According to Tourism Saskatchewan, 100,000 lakes and rivers cover almost 60,000 sq. km of the province.
Manitoba also has about 100,000 lakes that cover 16 per cent of the province.
With that much water, it shouldn’t be surprising that people claim to have spotted lake monsters on the Prairies.
Most of us have heard of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster. British Columbia’s Ogopogo was featured on a Canadian postage stamp in 1990.
But for all the years I’ve lived in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, I never heard of our local lake monsters until a few months ago.
Saskatchewan has the Turtle Lake Monster (TLM), and Manitoba has Manipogo and Winnipogo.
I only learned this after I received an email from Rob Grosse up in Saskatoon, who wrote The Flatlander in December, recalling how as a child in 1985, he and his brother spotted the TLM.
Turtle Lake is about 100 km north of North Battleford. (It’s close to the Saskatchewan communities of Livelong and Turtleford, home to Ernie, the turtle, an eight-foot-tall roadside statue).
We approached what appeared to be a dark oil-soaked telephone pole when we realized it wasn’t anything of the sort; instead, it was a large fishlike creature, perhaps seven to 10 feet long.
You can read his full account here.
Rob’s email sent me scrolling through Saskatchewan newspaper archives to read about documented sightings.
Some people who have seen the TLM say it’s about three to nine metres long. Some say it’s smooth-skinned. Others say it’s scaly. Witnesses also say it has a horse-like or dog-like head.
Skeptics think it could be a moose out for a swim. A cow moose in the distance could look like a monster, with a hump on its back and no telltale horns like a bull.
Others speculate it could be a sturgeon, a big and ugly fish.
Local, independent, in-depth.
Our Prairie stories.
A massive fish
Last summer, some fishermen hauled in one of the largest sturgeons ever caught in Canada. It was about 700 pounds, three metres long, and 1.5 metres wide.
It fought like a monster. It took two hours to reel it in. The men took photos of it before releasing the fish, estimated to be about 110 years old.
Turtle Lake isn’t known to have sturgeon, but some believe it’s possible that the fish swam up Turtle River from Battle River and became trapped in Turtle Lake when the water level dropped, or beavers blocked the route with a dam. (A person caught a lost river sturgeon in Candle Lake once).
An aquatic reptile?
Others speculate the monster could be a plesiosaur, a long-necked aquatic reptile that lived in Saskatchewan millions of years ago.
In 1992, paleontologists found an almost complete skeleton of an Elasmosaurus, a kind of Plesiosaur alive during the Cretaceous Period 70 million years ago, near Ponteix, Saskatchewan. The fossil, named Mo, was believed to be about 15 meters long. But no scientific evidence exists to suggest Elasmosaurus are alive today.
What Saskatchewan fisheries thinks
A reporter interviewed employees of Saskatchewan Fisheries at the Saskatoon StarPhoenix In a Jan. 8, 1991 article titled “What’s in the lake? Monsters or sun-worshiping sturgeons?” They thought a sturgeon to be the most likely culprit behind the sightings, even though they are generally bottom feeders.
The fisheries staff said they did depth soundings of Turtle Lake and never saw anything that suggested a monster lived there.
When it comes to the Manipogo and the Winnipogo it’s a similar story.
Manipopo lives in Lake Manitoba, of course. And Winnipogo either lives in Lake Winnipeg and/or Lake Winnipegosis. There have been sightings at both lakes.
These beasts are serpentine, and people who claim to have seen them estimate they are four to 15 metres long with at least one hump.
Some say it has a head like a horse, while others say its head is more like a camel or sheep. Some claim that it cries as it surfaces.
Returning to the swimming moose theory, moose tend to grunt while making their way across the water.
Skeptics in Manitoba claim the Manipogo and Winnipogo are likely moose.
Again, others think it could be a lake sturgeon.
Saskatchewan only has river sturgeon. Manitoba has lake sturgeon, which can grow up to 2.5 metres long and weigh over 300 pounds.
According to Manitoba Hydro, lake sturgeon like to tail walk on warm days, standing on their tails above water while moving backwards like dolphins. They also jump and twirl in the air. Lake sturgeon will swim on their backs, as well, while eating insects.
The pre-historic aquatic reptile theory exists in Manitoba too. Some people believe the lake monster could be a mosasaur, sometimes called the T. Rex of the sea.
Paleontologists dug up a few of these in Manitoba, including Bruce, the 13-metre-long mosasaur fossil found in 1974 near Thornhill, Manitoba, and a few more mosasaurs were located in Morden in recent years.
The importance of folklore
Lake monsters are part of Prairie folklore. Stories passed down throughout the generations.
First Nations stories of Manipogo go back centuries.
The first recorded sighting of a lake monster by a white settler was in 1909. A Hudson’s Bay fur trader Valentine McKay said he saw a giant monster in Cedar Lake in Manitoba. Chemawawin Cree Nation members also talk about a snake monster in Cedar Lake.
For Europeans who settled on the Prairies, lake monsters stem from an older legend of water kelpies, spirits that lived in the Scottish lochs. (I just learned loch is a Scottish Gaelic word for lake).
Kelpies are black horse-like creatures that could take human form, and stories about them date back to the 6th century.
In First Nation culture, lake monsters are also believed to be spirits.
The initial purpose of these stories, regardless of continental origin, is to teach children to respect the water as dangerous.
In a StarPhoenix article dated back Nov. 9, 1981, called “Man researches lake monster,” an 84-year-old First Nation woman interviewed for the article recalled how growing up in the early 1900s, adults told her to keep quiet, or the beast living in the rapids near Stanley Mission, Sask. would get her.
Later when she moved to Turtle Lake, people told her to stay away from the Eastern shore, near the deepest points of the lake where the monster lived.
Our place in Canadian folklore
If Ogopogo got its own postage stamp, the Manipogo and the TLM should get one, too, someday as a celebration of Prairie folklore. Bruce, the mosasaur, is on a stamp. Although, I think anyone in Eastern Canada would have a tough time believing Saskatchewan needs a provincial fisheries department, let alone has a lake monster.
For Rob’s part, he’s trying to keep stories of the TLM alive through a Facebook page dedicated to the beast that shares some of the newspaper articles referenced here.
Five stories from Manitoba you may have missed
- Manitoba’s Arctic coast is home to seals, polar bears and 60,000 belugas. Here’s Canada’s chance to protect it
- Manitoba makes progress toward monument honouring historic First Nations leader
- Manitoban sues rural internet provider over unreliable service, ‘deceptive’ advertising
- Peguis First Nation’s William Prince to take centre stage at storied Grand Ole Opry
- Winnipeg native Andrew Harris inks 1-year contract extension with Toronto Argonauts
Five stories from Saskatchewan you may have missed
- SaskTel says vandalism could leave customers unable to call for help
- Northern Sask. schools get creative with distance learning after years of teacher shortages
- As a Black woman, it’s not easy making it in Saskatchewan’s agricultural industry
- Sask. residents use Moe bucks to pledge $75K to local charities
- City of Regina fined $100K following safety violation with provincial court ruling
Our Prairie stories matter too.
The Flatlander takes a closer look at the stories that unite us, and make us unique, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Will you help us tell our stories?