The search for the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes has resumed. The team that believes it has found the wreck is moving ahead after closing a legal dispute with the State of Michigan. They’re trying to prove that what they’ve found in Lake Michigan could be a French ship that disappeared in 1679.
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 Cucharski is one of the original divers on the team. But he’s not in the water today because he recently had a heart attack.
In fact, just one of the original divers, Cucharski’s brother Tom, is in good shape for diving this week.
"You know, time takes its toll. We’re all getting older. I was like thirty years old when I started this and I’m 63 now, so, yeah, it doesn't get any better, you know?"
The group out of Dayton, Ohio spent countless vacations up here camping and combing the bottom of northern Lake Michigan.
Their leader, Steve Libert, lives in Virginia these days. 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 they called it the Griffon."
The location of the Griffon has been the subject of some debate over the centuries.
Libert says he was criticized for looking in Lake Michigan 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 the Huron Islands, according to Indian, meant rough and wicked, the term Huron, so what that told me was there was still a possibility that ship could be in Lake Michigan."
So Libert’s group searched around the islands off the Garden Peninsula near Green Bay, and in 2001, they found a wooden beam sticking up from the bottom with a few pegs in it.
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 20 feet wide, which is the size of the object they’re looking for.
So now they are trying to figure how long it is.
Mark Holley is a nautical archeologist.
"That’s your sub-bottom profiler. Essentially it's just a big glorified fish finder. You know how a fish finder will send down a cone of sound? This is actually going to send down a beam… and it's going to be a foot wide beam of intense, low-frequency sound and with that you can penetrate and see up to 100 feet into the lake bed."
With the device strapped on the back of the boat, they cruise back and forth over the area where they believe the shipwreck is. Once all this information is processed they should have an outline of whatever is down there.
The next big step would be to get the shovels out and dig. 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 20 years.
But Steve Libert is convinced there’s a shipwreck down there and that they’ll soon demonstrate it’s worth a look.
"This location is not going to stay hidden for a lot of years. There's going to be people coming in here, diving, dropping huge anchors trying to plow the bottom and if we don't get those permits to start excavation that site could be destroyed."
But nothing quite like this has ever been done in the Great Lakes.
When asked what kind of proof might be sufficient to get a permit to dig, the archeologist on the team said he has no idea.