Scott Mitchen searches for hidden treasures among Lake Superior's sunken logs, which lie scattered like giant Pick-Up Sticks under 60 feet of cold, clear water.
A treasure hunter by trade, Mr. Mitchen has turned his attention from Spanish galleons to a trove of prized north woods trees, some of which were seedlings when Columbus set foot in America in 1492.
The native Wisconsin scuba diver has so far pulled 1,000 logs from one small section of Lake Superior. The logs sank to the lake bottom during a 19th century lumber boom. He says there is an underwater forest of precious yellow birch, hemlock, and bird's eye maple waiting to be harvested.
"When you peel the bark off, it's like opening a treasure chest. You see whether you found gold coins or silver coins," Mitchen says. This day, the haul is a rare red oak. "It was 16 feet long and straight as an arrow. It was so big, I couldn't get my arms around it," he says.
The trees lie near the Apostle Islands in northern Wisconsin. In the 1880s, forests of virgin timber were shipped across Lake Superior to the 15 sawmills that once lined Chequamegon Bay. Each spring, loggers from Michigan to Canada bundled logs into huge rafts and floated the timber to Chequamegon.
In the process, thousands of logs became waterlogged and sank to the lake bed, where Lake Superior's biting temperatures and low oxygen content preserved them.
To raise the timber, divers attach large balloons to the logs that lift them off the lake bed. A crane plucks the trunks from the water and deposits them on a barge or the shore.
The cold water diving doesn't bother Mitchen, who has scuba dived in the lake since high school. Mitchen started treasure-hunting full-time after college, using a metal detector to unearth silver coins and ruby rings from old resort sites on Lake Geneva in southern Wisconsin.
Mitchen's company, Explorations International, has unearthed daggers, gold doubloons, and even Ming dynasty pottery from Spanish galleons off the Bahamas and Florida coasts.
Still, Mitchen says a good pile of logs can be as exciting as a pirate ship. "It's the same adrenaline rush. Either way, I leave the 20th century. In one place I'm holding something meant for the king of Spain; here, I'm touching logs cut by lumberjacks who risked their lives for $1 a day," he says. "I hear their axes pounding, I hear their cross-cut saws when I touch those logs."
The logs may prove lucrative for Mitchen and his Explorations International partners, who currently have the only state permit for extracting logs from the lake. They are building a sawmill in Ashland, Wis., to process the logs for customers worldwide.
Among the customers, according to Mitchen, are Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, who wants the century-old birch logs for the floors of his new house; European craftsmen who want the wood for cellos and violins; and Japanese investors, who have offered to buy every log in the lake.
Whether they want the wood for decorating, art, or investments, customers have one thing in common: "They don't care what they pay for this wood. They want the best," Mitchen says. Wood prices vary from $1,000 to $4,000 a log, depending on size and quality.
If Explorations International can maintain a steady supply of logs, markets exist for the lumber, says John Masciola, whose company has processed about 200 sunken logs, including some red oak veneer used to remodel the Calgary Flames ice hockey stadium.
"It's a very fine textured wood, which is something we don't see today," says Mr. Masciola, vice president of Bacon Veneer in Calgary, Alberta.
A wood's texture, or grain, depends on the density of a tree's growth rings. Wood harvested today usually contains six to eight growth rings in each inch; the Lake Superior wood contains 18 rings an inch. Bacon attributes the difference to slower growth rates in older forests that were covered by dark canopies of leaves.
IF the sawmill operation in Ashland goes well, Mitchen hopes to add a shopping and restaurant complex and, eventually, to re-create an 1880s logging camp on the shore of Lake Superior.
Mitchen's plans are being supported by government officials in Ashland, pop. 8,600, who welcome the prospect of between 30 and 150 jobs created by the logging venture and its spin-off projects.
"People from all over the world will be coming in to look at the wood. It's definitely going to be an asset to the area. It will be a unique combination of manufacturing and tourism," says Ashland Area Development Corporation Director Frank Kempf.
Explorations International may also soon be logging warmer waters, according to Mitchen. One of his partners, Tony Kopp, is trying to get the Brazilian government's permission to harvest thousands of acres of hardwoods submerged by dam projects.
In addition to making money, Mitchen sees underwater harvesting as a sustainable alternative to cutting trees in north America and the Brazilian rain forest. "We're not cutting down any virgin forests. We're not killing any spotted owls. With every log we bring up, we're saving, maybe two trees," he says.