As we ate the haggis and sipped a wee bit of whisky to celebrate Robbie Burns day last week, conversation drifted to Scots, Loch Ness, the Loch Ness monster (Nessie), and then our own giant sea serpents.
Popular local legends dictate that such creatures aren’t just from far-away lands, but from our own Cowichan Lake, as well.
What is the story on the sightings of a giant serpent-like creature in the Cowichan watershed? I visited our Kaatza Station Museum to investigate, and then I asked a few local people what they thought. The following is what I learned.
First off, there is the First Nations legend of the lake monster known as Stin’qua. One story has the serpent-like Stin’qua consume a canoe and three young Indian women as they were returning across the South arm from Bald Mountain.
Newspaper reports of a giant serpent at the lake apparently date back to 1885, when the Victoria Daily Colonist reported a sighting of a giant creature with a 20-foot neck.
A Duncan newspaper article in 1930 summarized a number of sightings, from 1928 to 1930.
In September, 1928, two men from Duncan went hunting at Bear Lake and saw what looked like a flock of ducks in the mist. Then they saw fish jumping, so they began to fish. Their fishing was interrupted when they claimed to see an eight-foot-long tapering neck with a serpent-like head poking out of the water where Bear Lake meets Cowichan Lake.
After that, the proprietor of the Riverside Inn at Lake Cowichan reported a number of giant serpent sightings, while he and others were travelling up the lake. He also noted that another man named Rundquist had reported seeing a giant serpent. Rundquist, in turn, knew another man who had seen a giant serpent at the lake but had been afraid to report it in case people were “tempted to believe poor liquor was responsible.”
In June, 1930, another two men reported seeing a whitish coloured giant serpent at the head of the Lake. The serpent’s estimated length was 30 to 35 feet.
Reports of serpent sightings seemed to go quiet until 1960, when a fisherman from Honeymoon Bay reported snagging a giant creature. Something had definitely happened to the fisherman, because in his struggle with the creature, his fishing line had cut deeply into his hands. The Duncan Dive club came up to the lake to investigate, but found nothing. There have been occasional news paper stories since then, but not much in the way of recent documented sightings.
Mayor Ross Forrest says the Cowichan Lake is monstrously awesome, but he doesn’t buy into the idea of a lake monster.
Ted Burns, a biologist who certainly knows a lot about the lake, suggested that there may be a remnant population of white sturgeon. White sturgeons have been recorded up to 6.1 meters in length. They are known to occur in the Cowichan and nearby watersheds.
They have a pre-historic appearance with ridges of bony-like plates along their backs and they are somewhat eerie looking. Ted has seen whitish-looking shapes belonging to sturgeon basking in Harrison Lake. Add an ingredient called imagination (assisted or not) and maybe you’ve got a monster.
Tom Rutherford, another well known local fisheries biologist agreed with Ted’s theory, and also suggested that groups of river otters playing together can form unusual looking silhouettes. Tom wouldn’t completely rule out the notion of a giant being, because, as he said, “The Cowichan Watershed is a magical place.”
As for a couple of other knowledgeable people, Hazel Beech and Howard Smith fall into the see it to believe it camp, although both had some sympathy for the sturgeon theory.
One fellow that I spoke with outside city hall said he didn’t believe in giant serpents but felt that if there was one it might be good for tourism.
Perhaps the haggis, the whisky and giant-being sightings are closely linked. One thing that it’s easy to agree with is that the Cowichan watershed is a magical place.