Lake Michigan beam may be from Griffin shipwreck

By John Flesher / Associated Press

Fairport, Mich. — A wooden beam that has long been the focus of the search for a 17th century shipwreck in northern Lake Michigan was not attached to a buried vessel as searchers had suspected, but still may have come from the elusive Griffin or some other ship, archaeologists said Wednesday.

Shipwreck hunter Steve Libert discovered a 10.5-foot section of the timber jutting from the lake bed twelve years ago in an area where he was convinced that the Griffin commanded by the French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle, sank in 1679. French experts who inspected the beam in recent days said it appeared to be a bowsprit — a spur or pole that extends from a vessel’s stem — that was hundreds of years old.

The Griffin is believed to have been the first European sailing vessel on the Great Lakes.

Crews have been digging beside the timber, where sonar readings indicated that one or more objects that together exceeded 40 feet long were submerged in mud. Libert and other expedition leaders believed that might be the hull of the Griffin, and that the excavation would find a connection between it and the presumed bowsprit.

But on Tuesday, as a diver was widening the pit, the timber began wobbling. Archaeologists and other expedition leaders decided to take it down instead of trying to stabilize it, fearing it was a safety risk. So the diver eased it to the lake bed after checking beneath and discovering that it wasn’t attached to another object, but simply had been embedded in the tightly packed sediments.

In this October 2012 image from video diver Tom Kucharsky passes timbers protruding from the bottom of Lake Michigan that were discovered by Steve Libert, head of Great Lakes Exploration Group, in 2001. (David J. Ruck/Associated Press)

In this October 2012 image from video diver Tom Kucharsky passes timbers protruding from the bottom of Lake Michigan that were discovered by Steve Libert, head of Great Lakes Exploration Group, in 2001. (David J. Ruck/Associated Press)

Even though no other wreckage was found, project manager Ken Vrana said there’s still a good chance it is located not far away. With the timber no longer in place, crews stepped up their dredging operation in hopes of reaching a hard surface that a probing device has indicated is 18 to 20 feet down.

“It could be that the ship is very close to this area, but it is impossible to say for sure at this point,” said Michel L’Hour, director of France’s Department of Underwater Archaeological Research and a shipwreck expert.

Meanwhile, expedition leaders were talking with state officials about what to do with the timber. Options include leaving it on the lake bottom — concealed to avoid theft or vandalism — or bringing it to shore, which would require expert preservation treatment.

La Salle’s journey provided Europeans with the first detailed reports of the Detroit River and Great Lakes region. La Salle had the Griffin built south of Niagara Falls and its journey and findings were chronicled in a book by Rev. Louis Hennepin. Those on the Griffin named Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River after Saint Clare of Assisi, because they came upon the lake on the feast day dedicated to the saint.

The ship was named after the Greek mythical figure that was part lion, part eagle.

Update – May 6, 2014

Nearly a year later, reports obtained by The Associated Press and interviews with key players reveal sharp divisions over whether the elusive ship has been found.

Mission leader Steve Libert and others with his organization, Great Lakes Exploration Group LLC, contend the timber is a bowsprit from a ship — likely the Griffin, last seen in 1679 with a six-member crew and a cargo of furs near Green Bay in present-day Wisconsin. A report by three French underwater archaeologists says the beam has characteristics consistent with a bowsprit, or pole that extends from a vessel’s stem, and apparently was submerged for a century or more. But it stops short of confirming a link to La Salle’s ship.

Meanwhile, two U.S. scientists who joined the expedition, project manager Ken Vrana and archaeologist Misty Jackson, say the timber is probably a “pound net stake,” an underwater fishing apparatus used in the Great Lakes in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is also the opinion of Dean Anderson, Michigan’s state archaeologist, and Carol Griggs, a Cornell University specialist in using tree rings to determine the age of wooden objects.

“We’re not killjoys,” said Jackson, a Michigan-based cultural resources consultant. “We’d have all loved for this to be the Griffin. We’re just presenting the evidence and that data that we have, and it points away from that.”

Libert, a retired military intelligence analyst who has spent three decades and about $1 million hunting for the Griffin, scoffs at the net stake idea. He plans to continue searching this summer for shipwreck debris near uninhabited Poverty Island, where he found the timber while diving in 2001 nearly 50 feet below the lake’s surface.

“I’m 99 percent sure the Griffin is in that area and we’ll find it,” he said.

An excavation permit Libert obtained last year required his team report its findings to the state archaeologist’s office. The AP obtained the document through a Freedom of Information Act filing.

A vexing question is why the timber was found almost upright on the lake bottom, with the lower 9 feet buried in thick sediment. The report, written by Vrana and Jackson, says that supports the pound net hypothesis. Libert contends the force of the vessel’s sinking during a vicious storm could have wedged the timber into the sediment.

The report includes photographs of another reputed pound net stake found by a fisherman that has features in common with the timber Libert’s team recovered, such as peg-like tree nails protruding near one end. But there are differences: The fisherman’s slab was probably almost twice as long, and the tree nails were square while those on the Libert slab were tapered or cone-shaped.

Jackson argues that those and other differences between the beams are minor, especially given the history of net stake fishing in the area. Libert says members of Native American fishing families reaching back generations insist such stakes weren’t used where his beam was found.

Another point of contention is the timber’s age. It had too few tree rings for a definitive answer.

Griggs and Vrana contend an analysis from radiocarbon dating suggest there’s a 78 percent chance the beam came from a tree felled between 1820 and 1950. The likelihood it dated to the late 1600s is less than 5 percent, they say.

Darden Hood, president of the company that performed the carbon-14 tests, said the wood could have originated from several periods between 1670 and 1950 and attempting to narrow the time range could produce misleading results.

Both sides agree Poverty Island is a good place to search, based on writings of La Salle and his companions. But the skeptics say Great Lakes Exploration is a long way from proving it has discovered the Griffin’s resting place.

Richard Gross, staff historian with Great Lakes Exploration, says the next step is to thoroughly survey the lake bed using sonar, metal detectors and other tools for signs of buried artifacts.

“We’ve been fooled by this technology in the past, but every step in the process you learn,” he said. “We’re really encouraged by what we’ve found.”