The search for the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes resumed this month. The team that says it might have found the wreck, Great Lakes Exploration, is moving ahead after closing a legal dispute with the State of Michigan. They're trying to prove that what they've found in northern Lake Michigan could be a French ship that disappeared in 1679. And they're near the end of what they can do without digging into the bottom of the lake.
It's been thirty years since Great Lakes Exploration began searching for the Griffon. In fact, the original team has been at it so long, they're running out of time to see it through themselves.
Jim Kucharski is one of the divers on the team. But he wasn't in the water last week because he recently had a heart attack. Just one of the original divers, Kucharski's brother Tom, was in good shape for diving on the recent trip.
"Time takes its toll. We're all getting older. I was like thirty years old when I started this and I'm 63 now."
The group out of Dayton, Ohio has spent countless vacations up here camping and combing the bottom of northern Lake Michigan. Their leader, Steve Libert, lives in Virginia now.
Libert says his interest in the Griffon goes back to junior high. That was when he first heard of the French Explorer Robert de La Salle, and his ship with a mythical animal carved on the stern, half lion and half eagle.
"It was a figurehead to ward off evil spirits and protect the ship and they called it the Griffon"
The location of the ship has been the subject of some debate over the centuries. La Salle was not on the boat himself when it disappeared. The historian Francis Parkman says La Salle believed his crew betrayed him, sunk the ship and made off with the load of furs.
Libert says when he started looking in Lake Michigan he was criticized by people who thought the wreck was in Lake Huron. That's because it was said that it went down among the Huron Islands. But Libert says Huron was a term for wicked. So his group searched around the islands off the Garden Peninsula near Green Bay, a stretch of lake that has claimed its share of boats.
Probing beneath the bottom of the lake
In 2001, the divers found a beam of wood sticking up from the bottom with a few pegs in it. Libert thinks that could be the bowsprit of the Griffon. Survey work done since then has started to outline the shape of something buried beneath it. Something that is curved like the hull of a boat and close to twenty feet wide, which is the size of the object they're looking for.
So now they're trying to figure how long it is.
They brought in Mark Holley, a nautical archeologist who specializes in this kind of survey work. Using low-frequency sound waves he can delineate objects as far down as a 100 feet in the bottom of the lake.
The information gathered on this trip will have to be processed before it will mean anything but then it should show a pretty good outline of whatever it is they've found.
And at that point, Great Lakes Exploration will be close to the end of what it can do with remote sensing equipment. Metal detectors might also help since the Griffon was armed with guns and cannons.
The next step will be to get out the shovels and see what's down there. But that will require a permit from the State of Michigan. And this group has not been on the best of terms with the state. In fact, they've fought in court for most of the last twenty years.
Steve Libert is convinced there's something important down there and is confident they'll soon demonstrate it's worth a look.
"This location is not going to stay hidden for a lot of years," warns Libert. "There'll be people coming in here, diving, dropping huge anchors trying to plow the bottom. If we don't get those permits and start excavation that site can be destroyed."
But nothing like this has ever been done in the Great Lakes. When asked what it might take to get a permit the archeologist, Mark Holley, says he has no idea.
"That's up for grabs."