KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES
The UFO Sites for People Who Hate Tourist Traps
Two unexplained UFO sightings in Canada in the ’60s still draw tourists to the wilds of Manitoba and the Nova Scotia coast to puzzle over the incidents—and yes, enjoy the scenery.
Driving the Extraterrestrial Highway with a detour to Area 51 is a perfectly legit reason to visit Nevada, and we all know why people go to Roswell, New Mexico. But Canada?
Yes, Canada, too, has a couple of top-tier UFO sites worth checking out, and both also happen to be located in picturesque, tourist-friendly settings.
Horseback riding to a UFO encounter site in the Manitoba woods is a mind-expanding outing. And at a modest interpretive center in a Nova Scotia fishing village, talking to a guy who actually saw an unidentified flying object crash into the ocean makes things real.
“Canada’s UFO guy,” Chris Rutkowski, has a diplomatic take on the polite rivalry between the country’s two best-documented sightings.
The Falcon Lake encounter in Manitoba generated hundreds of official documents, from police and doctors to atomic energy experts. There was only one witness, but he endured bizarre injuries.
The Shag Harbour sighting in Nova Scotia, Rutkowski reasons, didn’t produce as many documents, but the police, coast guard, and air force were involved from the start—and there were multiple witnesses.
Both cases happened in 1967 and remain unexplained. Both deserve the same name recognition enjoyed by Roswell. Neither has aggressively courted attention (it’s Canada) but welcome the curious.
If it feels like UFO sightings are waning, they’re not.
“There still is a desire to think we’re not alone in the universe,” says Rutkowski, a Manitoba science writer who has helmed the annual Canadian UFO survey since 1989. There were 1,101 sightings in Canada last year—an average of three a day. A tantalizing 8 percent were deemed unexplained.
Still, none have the complexity of Falcon Lake, a case that Rutkowski will go out on a limb and “argue that in some ways it was better than Roswell.”
On May 20, 1967, industrial mechanic Stefan Michalak went amateur prospecting for precious metals in Whiteshell Provincial Park about 90 minutes east of Winnipeg.
As he ate lunch alone in the woods, two “cigar-shaped objects with humps” appeared and one landed nearby. He studied and sketched it, heard muffled voices and figured it was an experimental U.S. military craft. When he touched the craft, the heat burned his glove. The craft took off, knocking him to the ground, setting his shirt and undershirt ablaze and leaving him with significant chest burns from a beam of heat. A bizarre, grid-like burn erupted on his stomach. There are photos of it and of the marks left at the site.
Michalak was treated in a Winnipeg hospital and at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota as strange electrical smells oozed out of his body. Canadian and American police and military authorities conducted extensive investigations.
“No explanation,” they all concluded. Michalak, a Polish immigrant whose story never wavered, died in 1999. It should be remembered that UFO stands for unidentified flying object—the words alien and extraterrestrial aren’t part of the definition.
Flash forward to 2018 and young couple Devin and Kendra Imrie run Falcon Beach Ranch, offering cabin stays and horseback rides, including one that goes to the encounter site.
“Everyone always asks if I’ve seen anything and I always have to say I haven’t, unfortunately,” Devin admits. “It would be better if I had a great UFO story.”
Well, he does. It’s just not his own.
Devin’s dad bought the ranch in 1978 and he grew up on the story. The remote site was long forgotten—or deliberately ignored—until Unsolved Mysteries came calling for a 1992 episode. It’s tough to drive or walk through the dense bush and swampy land to the site, so horses do the best job until you must dismount and walk the final few feet to a flat, rocky area by a quiet pond.
“Even if you’re not into UFOs, it’s a beautiful ride and a beautiful location,” points out Devin on my two-hour ride. “The site itself is totally pristine. Not even a plaque.”
“Well, it would be nice to add a plaque.”
There’s no word on whether the government is game to do that in a provincial park.
For last year’s 50th anniversary weekend, the Imries put on extra rides and attracted “some really keen UFO folks,” including one with a Geiger counter.
Devin brings a tattered black binder full of old clippings, notes and sketches on all UFO rides. He sells some UFO paraphernalia in his western-themed gift shop, but the Laughing Loon in town sells more.
The federal government has taken a recent shine to the Falcon Lake mystery. The Royal Canadian Mint just released a $20 silver collector coin in April. All 4,000 coins quickly sold out—at $129.95 a pop.
“As soon as this one launched, it spread like wildfire,” confirms the coin’s product manager, Erica Maga.
Ontario illustrator Joel Kimmel captures Michalak knocked on his back, one arm pointed skyward, as a saucer-like craft takes off. The ovoid (egg-shaped) coin came with a black light flashlight that makes it glow in the dark with a reddish-purple craft and yellow beam-like blast.
In Canada, collector coins highlight serious things, like anniversaries, natural heritage, history, and achievements, but also interesting unique Canadian experiences. Maga, for one, was “really thrilled” with the UFO coin and the “reception it has received.”
What intrigues me about 1967—Canada’s centennial year—is that it links to two more significant UFO moments.
St. Paul, Alberta built the world’s first UFO landing pad in June that year, correctly betting that it would draw people to the town two hours northeast of Edmonton. Queen Elizabeth and Mother Teresa are among those who have dropped by, though perhaps for other reasons. There is a UFO exhibit and apparently a UFO hotline, although nobody can tell me what the number is.
On Canada’s east coast, two-and-half hours south of Halifax, the fishing village of Shag Harbour makes the most of its Oct. 4, 1967 brush with a UFO.
That evening, a number of people (including a commercial airline pilot) spotted an object with flashing lights hovering over the ocean and feared it was an aircraft in trouble. One police officer even glimpsed the strange object before it crashed, changed shape, and glowed in the water. But rescue boats found only a massive yellow foam slick. Navy divers turned up nothing. No military or civilian aircraft were ever reported missing.
Now one can ponder the case from an ocean-side bench beside an old gazebo and a new lobster sculpture painted as an alien. The volunteer Shag Harbour UFO Incident Society hosts an annual conference that this year drew the diving and filmmaking grandchildren of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau and boasted hotspot bus tours and crash site boat trips.
Easier to access is the society’s seasonal interpretive center with a $2 entry fee.
“It’s not a museum,” stresses society president and retired fisherman Laurie Wickens. “You’ve got nothing to show people. All you’ve got is a story.”
He called police after spotting something strange in the sky and then in the ocean. The yellow foam was gone by the time his rescue boat pulled up, and “nobody saw any little green men.”
To support the non-profit society, I load up on books about the incident, a retro mug, a hand-painted rock and—best of all—a postcard with an actual postage stamp about the UFO sighting. Wickens promises to pop the card in the mail so the post office can then put the government-sanctioned “Shag Harbour: Home of the ’67 UFO Visit” cancellation stamp on it.
Wickens shows me around the one-room center, with typed witness stories taped to the walls and tables full of newspaper clippings, UFO books, and even a child’s class project on the famous story.
How does Wickens feel about telling the same story for 51 years and counting, I ask.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re part of it,” he replies. “I’ll leave it at that.”
He’s confident that Shag Harbour will soon get its own collector coin like Falcon Lake did. Rutkowski, meanwhile, firmly believes that both UFO encounters “deserve films.”