My Own ‘Hero’s Adventure’
“In the old Irish poets and writers we find a man reckoned wealthy not by what he has but by what he gives.”
So now I strike out on a new Hero’s Journey, a new adventure. I’ve been hired by Partners in Motion, through my friend Dawn Bird’s company B.Ezee Productions, based in Regina, as a researcher/writer for an episode of a program titled Nordic Lodge, after the actual lodge of the same name. It chronicles the story of Jennifer Huculak-Kimmel and Darren Kimmel, a couple who were stung with a $1 million medical bill when their premature baby had to be hospitalized for two months while on vacation in Hawaii. The first episodes of the reality show series were in the can by this spring and now more episodes are in production.
For the episode I’ll be working on, I’ve been asked to interview locals about the presence of a mythical lake monster or serpent—the Deep Bay Monster—along the lines of the Okanagan’s Ogopogo or Lake Champlain’s ‘Champy’. In Cree mythology there’s a horned lake serpent known as Mishi-Ginebig. There’s also the legend of a lake serpent that inhabits Turtle Lake, known as the Turtle Lake Terror, some 200 kilometres west of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. Actually, a quick Google search will find you a similar creature in almost every major body of water in North America, including one in most of the Great Lakes. Anishinabe poet David Groulx has written about the creature known in his traditional culture as Mishi-Pishu, the creature who is said to live close to where the Serpent River empties into Lake Huron. “His name, Mishi-pishu translates closely to ‘underwater lynx,’” writes Groulx. “I’ve been told that one of his abodes is beneath the Serpent River. The people of my mother would offer tobacco, asemma to Mishi-pishu any time they traveled on the water and some still do. They would fish on the North Channel of Lake Huron in the summers and take to the woods to hunt in the winters, always mindful of Mishi-pishu.”
Unktehila, or as it’s more commonly known, Unktehi (pronounced ‘oonk-tay-hee’), is a giant serpent creature said to inhabit freshwater lakes and rivers in North America, notably by the Sioux. It was said that if a warrior could slay the Unktehi and cut out the crystal embedded in its forehead, that warrior would be given the power of divination—the power to see the future. Few warriors would survive such an attempt, however. There’s a wonderful CGI enactment of this serpent in the film Dreamkeeper, which I highly recommend.
Now, I’m no zoologist or even cryptozoologist, but like most writers I have an oversized curiosity about nearly everything and a brain that sucks up facts like fast food. And I know how to do research. But most importantly, I believe it’s important to come in the spirit of potlatch, not to see what I can take but what I can give. In the mythic history of my own clan, the Celts, under the ancient Brehon Laws a man was esteemed by his generosity, not his wealth, as the Seamus McManus quote above mentions. To me, no such story could be filmed without the blessing and inclusion of the local Rocky Cree nation. So I’m looking forward to meeting and interviewing local Cree elders who may know the stories of such a creature in the waters of Reindeer Lake.
As an added bonus, Nordic Lodge producer Chris Triffo is hiring an ROV (remotely operated robotic vehicle) to scan the bottom of Reindeer Lake for a meteor crater that was formed some 30 million years ago. “If we get anything it will probably be the first time anyone has ever seen it,” Triffo told me over the phone.
I’m not trying to prove or disprove anything. I’m from the Kootenays, where we believe in a lot of weird and wonderful things, like better coffee and chocolate, peace and love, yoga, music festivals, artwalks, gardening, and solar panels. I figure, if it makes people happy and they’re not hurting anyone, let them believe what they want. What interests me most is not whether they’re true or not but what they mean to us. Why do these stories persist? Why do we so need them? As explored in Part 1 and 2 of this essay, the answer lies at least partly in our hard-wired need for these universal stories we call myths. Whether they’re true or not is thus beside the point.
- Serpent Symbols Around the World: Here Be Dragons
Through ether, long leagues we galloped away.
An angry red river, we shied in dismay,
For here were men sacrificed (cruel deed)
To reptiles and monsters, war, graft and greed.
From a purely psychological point of view, water is the symbol of the subconscious. So lake monsters and giant serpents in that sense are powerfully charged symbols of our repressed fears, not the least of which is our fear of the unknown. Hence the term terra incognita, a Latin term meaning ‘unknown land.’ The ancient mapmakers used to put that name on the parts of the map that were still unexplored, along with the notation: “Here be dragons.” Such ‘dragons’ or ‘monsters’ often have more to say about humanity’s own evil than the shadowy creatures we fear. David Groulx’s essay on Mishi-Pishu makes this clear in discussing how Lake Huron has been polluted by human industry. Zitkala-Sa’s poem, The Indian’s Awakening, was written while World War I raged, killing millions of young men. For her, the “reptiles and monsters” were clearly human.
There are even indications that stories of serpentine monsters and thunderbirds are simply ancient memories of indigenous peoples finding dinosaur bones and using them to explain elements of their creation stories. One online source considers the possibility that tales of great battles between giant serpents like Unktehi and Thunderbird are symbolic explanations of the power of lightning and floods—two of the most potentially destructive forces on Earth. “Unktehi was a great water monster, a snake with scales and legs, who filled the Missouri River from end to end. She could place her body and puff it up in such a way that it made the Missouri overflow. Thus she created a great flood that spread over the whole country, killing most of the people. There were also smaller water monsters that did the same thing.” The ridges found in the South Dakota Badlands are thus said to be where the Unktehi’s dead bodies came to rest after their great battles. The same site speculates whether these myths are actually representative of natural forces as the last Ice Age retreated, unleashing a flooding glacial outburst known as a jökulhlaup.
In fact, serpent myths have a lineage as old as the human race. Snakes appear in various symbolic contexts as far back as ancient Egypt and India. Among them is the ourobouros, a serpent eating its own tail, seen by the ancients as the ideal symbol of eternity, eternal rebirth or eternal recurrence. The first known appearance of the ouroboros motif occurs in the 14th century BC in the Enigmatic Book of the Netherworld, an ancient Egyptian funerary text discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun. Greek philosopher Plato described the ouroboros as the first living thing; a self-eating, circular being—the universe as an immortal, mythologically constructed entity. The Greek physician Asklepios used snakes in his healing temples. Clearly, to the ancients, serpents were not feared or loathed as they are today by many people. “Asklepios’ reptile was a healing creature: in ancient mythology the snake, whose skin was shed and rejuvenated, symbolized eternity and restoration of life and health.” To this day, the Rod of Asklepios—a single serpent coiled around a staff (not the caduceus, the Hermetic winged serpent staff) is the symbol of the medical profession.
Other world cultures too have adopted serpent symbolism. “Scandinavian folklore talks about the Lindorm, a word possibly created by combining two words for snake, and meaning ‘ensnaring snake.’” British mythology is rife with dragon-like serpent creatures, known most famously through the St. George and the Dragon myth. While visiting Dorset County, England in 2009, I discovered an amazing little booklet titled Here Be Dragons by Michael A. Hodges. He notes the “considerable difference between the dragons of western cultures and those of the east, not only in their anatomy but also in their behavior, their symbolism, and their effect on a particular culture.” For example, explains Hodges: “The Chinese dragon lives in the sky, has horns and represents fertility and wisdom. The Chinese ‘year of the dragon’ (which occurs every 12 years) is said to be a very prosperous year for the people of China…” By comparison, most dragon myths in western culture portray a fierce, fire-breathing creature guarding a hoard of treasure or a maiden in distress. “In Britain anyone who killed a dragon… was awarded a knighthood as a result.” Unlike Chinese dragons they tend to live in caves, wells, lakes and other symbolic “roots of the World Tree.” Tolkien certainly drew on this mythic lore for his terrifying Smaug in The Hobbit. Hodges’ amazing book has a complete taxonomy of dragons in all their mythic guises. In many respects the negative connotations our culture attaches to serpents is a corruption of older pagan mythology after being displaced by Christian iconography. The story of the serpent in the Garden of Eden has given the poor creature a bad rap ever since. Though, to be fair, some North American native traditions don’t portray snakes in a particularly favourable light either.
- Scanning for the Deep Bay Monster
So here we are folks, about to arrive again in terra incognita, at Deep Bay, where we’ll scan the lake bottom for evidence of the creature. Deep Bay is a geographical anomaly in this part of Saskatchewan. Most of these lakes are fairly shallow, and Reindeer Lake itself, although massive at over 2,500 square miles in total area, averages only about 50 feet in depth. The main lake is 250 kilometres long, the result of glaciation as recent as 8,000 years ago, and full of islands. Deep Bay, near its southern end, is, by contrast, circular, deep (averaging 200 metres or 820 feet), and devoid of islands. Geological research has proven that Deep Bay is the result of a meteor impact some 100–140 million years ago, according to Wikipedia. The depth of the original crater was approximately 1,000 metres and the crater’s original rim diameter was just under 10 kilometres (6 miles). “The name of the lake appears to be a translation of the Algonquian name. It is the second-largest lake in Saskatchewan and the ninth largest in Canada.” By contrast, Kootenay Lake, near my hometown of Nelson, although considerably deeper (up to 150 metres or 490 feet), is a mere 104 kilometres (65 miles) in length. Its total area, being a glacial lake held narrowly between steep mountain ranges, is 157 square miles. Slocan Lake, where I live, is a mere 24 miles (39 km.) long or 27 square miles in area, but with a maximum depth of 978 feet (298 metres).
Oddly enough, we have no myths or legends of a lake monster in either Slocan or Kootenay Lakes, although we do have sturgeon. Some of this sturgeon is implanted into the region’s lakes, including the Arrow Lakes by the Fish and Wildlife Compensation Program. The program aims to bolster white sturgeon populations that already existed but may have been affected by the Columbia River dam system. When I was still a preschooler living on the West Arm of Kootenay Lake I recall a neighbor’s catch of the day—a sturgeon so long its tail curled up over the gate of his pickup truck. (This would have been about 1964.) Meanwhile just west of us in Okanagan Lake we have the famous legend of Ogopogo.
Could it be that 21st century technology will finally lay to rest some of the mystery surrounding lake serpents? A fish finder sonar scan in 2012 by Marcus Atkinson claims to have positively sighted Nessie, the Loch Ness serpent, a claim disputed by experts. Another claimed sonar sighting is of the Monster of Killarney Lakes in Ireland, one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. Muckross Lake, or Middle Lake, the deepest of the Killarney Lakes, has depths of up to 250 feet. “Although legends of lake monsters date back to the Irish Druids, ‘Muckie’ is a lake monster with a much more recent origin. Fish surveys conducted in 2003 by the Irish Char Conservation Group turned up sonar evidence of a serpentine USO, unidentified swimming object, about 80 meters (262 feet) in length.”
It’s exciting to contemplate the prospect of being the first to sight the Deep Bay Monster on a sonar scan. I’ll be flying out July 30th to Saskatoon, where I’ll meet the ROV technician and we’ll drive to Southend (seriously, though this place is anything but ‘south’) and the Nordic Lodge on Reindeer Lake, where I’ll meet Darren and Jennifer’s family and the rest of the film crew. Wish me luck!
 The Story of the Irish Race, Seamus McManus, Devon-Adair Co., 40th ed., 1986, p. 288.
 Read the full article here: http://www.openbooktoronto.com/dgroulx/blog/waking_mishipishu
 The Indian’s Awakening (poem), American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, Zitkala-Sa, Penguin Classics, New York, 2003, p. 165.
 Lindorm and Unktehi — folkloristic memories of CIS lobes and jökulhlaups? http://atlantisinireland.com/unktehi.php; The Dakota Peoples: A History of the Dakota, Lakota and Nakota through 1863, Jessica Dawn Palmer, p. 39. See also http://www.native-languages.org/morelegends/unktehila.htm
 Here Be Dragons, Michael A. Hodges, Natula Publications, Christchurch, Dorset, 2008, p. 1.
 Here Be Dragons, Michael A. Hodges, ibid, p. 2.