Warner Toop of Williams Lake caught a nine-foot half-inch sturgeon in the Fraser River near the mount of the Chilcotin River on an early Saturday morning as documented in the Aug. 2, 1967 edition of the Tribune. The fish weighed 247 pounds (Williams Lake Tribune photo)

HAPHAZARD HISTORY: Mysterious lake monsters from days gone by

Let’s go back about 90 years and see what the newspaper of the day had to say about the matter

By Barry Sale

For many years there have been rumours of huge fish cruising about in Williams Lake. Some of our early residents thought that our lake was home to a monster like Kelowna’s Ogopogo or Victoria’s Cadborosaurus, but most believed that Williams Lake contained its own natural population of sturgeons. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, there was quite a stir as eyewitnesses had some close encounters and people weighed in on the subject.

Let’s go back about 90 years and see what the newspaper of the day had to say about the matter. Note the more formal style of writing than we find in today’s stories.

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Quesnel’s Cariboo Observer reported on September 15, 1928 on “the reappearance of the mammoth fish in Williams Lake recently, when it was seen by Mrs. Rife (the druggist’s wife), Mrs. McKinnon (the United Church minister’s wife), Miss Marion Rife, and the McKinnon girls for a half an hour near the lakeshore.” That article goes on to say that this sighting “has caused much comment in the surrounding district, and many people are motoring, horseback riding, and even walking along the lakeside highway in hopes of seeing a glimpse of the big fellow.”

The Observer then makes an interesting suggestion, with some tongue in cheek humour, “to form an organization to be known as the Mystery Mammoth Fish Club, to be made up of two classes of members, namely post graduates and under graduates —those who have seen it and those who have not, but are still diligently seeking to attain. As there is much yet to learn about the visitor, even for those who have viewed it for some time, it is desirous that they should pursue their study of the mystery and science surrounding this natural phenomena.”

On May 28, 1931, under the headline “Ogopogo Overturns Laketown Schooner,” the Tribune reported “Mr. J.D. Smedley well known yachtsman of Williams Lake, had a terrifying experience while cruising off Sugar Cane Indian Reserve on Sunday morning last.” Smedley, who had been Williams Lake’s first Chairman of the Town Council, and who was the architect who designed St. Peter’s Anglican Church, recounted the following story to the newspaper:

“While heeling over merrily in a moderate wind, he was suddenly surprised to see the head of Ogopogo appear on the port bow. With a terrific rush, the huge animal charged the seventeen foot schooner in which he was sailing.

In less time than it takes to tell, the monster’s head met the port gunwale just off of the main mast, completely capsizing the frail craft, which turned turtle. In order to save himself, Mr. Smedley, scrambled onto the upturned bottom, and as he was doing so, narrowly escaped complete annihilation from a flip of the monster’s tail, which grazed his forelock.

Not content with the havoc it had wrought, the leviathan caught sight of the blue painted thermos flask which had been dumped off the boat, and was floating a few yards off. Spouting water, the amazing creature charged for the blue thermos bottle and swallowed it at one gulp, then dived and disappeared.

Fortunately, the upheaval of water caused by its sudden plunge righted the boat and Mr. Smedley after much exertion was able to climb abroad, bail out the boat, and sail back to harbour where he arrived some hours later, completely unstrung by his shattering experience.”

Obviously not all readers believed Mr. Smedley’s take. One person wrote a satirically funny letter to the editor which was published on September 24, 1931 in which he claimed to have seen the monster leave the lake and head out in the direction of Lac La Hache, travelling at a speed of at least 50 miles per hour. He writes “It was shaped somewhat like a Burmese Choke-hound except for a serrated comb along its ribs, reminiscent of the Baluchistan snail bird.” He then speculates that “some cataclysmic occurrence” must have addled the creature’s brain, “perhaps it heard that the P.G.E. train was coming in on time next Friday,” and that it was deserting Williams Lake once and for all. He suggests “an emergency meeting of all public, semi-public, and demi-semi public bodies to form a committee-an Ogopogo Enticement Committee,” to get it to return. He even suggests that an appropriate slogan for this committee would be “Bring Back My Ogo to Me.”

On July 25, 1935, under the headline “Sturgeon Sighting May End Mystery,” the Tribune ran a story describing some more close encounters. One involved two men in a rowboat who saw a large, black object approaching. When it was within a couple of yards of them, it dove, creating a swirl of water that almost swamped the boat.

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The main point of this article, however, was that within the past week, “two of our residents standing upon a high promontory overlooking the lake were amazed to see about seventy five huge sturgeon basking in the sun just below the surface, their size being such that it makes it difficult to estimate their weight.”

The article goes on to speculate that there may be a subterranean connection with the Fraser River, where sturgeon are known to exist. It suggests that “the lake, it is known, is very deep sounding in one place having released 400 feet of rope without touching bottom.”

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When I arrived in Williams Lake just over 50 years ago, it was well accepted that sturgeon were present in the lake. No one, to my knowledge, ever caught one there, but many people claimed to have seen them. There were even some aerial photographs showing what appear to be sturgeon in the water. Their presence was just one of those assertions that everyone accepted and nobody questioned.

I think the evidence is strong enough to say that there were sturgeon in the lake in the past. I have not heard of any sightings in recent years. I wonder if they are still there and if so, how they got there. It would be interesting to find out.

I stumbled upon the idea for this article from some postings on the Williams Lake and Cariboo Chilcotin History website.

You can find some good local history pictures and commentary there.

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