monster

Even if Ug Wug was cooked up in the fifties to impress tourists — the cryptid has an enduring presence in Saint John.

"It's the kind of story that's passed on and passed on," said Helyar. "Who knows what it was in the beginning?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Helyar was known as the "the Ug Wug Lady" for her popular children's song about the creature, which she toured extensively in schools.

Once upon a time many years ago
Lived a creature, so they say
Hidden in the caves of Reversing Falls
 Who knows? He could still be there today 
Ug Wug, Ug Wug, lies in the sun or he goes for a swim 
Ug Wug Wug Wug, oh how I wish I could see him

"It was the most fun I've ever had, singing that song with all these kids," said Helyar, who produced a line of T-shirts featuring the monster. 

Ug Wug inspired a short-lived line of T-shirts. (Submitted by Fances Helyar)

"I think it was especially meaningful because we were in Saint John, singing about a story that originated in New Brunswick."

David Goss also keeps the legend going on his west side walking tours.

"A lot of people know about it," said Goss. "I meet kids that I told the story to 20 years ago and they'll remember."

The story is "the kind of thing that comes and goes," said Helyar. "It's just a weird creature."

A mining cavern at Reversing Falls, pictured in a 19th-century ink drawing. (New Brunswick Museum - Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick: Accession #: 1963.20)
 

"It's half-salmon, half-seal. What the heck would it look like? It gets your imagination going."

"Maybe it's time for Ug Wug to be revived," she said. 

Goss agreed.

"It's like the dragons of old I guess," he said.  "We all love these stories — that maybe something survives from past ages, hiding in a lake somewhere."

About the Author

Julia Wright

Information Morning Saint John host

Julia Wright is a born and raised Saint Johner, and the host of Information Morning Saint John on 91.3FM. She has been with the CBC since 2016.

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