An unlikely treasure lies buried in the cold dark depths of Lake Superior. Its golden hues emanate not from precious metal, but rather old-growth oak, maple, birch, and elm. Scott Mitchen, a professional treasure hunter, is thrilled with his find.
During the late 1800s, millions of trees were cut and floated across the lake; however, some 10 percent sank to the bottom before reaching the mills. Many of these trees date from the 1500s, with 30 to 40 growth rings per inch, making them stronger and denser than almost all trees standing today. The fine-grained wood is highly sought after by architects, wood workers, discerning homeowners, and CEOs seeking a rich timeless look for the board room.
Mitchen discovered the first trees in 1989 and spent the next eight years negotiating his way through a bureaucratic maze of government agencies to get the permits he needed to raise the logs. By 1997 his company, Enviro-Recovery Inc., had 35 dive teams bringing up logs weighing as much as 5,000 pounds. Despite the seemingly high rate of recovery, Mitchen says his teams will only touch a small percentage of the timber at the bottom of the lake.
While filling a torrent of orders, Mitchen has also made an effort to educate the public about the history of the logs and their value. He has spent weekends in a 14-foot tank at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, demonstrating how he raises the weighty logs, and the Smithsonian Institution is interested in a timber exhibit.
The pristine condition of the timber prompted Mitchen to learn more about how it had been preserved. The answer is straightforward: Fresh water protects old wood. With that question answered, Mitchen realized that similar sunken resources must exist around the world. He has secured permits to lift logs from thousands of acres of shoreline in the United States and Canada, as well as along the Amazon.