FAIRPORT, Mich. (AP) — A wooden beam embedded at the bottom of northern
Lake Michigan appears to have been there for centuries, underwater
archaeologists announced Tuesday, a crucial finding as crews dig toward
what they hope is the carcass of a French ship that disappeared while
exploring the Great Lakes in the 17th Century.
Expedition leaders still weren't ready to declare they had found a
shipwreck or the long-lost Griffin. The ship, commanded by the French
explorer La Salle, was never seen again after setting sail in September
1679 from an island near the entrance of Green Bay, in what is now
northern Wisconsin, with a crew of a six and a cargo of furs.
But Michel L'Hour, director of France's Department of Underwater
Archaeological Research, said the timber appears to be a bowsprit, which
is a spur or pole that extends from a vessel's stem. It also appears to
be attached to a hard surface below the lake bed.
"All the details could be interpreted as part of a bowsprit and there's
no details which contract this hypothesis," said L'Hour, who inspected
the beam Monday with two French colleagues. "It's why it's the main
hypothesis now. A bowsprint which has been buried in the sediment of the
lake for many centuries."
Scientists and divers began excavating last week at the base of the
wooden beam, hoping to determine whether it is part of the Griffin.
Steve Libert, a diver and shipwreck enthusiast who has searched three
decades for the Griffin, discovered the timber in 2001 and recently
obtained state and federal permits to probe beneath the muddy surface.
The wooden beam extends 10.5 feet above the lake bed, and underwater
excavators are opening a pit at the base of the beam to determine
whether it's attached to anything beneath. In another key development
Tuesday, they reported that a probing device had detected a hard surface
18 to 20 feet below the lake bed.
"In essence, we have found a floor under that exposed wooden timber,"
said Ken Vrana, the project manager. "We have more excavation to do
before verifying what that surface is."
Libert said he was excited by the reports and had "no doubt" the beam
was part of a ship. But it remained uncertain when the team might be
able to positively identify the vessel.
"I think that maybe Steve found the Griffin," L'Hour said at a briefing
for reporters. "I can't be sure, which is why I'm waiting and waiting
and waiting for the proof."