TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Divers and scientists who combed a section of northern Lake Michigan for a 17th century shipwreck have retrieved a wooden beam that could belong to the long-lost Griffin, expedition leaders said Wednesday.
The nearly 20-foot-long timber, about half of which protruded from the lake bed until dislodged last week as searchers dug beneath it, may hold the key to whether shipwreck hunter Steve Libert has discovered the remains of the mysterious vessel commanded by French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle. It disappeared in 1679 after casting off from an island near the entrance of Green Bay with a crew of six and a cargo of furs. It was the first ship of European design to traverse the upper Great Lakes.
Libert's team removed it from the lake Saturday but waited to announce it until arrangements for its safekeeping were completed, said Ken Vrana, the expedition's project manager. Crews lifted the heavy object onto a commercial fishing boat and hauled it to shore, then loaded it into a refrigerated truck for transport to a safe location, Libert said. It was wrapped in protective cloth and kept wet.
"It's not a smoking gun," Vrana said. "It could have come from other early wooden sailing vessels. But based on architectural drawings, overall length, construction details ... we cannot rule out this piece as being from the Griffin."
Libert, who has sought the Griffin for three decades, bumped into the beam during a 2001 dive and battled the state of Michigan in court over custody of what he suspected was buried wreckage. After finally securing state and federal permits to excavate in the area, his organization dug a deep pit at the base of the timber but found nothing except bedrock. The beam, they learned, was simply wedged in hard-packed, clay-like mud.
Even so, three French archaeologists who inspected the timber said it appeared to be a bowsprit – a spur or pole that extends from a vessel's stem – that was hundreds of years old. Libert said he believes the rest of the Griffin (also known by its French name, Le Griffon) is nearby and plans to resume his search but needs to raise more money first. He says he's spent more than $1 million on his lengthy quest and the cost of last week's privately financed mission was "six figures."
In the meantime, the timber is being stored in a safe place, Libert said. He wouldn't reveal the location but said it's submerged in cold water and a chemical solution recommended by Rob Reedy, an underwater archaeologist and specialist in preserving shipwreck artifacts.
Vrana said the team is preparing a proposal to the state Department of Natural Resources for experts to study the beam in hopes of determining its age and where the tree from which it was hewn originated. La Salle ordered the Griffin constructed near Niagara Falls before sailing it west and north across portions of Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan.
Libert disputes the DNR's contention that the state owns shipwrecks embedded in Great Lakes bottomlands within its jurisdiction. But the two sides agreed the timber would be on loan to the expedition team for 30 days.
"We did this as an interim measure, to give us time to talk to them about what kind of testing and conservation comes next," said Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Historical Center, the DNR office that issued the excavation permit. She said she still wasn't convinced the timber was part of the Griffin or any other shipwreck.
Libert said he wants to redo a sonar scan that previously indicated the presence of an object field buried near the timber. As it turned out, the readings apparently picked up a thick layer of mussel shells and sediment layers. But if re-calibrated to penetrate the mussels, the sub-bottom profile might detect a buried deck or hull, he said.
"That area is definitely a shipwreck site," he said. "There probably will be another expedition going out before summer's end to do more probing."