Enterprise: Seeing the Forest for the Fish

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News from the Field, January 1997

Enterprise: Seeing the Forest for the Fish

One man’s subaquatic quest to clean up on history
By Carl Hoffman

Scott Mitchen insists he’s not trying to rub our noses in his good fortune. It’s just that the 38-year-old treasure hunter can’t help but gush when talking about his latest find. “Every piece is like a chest full of gold,” says Mitchen of the unlikely trove: countless centuries-old elms, oaks, maples, birches, pines, and hemlocks resting on the bottom of Lake Superior. “When
you cut into the bird’s-eye maple, it’s so iridescent it’s scary.”

Perhaps we can forgive Mitchen’s effusiveness. After all, he’s stumbled upon the ultimate PC booty, a mammoth cache of salable, already downed old-growth timber. Over the next half-year, Mitchen–who has been raising the lumber manually for four years–intends to use a newly purchased crane to “harvest” about 25,000 logs, a 100- to 300-a-day pace that he claims can be
maintained for 20 years. In the end, Mitchen says, his sought-after, guilt-free wood could net him millions.

So what’s a veritable old-growth forest doing in Lake Superior? A century ago, timber was being clear-cut at an unprecedented rate in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Upper Michigan. The logs were transported by chaining them together and floating them to mills on Superior’s shore, a process that, because of the lake’s turbulent waters, resulted in the loss of more than 10 percent of
the harvest. In 1989, Mitchen was diving for shipwrecks near Ashland, Wisconsin, when he noticed the vast quantities of sunken timber. Three years later the Wisconsin legislature, eager to nurture a budding, job-creating enterprise, passed a law that turned the logs over to Mitchen.

Despite the windfall, Mitchen claims that for him the thrill lies not in the money, but in being underwater with all that bark-shrouded history. “I’m shaking hands with Paul Bunyan down there,” he says. “The material gain is secondary.” Though it’s not, we might add, a bad little perk.

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine

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