Witching you well: Exploring the age-old tradition of dowsing for water

By Michelle Annette Tremblay
Photos by Sean Buk and Michelle Annette Tremblay

Sixty-five years ago Floyd Shatraw broke a stick. Specifically it was a hazel crotch: a forked branch from a hazelnut tree. He didn't mean to break it. He was a young lanky teenager, and had watched earlier as a visiting cousin had used it as a divining rod to find water, in the ancient tradition of dowsing, or witching for a well. When no-one was looking, Shatraw picked it up, pointed the tip to the sky and copied the grip he'd seen his cousin use. He started walking through the grass, holding the stick tightly, and within moments it started jiggling. Suddenly it tugged and bent toward the earth so strongly that it snapped in his hands.

 North Hastings resident Floyd Shatraw estimates he’s witched more than 200 wells over the past 65 years – with 100 percent accuracy.

North Hastings resident Floyd Shatraw estimates he’s witched more than 200 wells over the past 65 years – with 100 percent accuracy.

“I just put it back where I found it, hoping nobody would notice,” confesses Shatraw with a chuckle. “But then my Dad saw it later, and said, 'Floyd, were you witching with this stick?' ‘Yeah,’ I says. And that was it.”

He's been witching for wells ever since.

“I don't believe in it,” says the North Hastings resident, who figures he's witched more than 200 wells since then, with 100 percent accuracy. “But it works. I can't tell you how, or why, but it works.”

There are endless stories, theories and explanations about witching, ranging from the pseudoscientific to the superstitious. Some people say there can only be one witcher in a family at a time. Some say anyone can do it if they're taught right. Others insist it's a rare skill that only those with the right vibes can master.

“I guess I've got that good energy,” laughs Shatraw. He might be on to something. At 81 he's still treasured throughout the community as someone who's always willing to lend a hand. It's not uncommon to see him rototilling someone's garden, or helping to move an old piano.

Standing in my back yard, in the small community of Paudash, just down the road from the lake of the same name, Shatraw shows me how to hold the divining rod, which he has fashioned from a hazel crotch, not unlike the one he picked up all those years ago. He demonstrates how to hold it, with the tip pointing to the sky, and the ends of the fork in either hand, with thumbs pointing out.

“You gotta hold it real tight,” he says. He shows me how to pull the ends of the fork away from each other just enough to create some tension.

“And you gotta keep your elbows tucked in. Then, you just walk. You'll feel it.”

 Hand and arm position are key elements to the craft of water witching, as Shatraw demonstrates, with thumbs pointing out, a tight grip on the branch and elbows tucked in.

Hand and arm position are key elements to the craft of water witching, as Shatraw demonstrates, with thumbs pointing out, a tight grip on the branch and elbows tucked in.

I know my property pretty well, and know exactly where there's water, but I don't let on. Sure enough though, Shatraw finds it within a few minutes. I watch closely as the hazel crotch bends and turns in his hands until it points straight down at the ground, right above my unmarked grey well.

“Here,” he says, offering me the hazel. “You try.”

He helps me get the divining rod in the right position: pointing up, thumbs out, elbows in, and sends me walking. I take the same path he did. I definitely feel the rod jiggle, and maybe even bend a little bit, but not nearly the way it did in his hands. I try again, and get the same result. I really want it to work for me, but I'm also careful to not let that desire compromise my experiment. Maybe the fact that I want it to work so badly, combined with already knowing exactly where the water is located is actually working against me. I'm being so careful not to 'cheat' that I might be inadvertently blocking myself.

About an hour and a half away, in Marmora, I meet with another witcher. Like Shatraw, Doug Alcock fell into witching when he was a teenager. His mother taught him how to find water when he was 14. He's not sure who taught her, but it was one of those skills that was passed down from one person to another, and he had the knack for it. It was a good thing, too. Alcock's father was a well digger.

“My Dad was putting in a well and septic system for this businessman in Toronto. He says to my Dad, 'I want the well put there.' And my Dad says, ‘you should get Doug to witch it just to be safe.’ But he goes, 'there's water everywhere, don't worry about it.'” Alcock chuckles as he tells the story. He readily admits he didn't like the businessman very much back then because of the way he treated the people working for him. He was never satisfied, and required his labourers to make time consuming changes, seemingly on a whim.

“Well, they went down, and down and down in the spot he wanted the well, and they didn't get a drop of water,” recounts Alcock. “So Dad says to me, 'you gotta witch for him,' and I says, 'That crappy old guy? No way, man!' But my Dad said we needed the money and just to do it. So I did. And you know what? I found water 10 feet away.”

I ask Alcock if he's ever had a divining rod snap in his hands, like Shatraw.

 Marmora’s Doug Alcock was taught how to witch by his mother when he was 14 years old.

Marmora’s Doug Alcock was taught how to witch by his mother when he was 14 years old.

“Oh sure. You have to hold real tight. Sometimes I'll peel the bark off from holding it so tight. And sometimes it breaks,” he says, explaining that once it's broken you can't use it anymore. He has prepared a few divining rods for our meeting, also tree crotches, but he prefers willow over hazel.

“I think willow is more effective because it's so flexible,” he explains. “It'll bend right around. And maybe the willow is more susceptible because of its relationship to water. It grows right by the water.”

Alcock motions to a willow tree, a hundred or so meters away, and points out how the boughs droop down toward the water. We're standing next to his home on the Crowe River, where he runs Crowe Lake Cruises, crowned tourism business of the year in 2014 by Hastings County. I'm interested in seeing the vintage 28' pontoon boat that he takes out for three hour tours of Crowe River, Crowe Lake and Beaver Creek, but it's been put away for the winter. This time of year he keeps busy with his other business, Firewood Plus. Between the two businesses he's fairly well known in the community, but he doesn't get asked to witch very often. Most people don't even know he can do it. He's only lived in Marmora for the last 12 years, after all. And witching is one of those skills that's being lost and forgotten over time.

The entrepreneur gives a demonstration, and gets results much like Shatraw's: he walks for a while and then suddenly the willow bends and points straight down. When I try, I get the same kind of results as before, too. The rod jiggles, and bends, but only slightly.

In addition to the willow divining rod, Alcock has also prepared metal divining rods. Some people insist they have to be gripped tightly, but others, like Alcock swear it works better if you keep them loose. He shows me his method, in which the ends of the metal rods balance gently on his pinky fingers and are held in a loose fist. He walks the same path he did with the willow, and this time, when he reaches the magic spot, the two metal rods move toward each other and eventually cross. He takes a few steps backwards, and they straighten out again and face forward.

My turn. Alcock helps me get the rods placed 'just so' in my hands, and I walk slowly. Very gradually, as I approach the same spot, the rods move together and finally cross. I'm excited that it's finally worked, and ask Doug what kind of special metal the rods are made of.

“It's just a clothes hanger that I cut up this morning,” he grins.

Like Shatraw, Alcock says he has no idea how or why it works, and he doesn't think about it much.

“Certain people just have a knack for it. I don't know if it's electricity in your body, or a special connection to the earth. I just know it works.”

 In addition to using a willow divining rod Alcock has also prepared metal rods that are held in a loose fist and cross when they find water.

In addition to using a willow divining rod Alcock has also prepared metal rods that are held in a loose fist and cross when they find water.

But Heather Inwood-Montrose has an idea. “It's electro magnetic,” says the reiki master and yoga teacher from Bancroft. “Water vibrates at a certain frequency, and our bodies are 60 percent water so they too vibrate at a similar electro-magnetic frequency. Frequencies are drawn to like frequencies.”

Inwood-Montrose comes from a long line of witchers. She learned to witch when she was a little girl from her grandfather, who had learned the craft from his grandmother, a Welsh herbalist, midwife and dowser.

“My sister and I would spend summers with our grandparents, and would at times be brought along for the ride when my grandfather would provide the service to locals looking for water on their property.” Inwood-Montrose remembers.

She describes the sound of cicadas and the smell of hot, dry earth as she walked slowly and methodically with her grandfather, criss-crossing a field, patiently waiting for the willow to dip to the ground.

“The human body has a physical central and parasympathetic nervous system, which is mirrored by an energetic system that exists both in and around the physical body,” she explains. “This forms the foundation for acupressure, acupuncture, qi gong, tai chi, and therapeutic touch. They all make use of the meridian system. A finely tuned energetic system allows an individual to be more sensitive to other clear vibrations. This is how one can sense water or dowse.”

It seems Shatraw was onto something when he said he must just have that good energy. So someday when you're feeling like you've got some especially good vibes, why not give it a try? Get yourself a crotch of hazel or willow, or even just some wire-cutters and a coat hanger. Find yourself some space, take a deep breath, relax, and see if maybe you, too, have the age-old skill of witching for water. You might just surprise yourself.