Jurrasic Bark: Underwater Logging in Lake Superior

Sunken hardwood trees from decades of lumbering operations have made underwater logging a viable business opportunity in the Great Lakes.

| October/November 1998

In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, an army of loggers labored beneath the seemingly endless canopy of the white pine forests that stretched from Wisconsin to Canada, harvesting the virgin hardwoods that grew beneath the cool protective shade of the pines.

The old-growth trees of those far-reaching Northeast lands are forever gone—or are they? Several years ago, Scott Mitchen, cofounder along with Robert "Buz" Holland of the Superior Water-Logged Lumber Co., Inc. in Ashland, Wisconsin, discovered that hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of sunken logs lie preserved on the bed of Lake Superior, remnants of logging operations that stretch back over 300 years. Transported in chain-boomed rafts to sawmills, 20% to 30% of the timber became water-logged and fell to the lake bed, where it is destined to remain. That is, until treasure hunter and shipwreck salvager Scott Mitchen and his team of divers get hold of it. "This," says Mitchen, "is the biggest treasure we've ever found."

Mitchen’s underwater logging operation (he has described the lost logs as the "Jurassic Park of wood,") is also harvesting red oak, flaming red birch, maple, cherry, elm, walnut, and more — all of which have slumbered for centuries in the cold silences of the Great Lake.

Lake Superior, the world's largest body of fresh water, proved to be the best possible resting place for the lost timber, some of which sank below its thick glassy surface before the United States of America existed. The low temperatures and oxygen content of the lake preserved the logs, some nearly 700 years old, embalming them like mummies from a lost civilization.

Because these mummified logs once grew under a canopy of conifers in low light and limited-nutrient conditions, they matured slower than the fast-growing varieties modem tree farms now use. The result is a superfine grain, with 25 to 70 growth rings an inch (the highest count yet is 77 rings an inch). This compares to an average of six to 15 growth rings an inch in today's harvested trees. "The growth rings are so tight, they're like pages in a book," says Mitchen.

Superior Water-Logged is using the salvaged wood to build furniture, handicrafts, and musical instruments. Marketed under the trademark Timeless Timber, many of these items are crafted by locals in the Ashland area. One can purchase a walking stick made from a century-old hard maple for $135, wood carvings starting at $140, or a handcarved decoy for $1,500. The furniture, much of it built in the mission or Arts & Crafts style, costs from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

The furniture is assembled with old-fashioned woodworking techniques, such as pegs in place of nails, and pinned mortise and tenon joinery. Craftsmen who use the wood first had to rediscover and learn these largely antiquated methods. "We had to teach ourselves," says Gregory M. Leick, chief executive officer of Leick Furniture, based in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, which makes furniture from the logs. "Because this wood is so special, it deserved the best treatment we could muster."

2/19/2015 8:08:06 PM

Where can we view the products for sale made from L Superior wood? Is there a tour available to see and learn about the harvesting of this wood from LS.?

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