suntimes
DECENT 
Weather Updates

Expedition aims to find La Salle’s long-lost ship

In this October 2012 image from video provided by David J. Ruck diver Tom Kucharsky passes timbers protruding from bottom

In this October 2012 image from video provided by David J. Ruck, 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. On Saturday, June 15, 2013, Libert will lead a diving expedition to an underwater site in northern Lake Michigan, where archaeologists and technicians will try to determine whether the timbers and other items beneath layers of sediment are what remain of 17th Century French explorer La Salle's legendary Griffin. (AP Photo/David J. Ruck ) MANDATORY CREDITIn this October 2012 image from video provided by David J. Ruck shows are 10.5-foot timbers protruding from the bottom of Lake Michigan that were discovered by Steve Libert, head of Great Lakes Exploration Group, in 2001. On Saturday, June 15, 2013, Libert will lead a diving expedition to an underwater site in northern Lake Michigan, where archaeologists and technicians will try to determine whether a timbers and other items beneath layers of sediment are what remain of 17th Century French explorer La Salle's legendary Griffin. (AP Photo/David J. Ruck ) MANDATORY CREDIT

storyidforme: 50814928
tmspicid: 18912838
fileheaderid: 8516281
Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: June 18, 2013 1:14PM



ON LAKE MICHIGAN NEAR POVERTY ISLAND, Mich. — Divers began opening an underwater pit Saturday at a remote site in northern Lake Michigan that they say could be the resting place of the Griffin, a ship commanded by the 17th century French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier de la Salle.

U.S. and French archaeologists examined sediment removed from a hole dug near a timber slab that expedition leader Steve Libert discovered wedged in the lakebed in 2001. They found a 15-inch slab of blackened wood that might have been a human-fashioned “cultural artifact,” though more analysis will be required to determine whether it was part of a vessel, project manager Ken Vrana said.

Libert, who has spent about three decades searching for the Griffin — also known by its French equivalent Le Griffon — said he hoped that by Sunday, the excavation would reach what sonar readings indicate is a distinct shape beneath several feet of sediment. The object is over 40 feet long and about 18 feet wide — dimensions similar to those the Griffin is believed to have had, according to Vrana.

But he said it was too early to declare the site a shipwreck, let alone the object of their quest.

“Soon, we will find out whether our assumption is correct or not,” Vrana said aboard the Proud Maid, a 45-foot commercial fishing boat that ferried journalists and crew members to the search area near Poverty Island in Michigan waters north of the entrance to Green Bay. “We’ve got to get those test pits dug and hit [the] structure because anything else is pure speculation.”

After meeting with team members Saturday night, he told reporters that “within a couple of days, we should know” whether a ship graveyard lies beneath the surface.

Though Libert and his associates have dived at the site numerous times and conducted several surveys with remote sensing equipment, they hadn’t conducted archaeological excavations until receiving a permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources this month after years of legal squabbles. The agency claims ownership over all Great Lakes shipwrecks in the state’s waters, but it acknowledges France would have rights to the Griffin because it was sailing under the authority of King Louis XIV.

Taking part in the dive Saturday were Michel L’Hour, director of the Department of Underwater Archaeological Research in the French Ministry of Culture and a noted authority on shipwrecks, and associate Olivia Hulot. The U.S. leaders said they hoped the visitors, with their knowledge of design and construction features of French ships from the 17th and 18th century, could help confirm whether the Griffin had been found.

“The Griffin is very important to the early history of America,” L’Hour said before taking his first look at the site. “If this is the Griffin, it will teach us many things.”

La Salle ordered the Griffin built near Niagara Falls in 1679 to support his quest for what was widely — but erroneously — believed to be a passageway to China and Japan. It was the first European-style vessel to traverse the upper Great Lakes, crossing Lake Erie and venturing north to Lake Huron, then across Lake Michigan to the eastern shore of modern-day Wisconsin.

La Salle ordered the ship to return for more supplies and to deliver a load of furs, while he continued his journey by canoe. The Griffin was never heard from again.

There are different theories about its fate, but none has been proven. Libert, who spent years studying the writings of La Salle and a companion, believes it sank in a fierce storm only a few miles after setting sail.

Libert said Saturday the recovery of the slab of wood and prospects for reaching what could be the ship’s hull shortly were promising signs.

“Right now, I’m pretty excited, from what I know so far,” he said, but added: “Scientific [proof] is 100 percent. It’s not 99.9 percent.”



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.