I learned a new word today. It is difficult to pronounce, but it means a lot. The word is Paradoli. Never heard of it? Me neither until today. The word was coined in 1994 and means mistaking something perceived as recognizable. Like shapes of angels in clouds. Or the man in the moon. Or the face on Mars. They don’t exist, but with paradoli, we are led to believe that they do. It is a psychological term for the mind's obsession with finding patterns in essentially random objects, from clouds to the face of virgin Mary in a pizza.
So why am I talking about this on Yukon Nuggets? Simply because of a five-dollar bill. Why you ask. Well, the 1954 five-dollar bill was the first to have a likeness of Queen Elisabeth on the front. She had been crowned Queen in 1953, and the following year, the Bank of Canada replaced her late father King George's likeness with hers.
Well, it didn't take long for the conspiracy theorists to get in on the act. They saw the likeness of a devil’s head in her hair. Thus, the 1954 series of Canadian bank notes became known as the devil’s head series. Of course, there was no devil in her hair. It was a mass case of paradoli, seeing something that does not exist.
A story made the rounds that a French Canadian who designed the likeness, slipped a devil’s head past the scrutineers because he opposed the monarchy. Wrong? But just to be on the safe side, the Bank of Canada had the plates from which the notes were produced darkened in 1956 so any chance of seeing a fictional devil’s head vanished.
Still, you are right to ask "what does this have to do with the Yukon."
In a round about way, plenty. You see, the 1954 five-dollar bill, long out of circulation, has a picture of Otter Falls on the back. As in Otter Falls, Yukon where I often fished for rainbow trout with my brother-in-law.
I have been trying to find out why Otter Falls is on the "devil's head" bill? Who took the photo? How was it chosen? When was it taken? Questions, questions.
A Yukon friend from my distant past says it was taken by Blondie Hougen, late brother of Rolf Hougen. He says he was there when Blondie took the photo. There can be no doubt that my friend was with Blondie that day and that Blondie took a photo. But did his photo end up on the five-dollar bill? It is possible, but I could not confirm that from officials at the Bank of Canada’s museum.
They tell me that in preparing for the 1954 issue, officials at the Bank of Canada reviewed literally thousands of images of Canada, searching for examples that would capture the diverse nature of the Canadian landscape. Various firms including the National Library, Canadian Pacific and several news agencies supplied the images. They say that they have no specific information about the source of the photograph used to engrave the image of Otter Falls.
So it remains a mystery - for now - how or why Otter Falls came to grace the 1954 five-dollar bill. It is of course no longer in circulation and as a collector’s item, it is not worth very much. But to a Yukoner who has fished the falls and marvelled at their grandeur when the water used to rage over the rocks before they built the Aishik dam in the mid- seventies, the sight of the falls living forever as a famous image on an historic piece of Canadian currency is reason enough to hope that Blondie Hougen took the photo because whomever took it captured for Yukoners everywhere, the magic and the mystery of the land.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin