2008-08-16 / Top News

Underwater Exploration of Ancient River Begins in Straits Area

By Karen Gould

A map of the submerged Mackinac Valley taken from the book "Prehistoric Mackinac Island," written by George M. Stanley, Ph.D., published by the University of Michigan in 1945. A map of the submerged Mackinac Valley taken from the book "Prehistoric Mackinac Island," written by George M. Stanley, Ph.D., published by the University of Michigan in 1945. Underwater exploration has begun off the shores of St. Ignace with hopes of discovering evidence of ancient civilizations. The announcement was made at the St. Ignace Fish Feast and Mackinac Bridge Celebration Saturday, July 25. The festival recognizes the importance of water to the heritage of the area and to the future of the community.

The exploration will be led by Captain Luke Clyburn, the same man who discovered the submerged ancient waterfall off Mackinac Island last summer.

"There are some areas right off St. Ignace that we have some interest in," said Captain Clyburn. "It looks like the river comes in very close to St. Ignace, but drops off very deep and very quickly. We are looking at the possibility of early encampments."

The relationship between the St. Ignace inhabitants and the water, said Capt. Clyburn, may date back 10,000 years. At least that is what he hopes to determine this summer as he and a crew of 19 U.S. Naval Sea Cadets from around the county will begin exploring the underwater world just off the city's shoreline.

Their ship, The Pride of Michigan, will arrive in St. Ignace Sunday, August 3. It will moor at the marina for five days, then work will continue through September with a smaller vessel.

Captain Clyburn will be assisted by Lieutenant Kathy Trax and other volunteers who will dive and perform soundings offshore and in the area of the ancient river called the Mackinac Channel that now lies beneath Lake Huron and is part of the Straits of Mackinac.

"We know there was an ancient river," he said. "People, historically from the beginning of the world, have lived along rivers. Rivers gave them the ability for transportation. They gave them the ability to have food to eat because animals would come to the rivers. They also affected the climate."

When the 80-foot training and research vessel The Pride of Michigan sails into St. Ignace, new equipment will be onboard to handle deep exploration. A new drop camera that can reach depths up to 500 feet will supplement the work of divers, who are limited to 100 feet below the surface. The camera, which can also work in dark water, is connected with a computer that indicates longitude and latitude coordinates where a photograph is taken.

Work will take some of the crew back to the submerged waterfall site to refine soundings. Other divers will focus along the same ancient river as it flowed near St. Ignace.

Capt. Clyburn has been doing research on the Great Lakes for 31 years and training cadets for 35 years. He is the president of the Noble Odyssey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates largely on donations. The organization supports aquatic research, exploration, and educational projects in the Great Lakes.

Working with retired marine biologist Dr. Elliott Smith and retired Oakland University biologist Dr. Doug Hunter, and other scientists, Capt. Clyburn said they consider probabilities. St. Ignace, he said, meets several probabilities that fit the criteria for an area that would have attracted people: The curve of the area would have offered protection, and the flowing water of the river would have moderated air temperature.

Dives will be conducted using transects. A line will be dropped and divers will be assigned areas to explore along the line. They will be looking for firestones, where fires may have been built, tool shards, and pictographs similar to those discovered in lower Lake Huron.

The cadets, he said, are trained to tell if pieces of rock are broken by the elements or made into tools by humans. Artifacts will be photographed, but none will be removed. Capt. Clyburn said he would contact state officials and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of any findings. A buoy would be floated marking the area, and from the buoy, latitude and longitude readings would be taken with a global positioning system, which would pinpoint the site. Eventually, they may be given permission to remove an item, or determine if more study is required of the area.

"If it were a tool that was used at the location it was found," he said, "it could tell a lot of history to scientists. It's like shipwrecks. We teach the cadets, don't move handles, don't turn knobs. It might be the piece of information, just a little piece, but it might be what the scientist needs, or the archaeologist needs, to go back and retrace events. A lot of information can be told just by the location of instruments."

An advantage to working in this area, he said, is the weather protection that is offered by the curving land mass and islands. Bathometric readings that will be taken require calm seas. If the wind is strong in one direction, the crew usually can find another workable area, especially since they will be looking at a number of locations around St. Ignace.

In terms of underwater research, Capt. Clyburn said the focus of the world is changing from the oceans to the Great Lakes, because they offer fresh water. Now, fresh water is a very important commodity to the world. About 30 years ago when he was heading to the Isle Royale area, others were telling him oceans were the place for research. At that time, no one had an interest in the Great Lakes.

"I see that trend changing," he said. "I like people to understand the world that we live in. We really haven't understood the underwater part of our world."

Studying the underwater area of the region, he said, can give the community a part of its history that has remained covered by water and until now, unknown.

The work underway in St. Ignace this summer will be filmed as a documentary similar to the documentary that was produced from last year's Mackinac Island offshore exploration. That film, shown to the public at the Fish Feast, already is available to the public and more information is available online at www. noble odyssey.org. Previous films produced by the Noble Odyssey Foundation under Captain Clyburn's direction have won documentary awards.

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