For hundreds of years sightings of unclassified marine creatures have filled the log books of ships, menacing creatures that lurk beneath the waves. Often called “sea serpents”, these elusive creatures often appear on old maps as fanciful drawings of sea faring monsters with great teeth, devouring entire ships.
Scientists currently believe these sightings can be best explained as documented creatures such as the lungfish, oarfish or even eels. Yet there is one sighting of a sea serpent that goes beyond just a visual interpretation, an incident that involved one being captured. Not on the ocean, but right here in the Ottawa River.
OTTAWA RIVER SEA SERPENT
Along the Ottawa River near Arnprior the waters widen as they stretch north, resembling more of a lake than a river, hence it being given the name Chats Lake. It reaches from the once mighty Chats Falls, now dammed for a hydro station, northwards to more rapids at Portage Du Fort near Renfrew. Bookended by these two waterfalls, this 30km long lake was the scene of much logging and timber transport during Ottawa’s lumber boom of the mid to late 1800s.
At that time, large volumes of lumber was being transported downriver to the busy mills of Bytown. Many steamships were employed to carry both crews and supplies, as well as to tow logs to various points along the river.
During this period of increased steamship travel on Chats Lake a number of these ships began to spot an unusual water creature of immense proportions in the lake. Described as a large serpentine creature, a well respected Arnprior citizen by the name of Robert Young related to the local newspaper his glimpse of an aquatic monster in Chats Lake, which he described as “being of enormous size and proportions”. Soon, those on the water in boats and those that swam in its cooling waters grew fearful of what sounded to be a large serpent creature in Chats Lake.
Below Chats Falls, an 1880 newspaper article relates the story of a boy in a canoe encountering a serpent creature “about the size of an ordinary telegraph pole” and explains how an unknown serpent creature lurks in the Ottawa River, witnessed by many.
A few years after Young’s sighting, and also near Arnprior, Captain Brown of the steamship Alliance, saw a creature of the same description. Large. Serpentine. Fast.
With summer in full swing, and like something from a Spielbergian film, the legend of the sea serpent in Chats Lake reached epic proportions. Then, one hot summer day in 1882 the creature was spotted again, but this time there was no escape for the Chats Lake Monster.
Announced in the Arnprior Chronicle on August 26, 1882, the elusive sea serpent of Chats Lake had been captured. Having struck terror in the hearts of superstitious lumber men of the time, superstition became reality when the steamship Levi Young encountered the legendary creature of the lake. Departing the Snow Rapids, near present day Castleford where the Bonnechere River empties into the Ottawa River, the crew of the LeviYoung noticed a huge serpent creature swimming ahead of the boat. The newspaper article states that “Mr. John Durgan, chief engineer, and a deck hand, named Shaw, jumped into a boat and started in pursuit of the reptile. They succeeded in getting within striking distance of the serpent when Mr. Durgan struck it a blow over the head with his oar.” This in turn enraged the creature who churned the water into a furious froth, attacking the boat and the men inside. An oar was used to lay a powerful blow to the creature’s neck where it writhed to rest and was then towed back to the steamship.
Once back at the ship, the crew heaved the lifeless serpent aboard the deck of the Levi Young where it was laid out for inspection. Aboard the ship lay dead a serpent creature measuring 11 feet in length and more than a foot in thickness. The jaws of the creature were pried open and measured a span of half a foot.
No further records of the creature have been found, and the whatever happened to the carcass of the Chats Lake creature remains unknown. Was it some sort of ancient fish trapped between the falls on either end of the lake after the prehistoric Champlain Sea receded? Was it an abnormally large snake, catfish or eel? It is unclear as to what exactly plied the waters of the Ottawa River those years in the late 1800’s, but there is one thing for certain, a large serpent creature was indeed captured. So as we lazily splash around at our cottages this summer without fear of sharks or jellyfish, remember there was once another type of creature lurking in the dark waters of the Ottawa River, a creature that could still very well be out there, and possibly very hungry.
Andrew King, July 2016
The Quebec Daily Telegraph, August 4, 1880
The Upper Ottawa Valley: A Glimpse of History, by Clyde Kennedy