I don’t think about what’s at the bottom of the lake very often. When I’m fishing I try to picture the bottom and can sometimes feel if it’s rocky, weedy or sandy. When I’m swimming I think about fish, turtles, weeds, loons and rocks that might be below me. I can honestly say I’ve never thought about a submerged canoe resting on the bottom of a lake.
After reading an article about the discovery of dug out canoes in Wisconsin’s Underwater Heritage newsletter the thought may cross my mind when I’m out paddling next summer. I can imagine the thrill of discovering an ancient canoe or artifact buried in the sand for years. People have found beads, pottery, arrowheads, cookware and a multitude of other items in the Boundary Waters. Chik-Wauk Museum and Nature Center has some of these items on display and will have even more in their temporary display next summer.
Most of my discoveries are small. A piece of glass here, an old tin can there or a tiny shard of something resembling a piece of pottery that could just as easily be Fiestaware. But to discover an entire canoe, wouldn’t that be amazing? I never thought about there being such a thing out in the BWCA, but I bet there are a few. Maybe someday I will find a buried treasure. Until then I’ll have to be content reading about other great archeological finds.
Wisconsin Dugout Canoes
by Jeff Gray found in the May 1998 edition
The canoe implies a long antiquity in which its manufacture has been gradually perfected…. It will ere long, perhaps, be ranked mong the lost arts. – Henry David Thoreau In September of 1996, a young girl out boating with her grandfather on Kenosha County‘s ake Mary made an amazing discovery. Pulling up to the dock, the girl noticed a peculiarly shaped piece of wood jutting out of the mud which was uncovered by the backwash of their boat’s propeller. The pair went into the water for a closer look and realized the sharp
curves, smooth surface and pointed end were not natural. They had discovered a fragment of a dug-out canoe at the foot of their pier.
Recognizing the fragility of the artifact, the family left the find in the water and reported it to the Kenosha Public Museum. The museum contacted the State Historical Society of Wisconsin’s (SHSW) underwater archeology program, and a joint field investigation confirmed the discovery of the bow or stern section of a dug-out canoe. Employing dive gear in the silty murk, the team unearthed two additional, but much smaller, potential fragments of the canoe. The pieces were carefully transported to Madison for immediate documentation and treatment in the SHSW’s artifact conservation lab. Returning to the site two weeks later, the team continued with a more systematic search, which produced another small fragment. The girl who discovered the canoe was given permission to miss school to document the project. With the help of her younger brother she filmed the search, interviewed the archeologists and recapped the discovery.
Only about 90 canoes have been discovered in Wisconsin, and this was the first to be collected by the underwater archeology program. First used by Native Americans, these canoes helped establish complex trade and communication networks. Generally constructed out of a single log, dugout canoes were shaped through repeated charring and scraping. Impressed by the efficiency of the craft, Euro- Americans employed adaptations of dug-out canoes throughout the nineteenth century. Identified as white oak, a sample was submitted for radiocarbon dating. This test measures the rate of radioactive decay of carbon to date an object. The discovery’s importance justified the expense of the procedure and was the underwater archeology program’s first use of carbon dating. The results
surprised everyone–the canoe dated to 100 A.D. The "Lake Mary Canoe," as it has become known, is the oldest known watercraft in Wisconsin. To ensure its long-life, the SHSW is employing conservation techniques to the find. Conservation is the scientific process used to preserve and restore archeological material. The basic theory behind the conservation of waterlogged wood is to remove excess water while simultaneously replacing it with a synthetic material that stabilizes and strengthens the cell structure. The goal is to preserve the artifact in order to ensure the utilization its historic value.
Several months after the Kenosha find, almost 200 miles northwest of Kenosha, a second canoe was discovered just outside of Tomah. Cranberry growers making winter preparations removed a large piece of wood from a floating bog. Once out of the water, they immediately recognized it as a dug-out canoe. The remains were almost completely intact, running its full length from bow to stern. Shortly after being exhumed from the bog, it was resubmerged to prevent decay. The landowner notified the SHSW, and an archeologist visited Tomah to analyze the canoe. Briefly documented and assessed, the artifact was left in Tomah until proper transportation and conservation facilities were arranged. Once in Madison, archeologists used tweezers and brushes in the tedious job of cleaning the plant growth and boring worms that had made the vessel home in the bog. After proper cleaning, treatment began.
Just under 11 feet long, with a maximum beam of 24 inches amidships and maximum height of about 11 inches, the "Cranberry Canoe" is of a classic dug-out shape, long and slender. Two thwarts are located 2.5 feet in from its ends along the interior. These 3.5 inch wide and 1.5 inch high carved braces run perpendicular to the center line of the canoe to provide additional strength to the hull. Other features include metal tool marks, charred interior and a plugged hole. The preservation of these canoes was greatly aided by the actions of those who discovered them. By keeping the fragile artifacts in the water, they bought time for the SHSW archeologists to properly prepare a conservation plan. When wood is submerged, the structural integrity of the cells are compromised as its water- soluble substances slowly disappear. Aided by Wisconsin‘s cool temperatures and freshwater, wood can survive for extended time if it remains hydrated. The problems begin when the artifact is removed from its stable environment in the water. When exposed to air, and deprived of conservation treatments, the dehydration that ensues causes the cells to collapse and eventually rot away. Both canoes require several more months of treatment. The SHSW and Kenosha Public Museum are providing funding. The Kenosha Public Museum will display the Lake Mary canoe, while the Tomah canoe will be at the Cranberry Expo in Warrens. If you discover any historic material, help preserve Wisconsin‘s past by leaving it in place and contacting the SHSW. C. Meide, The Dugout Canoe in America , 1995