What follows is a journal of the past two expeditions I took with fellow archaeologist James the past year searching for a hitherto unknown shipwreck located in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. To protect the site and the possible shipwreck, I am going to keep the location vague and unknown hence the title “Mystery Bay”. It is the logical course of action because as of this writing we have only found evidence of a possible shipwreck rather than the shipwreck itself. When the time comes that the wreck itself is discovered then its location will be disclosed. I believe in sharing discoveries, which is part of the reason that I started this blog to begin with. Withholding the location of a possible shipwreck is a common strategy in the realm of shipwreck hunting most often to the detriment to our collective historical knowledge. Although, some wrecks simply need be protected by keeping their location vague much like many archaeological sites on land. The ethics of shipwreck hunting as such is enough for another blog post unto itself. In this case, I want to share this discovery but, I want to share it when there is something more concrete.
This story does not begin with myself but with my colleague on this venture, James Paquette. James is an archaeologist native to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and is responsible for the discovery of the Gorto site, a late Paleoindian site in the Upper Peninsula. This discovery is detailed in his book The Find of a Thousand Lifetimes: The Story of the Gorto Site Discovery.
James was camping near mystery bay in 2002. During his stay, he was walking across the beach where he came across a well-worn portion of framing (ships ribs) and hull fragment apparently from a wooden ship. According to James, the framing was washed up on the water’s edge and was approximately 3 feet to 4 feet in size. It was held together by what appeared to be large wooden dowels. The fragment he found was very old and appeared to have been tossed about by waters and waves for some time giving it the polished, smoothed “driftwood” appearance. Regardless of its size, the fragment was too heavy to lift and James left the fragment in situ exactly where he had found it on the shoreline. In the 14 (now 15) years that have passed since 2002, the piece that was found has since disappeared.
Fast forward to 2016. There was a discussion on an online forum regarding the most famous shipwreck of the Great Lakes (or second most famous shipwreck) Le Griffon. Due to the topic being Great Lakes shipwrecks, James told his story at which point I jumped on it, I was excited at the prospect of a possible unknown shipwreck with its own story to tell. Thus we began our collaboration. The next step was to travel to Mystery Bay to begin our search.
The First Expedition
Being that it was February, I had to wait to travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for a time when there wasn’t snow on the ground and the temperatures were somewhat better for camping. Also for the water in Mystery Bay to be open and not covered in a layer of ice. Mystery Bay is in a very remote spot in the U.P. and any sort of search in the area requires once to camp there. The details that James had provided that interested me the most was his description of the hull fragment. “It was held together with wooden dowels.” That detail suggests to me that this fragment is very old. In terms of great lakes shipbuilding wooden downs (or “pegs” or “tenons”) would have been widely used first prior to iron or steel becoming commercially available. The other possibility is that this vessel was built modestly using wood, the more economical component. The final possibility is that this vessel was constructed using a combination of both iron and wooden components as later evidence would suggest. Although James had said that the fragment he had found has since disappeared, he believes that since it was so heavy, it is unlikely that anyone would have recovered it. I wasn’t concerned, where there is one fragment surely there would be more. There is also the possibility that the water level has changed since 2002 and the fragment has since been returned to the lake or has been buried under sediment.
Based on the online research that I conducted prior to traveling up to Mystery Bay, this wreckage could be an unknown shipwreck. The nearest known shipwreck to this area is approximately 20 miles away near the former shipping lane that passed near the area. Viewing Mystery Bay via Google Earth has revealed nothing resembling a shipwreck in the area. This is unlike the first shipwreck that I have ever surveyed, the schooner Grape Shot off of Plum Island in Wisconsin’s Door County. Being that the wreck of the Grape Shot is only in 8 feet of water, located in a shallow bay, it can clearly be viewed on Google Earth.
Mystery Bay is a small, shallow, sandy, bay with a large limestone reef covering roughly the entire length of the mouth of the bay with one small inlet. The uppermost corner of the bay has a large sandy beach with small sand dunes. On either side of Mystery Bay, there is limestone bedrock or large limestone cobbles.
Due to its shallow depth and sandy bottom, it is most likely that the wreck at Mystery Bay is either completely or partially buried in the sandy bottom only being revealed under certain conditions. Once again, to use the Grape Shot as an example it was found that at least half the wreck was missing due to it being buried underneath the sandy bottom.
Conditions of the area had improved by early May. I arrived at Mystery Bay Friday, May 13, 2016 at about 18:00 after leaving home at about 9:30. I had to make a couple of stops due to gathering the last bit of equipment and provisions needed for operations at Mystery Bay. It was an easy drive, just a long one. I initially had trouble setting up my tent due to the nylon in the poles snapping. Conditions were, it was overcast, damp and drizzling at 47 degrees. It was far too damp to try to start a fire so after I had my tent set up I just relaxed and bundled to conserve heat. There is little phone service up here, I can get 2 bars if I stand on a high spot or hold onto my car’s antenna with my phone in my hand. For whatever reason, that seemed to work. I was the only person for miles. Aside from the sound of the wind through the pines and the drizzle, the only sounds were my own. This was precisely what the doctor ordered. I made an offering of tobacco. It got dark an hour after I had my camp set up and I quickly fell asleep.
I woke up with the sun and birds at 5:59. I tried to catch a few more hours of sleep. James had agreed to meet me at my campsite at about 10:00. The temperature was about in the ’30s to ’40s, partly cloudy with some sun and blue sky. The wind was blowing steady from the West. During this day it had apparently snowed back down in Wisconsin, I never saw a flake. James arrived just as said at 10:00. With him, he brought another archaeologist Scott Demel. After introductions, we got right to works. We had decided to conduct a pedestrian survey of the beach. We started walking the upper mouth of the bay, where we quickly realized that the fragment that James had found previously was back to being submerged underwater. However, we found many interesting things lying out on the beach. First of all, a wooden gill net float. This is an artifact that I have some experience with from my research into Great Lakes fishing tugs, that’s how I was able to make a positive identification of the artifact. Gillnet fishing was a form of commercial fishing heavily used on the Great Lakes at the turn of the century. To keep gill next floating erect in the water in order to catch fish, a fisherman would sting out floats across the top of the fishing nets. Initially, these floats were made from wood but, eventually were upgraded to aluminum.
Near the very mouth of the bay, Scott had found a possible pound net stake used for pound net fishing, a different form of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes. It was long, at least 10 feet, cylindrical and had faded white paint on it.
The most exciting find came from the exact mouth of the bay. We had found two planks. The first bank was fairly large at least 5 feet and what made it stand out is that it had four evenly spaced, symmetrical holes bored into it. The interesting thing is that there were no rust stains within the holes suggesting that perhaps these holes were also for wooden dowels. This piece of planking was considerably worn. We had also found another smaller piece of planking not too far away from the first. This smaller plank was about 3 feet in length and had a singular hole in the center that did have rust stains on either side. The smaller plank may also have had white paint on it. These were all worked holes rather than the natural holes that can be seen worn into driftwood. It is unknown if the two planks are related but it is possible. This was our sign! Something was here in Mystery Bay. There was plenty of other wooden detritus on the beach including modern plywood but nothing else that looked historic or “shipwrecky”.
We had spent at least two hours on our pedestrian survey. We had taken these two planks and placed them in a special spot above the high watermark. James and Scott left not too long after, leaving me alone once more. We had a promising find, brought in by wind, wave, and ice. Something is in the bay or at least just offshore of the bay. Lastly, we found something that was almost like a sign. On this desolate beach far from anywhere, was a children’s plastic toy of a scuba diver. Perhaps signaling what is to come (or what has to come) in the future. We also saw future geology in action, we saw a mound of dead zebra mussel shells washed up on the beach, almost making their own reef. It was remarkable how many there were and we marveled at the fact that this small knoll created by an invasive species will become limestone in the future.
I spent the rest of the day gathering damp wood and reading in the silence and isolation of Mystery Bay. That night I managed to coax the damp wood into a decent campfire. I managed to fall into a comfortable sleep.
I woke up at 5:00 in the morning to a frozen wind that gently blew through the forest like a frozen breath. I was wearing at least 5 layers and had all the blankets I could muster with my sleeping bag but, this breeze chilled my face. That’s when the howling began. About a mile distant from where I was camping I judged. I have heard Coyote’s yipping and I have heard an entire pack of wolves howling. This sounded like neither but, being in the U.P. either is possible. I wasn’t scared but I marveled at the haunting sound. I sat and listened trying to ascertain how many individuals there were. In retrospect, I think they were wolves. I couldn’t get back to sleep. Since we had done all that we could do in a preliminary survey, and the water was far too cold to enter, I concluded that we did all that we could do at this point. I decided then to pack it up and leave at 6:00.
Part III: The Interim
A few short weeks later, I received a frantic e-mail from James. Himself and some friends had pedestrian surveyed the lower side of the mouth of Mystery Bay. He had covered the area we did not during our initial survey. Why we had stopped at that point in our initial survey, was due to the opposite side of Mystery Bay being private property. The lower part of the mouth of Mystery Bay juts out into a small peninsula. Extending down this peninsula are several private properties. There are only two houses on the inside of Mystery Bay, the closest being a ramshackle cabin that looks like it had been abandoned. James and his friend had walked to this cabin where they had found hanging from the porch of the cabin…a ten-foot long plank with holes bored into it. It was impressive and I got excited at the prospect of the next trip to Mystery Bay. Remarkably, James had managed to find and contact the landowner of this property who apparently lives in Wisconsin. This landowner gave two important pieces of information, first he said that he had found this plank washed ashore on the limestone beach in front of his cabin. Secondly, he sad that during a period of low water the entire reef stretching across the mouth of Mystery bay was exposed enough that he and his son were able to walk out on the reef. There they had found a large pile of iron nails spread across the reef. Lastly, this landowner had found another wooden fragment that was also on his porch. He gave us his permission to go onto his property and photograph the artifacts. The interesting thing about this second plank is that it had iron fasteners sticking out of it. The testimony of this landowner who has had this property for at least twenty years is very promising and further cement the fact that there is a shipwreck in the area. This made me very excited to return to Mystery Bay and this time I was actually going to get in the water.
The Second Expedition
I wasn’t able to return to Mystery bay until the last weekend of July 2016. I arrived on Friday, July 29. 2016 at about 17:00. It was absolutely gorgeous at Mystery Bay. It was sunny and completely clear at 70 degrees. Wind was blowing directly into the bay, which later turned out to be a problem. Conditions were perfect and I knew it was going to be a good weekend. There was ample time before sundown to get base camp up and running. I finally repaired the nylon strings that had snapped during the last trip. I did this out in the field and they worked well. I was able to gather ample firewood for the whole weekend. Night at Mystery Bay is a different story. If you haven’t seen the film (or the play) Escanaba in Da Moonlight, go out of your way to see it. There is a point where one of the characters describes what night is like in the Upper Peninsula and I realized then that it has a bit of merit to it.
“Da night in da U.P. is a whole different animal altogether. There’s a stillness to it. Like Black Ice. You can’t see it. You can’t touch it. If you aren’t careful, it’ll wrap its arms around you and squeeze until the only sound you hear is your own heart beating and your own breath breathing”
It is surreal and beautiful. Night at Mystery Bay is entirely silent, the only sound being the lake lapping on the beach. It is entirely dark with no light pollution. The night is so dark and so silent that it is stifling, almost claustrophobic. The only light is the campfire. This time there were other people in the area but, you would have never have guessed it.
Once again James and I had agreed to meet at my campsite at 9:00. I woke up at 8:00 and ran my car in order to charge my phone just in case. As I wandered down to the beach, I came across something interesting. I had found evidence of ceremonial activity near my campsite. Evidence that someone else considers Mystery Bay to be a sacred place. A little further down from that there was another sign. (In my original draft I went into detail about what I saw but, I had decided that out of respect, I would omit it) In any case, I realized the power of the place that I was in. Mystery Bay is a sacred place. Seeing these things somehow assured me that I must be in the right place.
James arrived at 9:00 and we promptly got to work. One thing that we noticed immediately is that the water level was much higher than it was two months prior by at least 3 feet. Meaning that some of the artifacts we found such as the wood gill net float or the trap net pole are back to being submerged. The two planks we found prior would be back to being submerged. Due to the shallowness of the bay, I opted to snorkel for our first survey. Snorkeling would also enable us to cover more ground. James had brought a kayak and a snorkel for himself, his method being to head to the spots he had seen and points he had taken on GPS while kayaking previously and dive in from there. I had my sights set on surveying the reef because if there is a reef and a shipwreck, odds are high that the shipwreck was because the ship had struck the reef. We each worked independently, coming together a few times to talk about what we were seeing. The day was bright, clear, 70 degrees, it was a perfect day for snorkeling. The wind was blowing into the bay bringing in a few larger waves. The wind and waves were conspiring to bring in a steady stream of sediment into the bay giving the water a cloudy haze and decreasing visibility. The interesting thing to note is that the visibility was fine early in the day at about 7 to 8 feet but it decreased as the day progressed. Later, when I swam into the inlet into the bay at the end of the reef, I viewed the sediment coming into the bay as a steady cloud.
James started closer inshore and I started from where the reef connects to the shore just mere yards away from the cabin with the plank on display. The water temperature was fair for the Great Lakes about 60 degrees. I swam a zigzag pattern across the reef several dozen times. When a large wave would come rolling in across the reef, I sometimes had trouble keeping my position, water over the reef was only 4 to 5 feet. The reef itself was the same bright, white limestone cobbles as far as the eye can see. Inshore of the reef, the bay is sandy with a few weedy spots. Offshore of the reef, the reef slopes gradually down to about 10 feet, where I suspect the bottom slopes down deeper. Some places the slope was much sharper. After about 5 hours of snorkeling, neither James nor I had come across anything remotely cultural. All the spots James had marked had turned out to be driftwood. The pile of nails laying across the reef that the landowner had described, I never saw it. I did spot a few stones with rust stains on them. In the end, admittedly I felt a little defeated. James was much more optimistic, reminding me that this was just our first glance. What we did learn from this snorkel survey is we now have a better understanding of the underwater topography of Mystery Bay. We had somewhat changed our theory, that the wreckage must be just outside the bay and the current, wind, waves, and ice is carrying in the wreckage into Mystery Bay.
On either side of Mystery Bay, are two other bays. The lower part of the mouth of Mystery Bay juts out sharply into a peninsula with all the private properties including the aforementioned cabin. The upper mouth is a large blunt peninsula. After James left and I had lunch, I took it upon myself to survey both the beach of these adjoining bays and the peninsulas. James had said he had made contact with a few of the other landowners on the lower peninsula. The one on the exact tip of the bay claimed he had found an anchor just offshore of his property and this too is on display in the landowner’s yard. I walked the beach from Mystery Bay to this property where I saw this anchor, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take a good enough picture as this anchor was far into the landowners’ yard and not on the beach. It was a very strange looking anchor, I have never had actually seen one that looked like it before. It was fairly small, and due to its size, I wouldn’t think that it would be used on a larger vessel. The anchor looked similar to half of a treble hook for fishing, it was two “J” shapes pointing away from each other at roughly a 40-degree angle that when viewed from the top, it appeared like a “V” shape. The anchor appeared to made of lead and was dark, possibly painted black. It could be a grapnel, which is a small anchor used for dragging or grappling. It could also possibly be a Kedge which is another small anchor used to keep a ship steady. It is easy to imagine that a ship was attempting to grapnel to provide more stability while the vessel was trying to ride out a storm and then was tossed onto the rocks just outside Mystery Bay. The shoreline of Mystery Bay and the two adjoining bays (with the exception of the beach) are mainly large limestone cobbles that made for tough going.
This same landowner had apparently mentioned what I found next to James. Around the peninsula and on the inside of the next bay, ran up on the beach was a hull. When I got close enough to inspect it, it revealed itself to be a welded steel hull. It was about 12 feet long and 3 feet off the ground at the bow. The interior had welded steel frames. There were portions of the hull that sill retained original paint, which was black. At the bow on the starboard (right) side, there was a partial deteriorated picture of a stylized Native American wearing a headdress. It had its anchor chain extended a foot from the bow ending at the hook where the anchor would be. Perhaps the landowner who had the anchor proudly displayed on his lawn rather than finding an anchor at the edge of the peninsula of Mystery Bay had recovered the anchor from this apparent “wreck”.
The manufacturer’s plate at the stern of this hull was far too worn to make out any detail. This definitely is not a rowboat; the stern was a metal box apparently for mounting an engine. There was no apparent damage to the hull though it was filled with the same gravel that the hull was surrounded by. The hull was most likely abandoned here, for reasons unknown. There was formerly a Great Lakes tradition that when a fishing vessel of a tug outlived its usefulness, the vessel would be grounded on a beach somewhere isolated (out of sight) and abandoned. Though I’m unsure if that is really the case for this hull. This hull is 12 feet long, roughly 3 feet high off the ground it seems too small to be a commercial fishing vessel. Perhaps it was steel-hulled powerboat. There was no evidence of a superstructure however, it may have degraded being exposed to the elements. The hull is about 2 feet away from the shore. It appears somewhat modern, at least 1950’s vintage. It was definitely a prefabricated hull. I took a GPS point of the bow for good measure.
This “wreck” aside, this beach was devoid of any historic debris. This first bay ends abruptly at another peninsula that juts out sharply from the land, on the next side, it is at least 3 miles to the next shoreline. From there, I traveled back to my campsite and settled in for the night with a campfire.
I woke up bright and early at 7:00 and decided to start the day by walking the bay around the wider, blunt peninsula at the upper mouth of Mystery Bay. This was slightly easier than the walk before. Once I made my turn and walked down the shoreline of the next bay, I had walked as far as I could because eventually there wasn’t any more shoreline to walk on. The forest ended abruptly at the water. This bay was much wider and larger must likely a few miles across. It was also shallower inshore as evidenced by the grass growing out of the water in this bay. Once again, I did not encounter anything resembling the historic wood that we had been seeing in Mystery Bay. I turned around and headed back. Once I got back to camp, I got changed into my snorkeling gear and tried to give Mystery Bay one last try before I had to leave. This time I entered on the opposite side of the bay at the actual sand beach. I wanted to see if I could find the fragment that James had found in 2002. The water is very shallow in this area. I had to wade practically to the center of the bay when the water got up to 5 feet. I attempted to snorkel this spot but, because of the prevailing wind blowing directly into the bay and the spot being located directly behind the inlet into the bay visibility was almost 0. It was a cloud of suspended sand being blown into the bay. The change was drastic because when I swam behind the protective barrier of the reef, the visibility changed to at least 8 feet. I spent over and hour swimming though it and feeling blindly, through the sand.
After I got out, I went and packed up base camp but before I left, I went to photograph and measure the pieces on display on the Cabin’s front porch. The small wooden piece on his porch appears to be a futtock which is the curved piece of wood that would have been the lower part of a ship’s frame. It could also possibly be a stemson or a sternson which is the curved time the joins wither the upward extension of the keelson or the curved timber joining the keelson and inner sternpost. In any case, it’s a curved piece of historic wood with nails protruding from it. It has a dowel in the center of its uppermost section. It has several rust stains on either side. In the center of the outer side is a series of iron square head nails, at least six of them with two boreholes for nails with the nails missing. This wood fragment is about 28 inches long (72 centimeters) It is roughly 5 inches across its upper edge (14 centimeters) and roughly 2 inches across the lower edge (6 centimeters). A few of the nails are loose in their holes (due to wear) I removed a loss nail. The nails appear to be hand-wrought or at leas very rough with square heads. The nails are about 4 inches long (10 centimeters). Although this trip did not reveal much larger than this artifact, seeing it, handling it and measuring it still gave me hope that there is something here.
I left wishing I had more time to stay at Mystery Bay. So far for the past two days I have only been able to stay for about three days at a clip. Although conditions were fair, I also wished for to visit when the wind wasn’t blowing directly into the bay.
Based on the scant evidence, I think there is a wreck at Mystery Bay. What that wreck could remain a mystery. Mystery Bay is far off the beaten path, nautical speaking, and it really isn’t on the way to any major port. In the course of my research, I found that the area around Mystery bay was the focus of commercial fishing during the golden age of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes, the 1920s-1930s. The wooden gill net float and pound net stake found during our initial survey would attest to commercial fishing taking place in or around Mystery Bay. Perhaps the wreck is a former Mackinaw Boat, which was an early type of fishing boat on the Great Lakes (Although Mackinac boats were very versatile, sailed very well and served a variety of roles). In fact, one of the wrecks that were claimed early on to be the wreck of Le Griffon, the Griffon Cove wreck had turned out to be a sunken Mackinaw Boat albeit a large one. As mentioned, it may be a boat that had outlived its usefulness and was abandoned at Mystery Bay much like the hull laying on the shore the next bay over. Finally, perhaps it was a larger vessel that was blown off course and was searching for a protective bay to shelter during a storm only to wreck upon the reef. There is a local Historical Society for the area around Mystery Bay and I have tried several times unsuccessfully to get a hold of them. In my mind, if there were anyone who would possibly have any information on local wrecks it would be them. Unfortunately, it is a very small historical society with no email address and only a phone number. After numerous calls and messages, I still have as of yet to make contact. They have a small museum dedicated to the local history but it is open at odd times and the times I tried to visit was a time where it was closed. I’d like to talk to the local landowners myself or any locals just to see if any of them may know anything.
The next step is that since James and myself have a better idea about how Mystery Bay works is that we want to conduct a visual search in the deeper waters just outside of the bay in about 10+ feet of water. Due to Mystery Bay’s remoteness, it would make dive operations a challenge. The closest dive shop has long since gone the way of the dodo. Diving Mystery Bay would require either multiple tanks or we would have to bring our own air compressor to refill tanks. The former would probably be easiest at this point. However, there is a third option. I have access to a Hookah, which is basically a scuba regulator attached to an air hose which in turn is attached to an air compressor that floats at the surface. We would only need a float or a boat with the capacity for the compressor and then only the gasoline to operate it. James also wants to do an aerial survey from a drone of the entirety of Mystery Bay so we could get a better aerial view of the bay than what Google Earth can offer. We could focus on the bigger pieces of technology, side-scan sonar, magnetometer, and the like but we just consider what we can attain.
Finally, as stated Mystery Bay is a shallow, sandy bay and as stated, this will make for challenges. Shallow water wrecks lie in very dynamic environments, they are affected by wind, wave, ice, and sand. Viewing them is entirely dependent on conditions and we may have to wait for the proper conditions. Portions of the wreck if not the entire wreck may be buried, unburied and reburied. Some of you may recall a few years ago when Lake Michigan had such clarity after winter that Coast Guard flights discovered new wrecks. Finally, I admit there is that possibility that we may have just found random flotsam and jetsam deposited on the beach from anywhere, though the lack of similar historic wood in the bays adjoining Mystery Bay would suggest that Mystery Bay is the spot. I have heard the stories of landowners in Wisconsin’s Door County, who have had artifacts wash up from wrecks offshore but have never seen the wreck much like our landowner here. There seems to be something here and I will continue to search when I can until I can say: there’s nothing here at Mystery Bay.