Reaching Camp: Fairport, MI

David J. Ruck Headed to Griffin Project

Producer/Cinematographer David J. Ruck headed to Fairport, MI for the expedition.

There’s a certain mystery in the air as you head up to the U.P. of Michigan. Crossing the 5-mile Mackinaw Bridge, taking a sharp left onto US 2, crawling along the northern coast of Lake Michigan until you come to the Garden Peninsula. From there, it’s a straight shot south until you reach the point, jetting out far into Lake Michigan.

Sunset along M2 West

The Sunset Along M2 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

At this point you are about 8 miles away from where La Salle’s ship may have violently disappeared in a storm in 1679 and is now resting dormant in mucky sentiment some feet below the waterline.

Milky Way stars visible over Lake Michigan from Fairport, MI

The Milky Way is clearly visible in the South East sky from Fairport, MI.

Fairport is a beautiful place. Simple. Quiet. Islands dot the horizon. The Milky Way arches over head, extending from Lake Michigan up towards the North Star.

For the week and a half, this camper will be home. The experts are gathering from around the globe. The air is pregnant with possibility. I’m looking forward to sinking into the elements with my gear, observing the removing of the layers of sediment, pealing away the last few hundred years, hopefully revealing what we all hope is the oldest shipwreck of the upper Great Lakes…

Stars over the campers in Fairport, MI

The accommodations in Fairport, MI. Beautiful summer skies above.

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Griffon: Mythical Beast; Elusive Wreck

Griffon heads to Lake Erie

Le Griffon was the first vessel to sail above Niagara Falls.

No one can say for sure whether or not the French took the time to actually carve the figure of a Griffon onto the first sailing vessel to traverse the upper Great Lakes. Shipwreck hunters fantasize about a figure head on the bow or a carving on the stern of the mythical beast, half eagle, half lion. Consider the fact that Le Griffon was built in the dead of winter (during a “mini ice age”, mind you) just above Niagara Falls. The French were in a hurry, they had limited supplies and tools to accomplish the task of building the ship, and the Native American – watching from a distance as the “giant canoe” took shape – did not want the ship to be constructed. All of these things – and the fact that Le Griffon was not a grandiose vessel by all accounts – suggest that it is unlikely that there would be a figure head on the ship. But who knows?

Dive boat hovers above the site of Le Griffon

The team prepares the back of the boat for divers to enter the water.

This wreck was never meant to be found. At least not on purpose. Only the smallest bit of what might be a wreck is sticking out of the bottomlands of Lake Michigan in an area so remote, so vast and open, that upon seeing what it is that Steve Libert found, you wonder how it was ever found at all. And it’s not that impressive at a glance.

At a glance…

But when you look closer at this piece of what looks like White Oak sticking out of the bottom of the lake, you have to wonder, all things considered, what in the hell is it and how did it get there? And what is it attached to?

Diving on Le Griffon

Diving on what might be the oldest shipwreck in the Great Lakes: Le Griffon

It’s enough of something to bring top archaeologists, geophysicists, commercial divers, PhDs of all kinds to this remote location in northern Lake Michigan. And the science is suggesting that this beam isn’t just standing by itself in the middle of essentially nowhere – it’s attached to something large, something buried, something very old.

If it is Le Griffon, it would be the start of solving the greatest mystery of the Great Lakes. The next steps would be to determine how it sunk. Are their bodies on board? What’s in the cargo hold? No one knows what’s sitting under the muck beneath this peculiar wooden object, 8 miles from mainland Michigan in a dark, cold, forbidding location at the bottom of Lake Michigan. But a team of the best scientists and explorers are hoping to find out in the next few weeks. It might just be a mythical beast…

Tested the Gates Housing and EX1 today…

David Ruck Gates Sony EX1

Experimenting with the Gates/EX1 in Lake Leelanau.

So I took a dive in Lake Leelanau today.  Just to be clear, there is nothing to see there.  Sand, zebra mussels, occasional tree stump.

It’s a very complicated rig and the monitor is difficult to use for much more than a frame reference.  Going to have to make sure I understand which settings the zebra stripes are set at, if auto-focus is actually turning on/off when I tell it to, and figuring out the best way to white balance at depth (it hasn’t been simple to figure that out, or exactly what process is turning auto exposure on/off)

This is definitely the most complicated camera unit I’ve ever operated.

“You found the Griffon? We’ve heard that before…”

David Ruck Cinematographer

Cinematographer David J Ruck on location in Northern Michigan

When I came across the story of “Le Griffon” – the first vessel to sail the Great Lakes and sink with loss of life – I was researching topics about the history of Lake Michigan. I was interested in Native American history, early settlers, trade – in short, I wanted to understand how the Lakes played a role in Michigan’s history. The Griffon kept jumping out at me. Every history book about Michigan that touched on the Great Lakes included the story of French Explorer La Salle’s missing ship, how it went missing shortly after its maiden voyage, and had never been found. These books were all at least a “few” years old. Had the Griffon been found?

I started Googling.

Indians and Canoes and Le Griffon

Over 40 expeditions and projects had been launched since the Griffon went missing in 1679. The first was by La Salle himself, who was obviously devastated by the loss of his ship. Since then, any time a piece of wood landed on a beach or the hulk of a ship was found in the bottom of the Great Lakes, someone screamed out that they had found Le Griffon. So, when I read that some guy named Steve Libert had found something he was thinking was Le Griffon, this had to be approached with a healthy amount of skepticism – to most people in the “know” at this point, the ship was practically of mythical status – if it had been found, it would be the most historic discovery in North America in a lifetime.

Steve can tell you the whole story about being tied up in court with the Federal Government, the State of Michigan, being stalked by NOAA, being labeled a “Treasure Hunter” (there’s no treasure on the Griffon), and any number of other legal adventures that have delayed the process of identifying whatever it is he found in the cold, dark waters in northern Lake Michigan in 2001. For the purposes of this blog, I’ll focus on my personal experience.

I was working on my Master of Fine Arts degree at American University in Washington, DC in 2011 when I first heard about Le Griffon, Steve Libert, and Great Lakes Exploration Group. Had anyone done a documentary about this group? Was anyone working with them on telling this incredible story of exploration, loss, and discovery? Well, as it turned out, National Geographic had shown major interest at one time, but because of the legal battles, they were unable to back the expedition with funds or a production crew. There were many others, as well. Being 31, not having a major production company of my own, and working on a degree, I thought I’d give the Liberts a call to see where they were with their project and if I could include part of their search in a broader project about the Great Lakes. Just getting ahold of them was difficult. Michigan’s State Historical Office was forbidden from giving details about anything related to the Griffon because of the ongoing gag order by the State and Federal Courts. Eventually, I was directed to the project Archaeologist, who put me in touch with Kathie Libert. Kathie had fielded calls from interested journalists, reporters, documentary crews, broadcast networks – you name it – for years. Now she was getting a call from me. The first conversation went something like this:

ME: “I’m David and I’d like to follow you on an expedition.”
KATHIE: “We’ve had a lot of interest over the years, including National Geographic.”
ME: “That’s cool. I’m really interested in getting kids excited about the history of the Great Lakes and I want to create a project that introduces people to the various reasons people came to this area and where we are now and what is likely to happen in the future to the Great Lakes. I think that searching for this wreck could be exciting for kids. We could make this really exciting.”
KATHIE: “We’ve always wanted to do something with education…. we should talk more.”

Eventually, I sent Kathie a proposal that elaborated on my line of thinking. She loved it. And a few weeks later I was given directions to their condo in Charlevoix, MI, where I would meet Steve and his crew before we headed out on an expedition to scan the bottom of Lake Michigan with some fancy equipment that would hopefully reveal if there was something buried where Steve thinks he found the Griffon. And so it started.

“This could be an historic moment.”

dave steve kathie
I would like to thank Steve and Kathie Libert – the founders of Great Lakes Exploration Group – for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to be responsible for imaging this incredible journey for the last two years – and three expeditions.  Many individuals and companies have approached the Liberts over the years to solicit involvement and all have eventually been turned away.  I can’t say for certain what I’ve done to successfully work my way into their project, then their home, and into their hearts, but Steve and Kathie are now dear friends that I admire and respect.  I dare say the feelings are mutual.  Thank you for giving me this opportunity. This could be an historic moment.