2009-06-06 / Top News

Underwater Research Team To Return to Straits

By Karen Gould

Underwater researchers will return to St. Ignace July 11 to explore a submerged waterfall and nearby cave, seeking evidence of the region's early human inhabitants. Their 80-foot training and research ship, The Pride of Michigan, will be moored at the St. Ignace marina through the summer.

Captain Luke Clyburn and Lieutenant Kathy Trax discussed their research Saturday, May 30, at the Village Inn conference room in St. Ignace. During the presentation, which was hosted by the Michilimackinac Historical Society, Capt. Clyburn showed off a documentary on last summer's work in the waters around St. Ignace. This summer's work also will be filmed and will be used in the production of a second documentary of the exploration.

The history of this area is not known yet, he said. Records may go back about 500 years, although he is studying spruce stumps at the bottom of Lake Huron that are 7,000 years old.

"You are living in a heartland of an area that likely is very, very unique to anywhere else in the world," he said. "I think there were civilizations and cultures we don't know anything about."

While in the Straits, the crew also will be exploring a sunken canoe. Little is known about the vessel other than its location. It could be new or old, said Capt. Clyburn, and diving to the site may shed light on the boat. The vessel was discovered by the Michigan State Police Underwater Recovery Unit when it was using sonar technology during a dive last summer. It is submerged in sand and covered with zebra mussels.

An unmanned remote operating vehicle (ROV) will aid in planning this summer's dives to the site, said Capt. Clyburn. The ROV, which has its own light source, will be lowered 200 feet and more into Lake Huron off the eastern shore of Mackinac Island.

The waterfall, discovered with sounding equipment, begins about 110 feet below the surface and is a geographical formation along an 80-milelong ancient river. Called the Mackinac Channel, it once flowed through the Straits area. Capt. Clyburn estimates the waterfall could be 200 feet high, and the ROV could reveal that it actually is a series of rapids.

"Every dive we make gives us a little bit more data," he said. "I know there are tree stumps on the other side of the Straits that were located when they were building the [Mackinac] bridge. Those tree stumps are 10,000 years old."

Also interesting is the geographic formation of Mackinac Island. Simply by looking at the Island, the limestone "shelves" appear to be the levels of ancient beaches.

"Were those beaches created because the water was higher or was the ice compressing Mackinac down, and Mackinac is now rising?" he said. "I don't know."

He continued, "We're like a bunch of kids out there with a camera in the dark, trying to see what we can see. Every time we go out, we find something that's a little bit different."

Before heading to St. Ignace, the crew will be working near Port Austin, where caves with pictographs have been found. Timing and weather, crucial to capturing the area on film, have not cooperated with the project in the last few years. Dives must be made early in the season, he said, before moss and algae builds up on the limestone walls there.

Cadets will be on The Pride of Michigan when it arrives July 11, although they will not stay with the boat, which will remain in St. Ignace, with research conducted by Capt. Clyburn and Lt. Trax on weekends. The cadets will return to the vessel July 31 for training.

In conjunction with exploration and research, Capt. Clyburn heads the training for U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps. The cadets are sponsored by the Navy League and the U.S. Navy.

Developing a Sea Cadet program in St. Ignace, he said, would be a benefit for the area's youth. The program serves as an introduction to naval life, although students are not required to enter the military. Students who participate in the program can enter the military at the rank they earn as a Sea Cadet. Cadet training on The Pride of Michigan includes scientific research experience for the cadets. The ship's homeport is on the Clinton River in Mount Clemens.

A group of adult volunteers assists the cadets on the ship.

Capt. Clyburn is president of the Noble Odyssey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates largely on donations and organizes the research projects. Some funds to support the Pride of Michigan's research come from Michigan Coastal Management, administered through Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality, however, the primary mission of the ship is to train Sea Cadets.

The DVD entitled "Great Lakes, Ancient Shores — River Channels" made during last summer's underwater exploration is available for order by calling (248) 666-9359. The sale of the DVDs helps fund future exploration.

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