July 26, 2008 — -- The gray waters of Upper Lake Michigan are deep, cold and treacherous. And lately, they've been contentious.
A three-way court battle is brewing among an explorer who says he's found a 329-year-old shipwreck, the state of Michigan and the U.S. government. Just as precarious as the weather that supposedly sank the Griffon in 1679, the legal battle seems to portend a perfect storm.
"This whole area has a lot of wrecks," said Capt. Carl Carlson. "That's why they call it death's door. There's been lives taken in the water everywhere."
The Griffon shipwreck is a legend where Wisconsin meets Michigan. It's a 300-year-old mystery that Carlson and his diving partner, Steve Libert, are determined to solve.
Libert may be a secret agent by day-- he works as a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Navy -- but by night he's a passionate hunter for the old and precious.
His day job actually helps him in his hunt for historic ships, because much of this mission is stealthy and highly competitive.
"I don't think anyone from the state or any interlopers will find this location," said Libert.
Libert has enlisted shore-bound allies like Pat Ranguette, who watches with binoculars for other treasure hunters. If anything unfamiliar appears on the horizon, he rings the alarm.
"I'd get ahold of Steve, because that's part of his life he's been fighting for," said Ranguette.
Buried underwater somewhere is what's believed to be the scattered remains of the first European ship to ply the Upper Great Lakes, a French vessel built above Niagara Falls and sent west to Lake Michigan. It sank in September 1679, when young America was populated only by Native Americans and just 150,000 settlers. The ship was on its way home filled with 6,000 pounds of fur and other trade items when it caught the tail end of a wicked storm.
"All the waves come from like three different directions, and supposedly that was the demise of the Griffon," said Libert.
The Griffon has been buried for three centuries, but Libert believes he has finally found it. He has underwater pictures of the bow tip and his images show how mussels now coat the mast. It's an exciting discovery as well as a difficult one in water so murky, where visibility is measured in inches.
"On the final last dive, I bumped into this piece," Libert said, pointing to a structure from one of his pictures. "I literally bumped into it swimming in the water. Visibility was about two inches. I was cold."
Libert has dedicated almost three decades to solving the mysteries surrounding the Griffon. He's chasing a dream that was planted in his head as a young boy.
"A history teacher of mine talked about Robert LaSalle and his flagship, the Griffon," said Libert as he headed out, by boat, to the wreck site. "I think it's every kid's dream to go on a sea venture and discover things underwater."
But now that Libert has found his life's goal, he must fight with the state of Michigan over it. The government says it owns anything on the bottom. Libert says he has salvage rights, and until the court dispute is over he won't risk losing his find by telling anyone its exact location.
As a rule, the U.S. owns shipwrecks in state waters, except in cases where states can argue that the ship is "abandoned" and "embedded" in the state's submerged land. Libert's dilemma? Once he offers up the location, Michigan may declare the wreck embedded in state land, declare ownership and open the site to exploration by people other than Libert.
Libert sought to limit Michigan's interference with his find by asking a federal district court to "arrest" the wreck, which would establish U.S. jurisdiction over it. But Michigan wants to gain control and has taken Libert to court over the wreck's location.
An appeals court recently overturned a district court decision directing Libert to disclose the Griffon's location, which grants him more time to explore the wreck without Michigan's involvement. But once Libert marks the spot, Michigan and the federal government will have to decide who owns the find.
Now Libert is trying to authenticate the find as the actual Griffon. Earlier this month, he handed over a sliver of wood for testing.
And he enlisted Scott Demel of Chicago's Field Museum to visit the wreck. His first take is that the Griffon has been found.
"I haven't seen anything to disprove that it's not the Griffon," said Demel. "The cannons should have a stamp from the King of France. So that would be the sort of tag."
The Griffon was not carrying a huge treasure. The cold Michigan waters are believed to have kept the ship in good condition, but the furs it was carrying have long ago been washed away. Still, its value is immeasurable to museums and scientists.
Said Demel, "It's a huge find, and if it really turns out to be the Griffon, it's a significant piece for all the Great Lakes and North America, and even for France."
And for Libert, a lifelong mystery hunter … that's enough.
"It's not a treasure ship unless you consider history a treasure, which I do," he said.