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leave something for the imagination

Exploring the Depths of the Boundary Waters

 by Mark Sakry

     As I stared through my mask at the scene below me, I thought I could faintly hear the voices of the French canoemen shouting as their cargo upset in the rapids.

Robert C. Wheeler, Voices from the Rapids

Charlie Klocker's eyes widened behind the mask where he skulled, gazing downward through twenty feet of water.  He and his partner were exploring with wet suits and snorkels in the flowage beneath Silver Falls in Quetico.
    Charlie had seen his partner give the snorkler's telltale sign of discovery, motionless skulling while staring downward from the surface.  Swimming over to him, Charlie followed suit.  There below, were literally hundreds of walleye, stacked like sardines in the backwater eddie beneath the ledge of the spillway into Saganagons.
    "It was incredible," Charlie reports, "they were all crowded into this quiet spot below, hundreds of fish, just stalled there facing the rapids."
    Most anglers are content simply to find a good fishing hole.  But Charlie is just as inclined to visit the watery empire.  Why?  Well, he might give you several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that Border Country affords an abundance of aquatic life that is often easily encountered like this.  And while the underwater world in the Boundary Waters lacks the color and vibrancy of the Carribean, the water is generally cool and clear.  In most lakes, visibility is good to depths of 80 feet; optimum diving conditions occur between 20 and 40 feet.  There are also many interesting geological features to explore—such as reefs, "hogbacks," and cliffs—which fairly resemble the rugged landscape above.   Then there is always the possibility of finding a fur-trade or logging-era artifact …
    To anyone who has never done it, exploring the depths of the Boundary Waters can open up a vast and fascinating new world.  Diving is not limited to those with elaborate gear, special training, or formal certification.
    Because diving is largely a visual experience, it follows that a diver's most basic aid is the mask.  It is the window to the aquatic world beneath the surface.  Even if it is all you have for equipment, it is all you basically need to enjoy a diving experience in the Boundary Waters.  Simply swimming with a mask along the shoreline, over a reef, or near a weed bed may surprise you.   There!—the hiding place of a big snapper; and there!—a swimming beaver; over there!—the bizarre capers of a feeding loon …
   Diving epitomizes the way that human beings adapt to hostile environments (that is, if you consider a cold, dark, silent realm without air hostile).  Beyond the mask, add flippers.  Now you can not only maneuver more easily, you can shuttle more quickly between the surface and bottom, extending your range to about
25 feet.  Add a snorkel.  Now you no longer have to interrupt your dive by breaking visual contact with your underwater world when you rise for air.  Add a wet suit.  Now you can more readily tolerate cold temperatures of deeper water, and spend more time diving.   Add tanks, or, more accurately, Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA).  Oh, yes, now you have arrived.  Now you can swim with the lake trout, free to explore for extended periods in the most remote depths of the Boundary Waters.
    Sound simple?  Well, veteran divers will tell you there's a little more to it than that.  But not a whole lot, really.
    Located inconspicuously, next to the A&W Restaurant on East Sheridan Street in Ely, Minnesota, is a small shop heralded by a blue and white sign with a picture of a diver and buoyant lettering that reads:  A&W DIVING.  This humble establishment is the diving center for the Ely area.  It has gradually become an important clearing house of lore and information (particularly in the area of local underwater archeology) for divers visiting the BWCAW from around the country.
    Proprietor Alan White offers certified diving classes, equipment rental and sales, as well as charter diving excursions on nearby Burntside Lake.  For those who would like an introductory scuba experience in canoe country, White offers basic skills training and a shallow-water dive in local waters for a nominal $35 fee.  No previous experience (or certification) is necessary.
    "This is the same resort course that people get in Hawaii or the Carribean," claims White.  "It offers beginners four hours of safe PADI instruction, equipment included, and a chance to get their feet wet in about 20 feet of water."
    PADI stands for the Professional Association of Diving Instructors.   This is an international organization which sets guidelines for diver training and certification at every level.  Like A&W Diving, many diving outlets and scuba supply stores around the country offer PADI training.
    For those who would like more advanced canoe country diving instruction—as well as the chance to visit reefs, wrecks, the Great Parks Wall (an underwater cliff), and some big nighttime fish hangouts near the BWCAW—White offers a variety of classes, advanced dives, and boat charter options.  [Note: Open Water Diver certification is required to participate in advanced diving activities.)
    "Otherwise," White says, "I would recommend simply starting out with snorkel gear.  It's a good way to begin diving in canoe country."
    Indeed, especially for extended canoe trips, snorkel equipment is in many ways more practical than scuba.  It is lightweight, easy to use (no certification necessary), and does not require air fills, like tanks do.
    Charlie Klocker concurs:  "With snorkel gear, you can still do dives of up to 20 or 30 feet, depending on your ability, and you don't have to lug tanks around."
    White also advises first-timers to rent snorkel gear before buying:   "This gives you a chance to see if diving is really for you, before you start sinking money into equipment and training."  For canoe country visitors, A&W Diving rents good-quality snorkels, masks, and flippers— including brief instruction in their use—for around $25 for seven days.
    Scuba rentals and air fills are also available (with proof of certification).  Since operation of gas-powered engines is prohibited in most of the BWCAW and Quetico, use of portable air compressors to refill tanks is not possible.   "Out in the Canoe Country," states Klocker, "once your tanks are out, they're out."  Many people prefer to scuba dive close to air-fill service.
    Experienced divers may be attracted to Minnesota-Ontario border waters to search for underwater artifacts.  For example, in his book Canoe Country Wilderness, William N. Rom, M.D. reports, "The Basswood River and Gunflint River had previously given up treasures of pots, rifles, and other relics lost when a voyageur's canoe overturned in the rapids."
    Indeed, more than 60 accidents are referred to in journals and diaries from the fur trade, which point to the loss of goods and men in dangerous waters.   These accidents typically occurred in rapids.  Most goods and wares, being westward bound to supply the fur trade, are most likely to be found at the bases of westward flowing rapids along voyageur canoe routes.
    However, many artifacts have already been recovered in such areas by the QueticoSuperior Underwater Project, an ambitious team of divers and archaeologists sponsored by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Royal Ontario Museum from 1960 to 1973.  Their systematic search and recovery of kettles, musket, axes, files, ice chisels, pipes, and many other items of the fur trade, gave rise to the term "whitewater archeology."  An intriguing account of this entire project is given in Voices from the Rapids, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, 1975.
    A more likely encounter would be the one described by Rom:   "One hot summer day, two friends and I carried scuba gear up the Knife River to search the pools below the various rapids for relics, but found nothing except—to our surprise—a logger's peavey, used to move logs."
    The logging artifacts of more recent history cover a wide range of lakes and streams in canoe country.  "There's a lot of water up here," says White, who routinely takes divers to historical underwater sites on Burntside Lake, "and a lot of history."
    He boasts of a sunken steam-powered logging tug and an old 36-ft. launch, burned to the waterline, that he discovered.  He talks about the old bottles, logging tools and implements … or the rare Indian find.  But he has a different opinion when it comes to collecting them.
    "This stuff is of much more value in the water," he states.   "I see the anticipation and excitement in the faces of the people I bring down."  The idea of discovery is far more important to him than possessing trophies.  "By leaving these things down there, they can be discovered over and over again."
    This is a sentiment shared by many others, as well.  In fact, artifacts of great value may actually be damaged by improper removal methods, such as digging or prying.
    It is better to report artifact finds to an organization like the Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, or the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto.   (Similarly, for those who may be tempted to collect what they have found, these institutions may be interested simply in knowing of your discovery.)  Their sentiments are succinctly stated in Voices from the Rapids: "We have the opportunity to use these objects to interpret the past meaningfully.  They are more than merely curious relics of a remote and bygone era.  Dimly seen behind these tools are the minds that created them.  Unknowingly, these artifacts commenced the transformation of the wilderness world."
    For more information about local underwater archeology and scuba diving in the BWCAW, call or write:  Alan White, A&W Diving, 1311 East Sheridan Street, Ely, MN 55731; (218) 365-3389. 

Copyright C. Mark Sakry 1990

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