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Watch now: A 1,200-year-old dugout canoe is raised from Lake Mendota

From the 2021 year in review: Greek letters, championships and a persistent pandemic series
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Tamara Thomsen and Mallory Dragt thought they would take a spin under Lake Mendota on a couple of underwater scooters, motorized gadgets that scuba divers use to propel themselves through the water.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in June, and the duo, who work at Diversions Scuba, debated whether they had just seen a log sticking out of the bottom of the 9,781-acre lake or something extremely rare.

The discovery, on a slope in 27 feet of water near Shorewood Hills, has turned out to be about as historic as it gets.

Dugout canoe

A 1,200-year-old dugout canoe was raised from Lake Mendota Tuesday by the Wisconsin Historical Society. The canoe was discovered in June during a recreational dive and is the oldest intact boat ever recovered from Wisconsin waters. The canoe will undergo preservation efforts over the next two years before it can be displayed in a museum.

After a bit of investigation, it turns out that Thomsen, who is also a maritime archaeologist for the Wisconsin Historical Society, was right in judging that it was more than just a log: It was a dugout canoe. A few weeks later, carbon-14 dating showed that the 15-foot-long vessel was an estimated 1,200 years old, the oldest intact boat ever found in Wisconsin waters.

On a brisk Tuesday, amid a chop of waves and 50-degree water, the canoe was brought to shore by teams of divers who shared fist bumps and hugs to applause from residents of the Spring Harbor neighborhood who had gathered at the beach to witness the canoe’s return to shore.

Dugout canoe

Bystanders watch as yellow floats are used to bring a dugout canoe to Spring Harbor Beach. The 1-mile trip took nearly two hours.

“This is the first time this thing has been out of the water in 1,200 years. And maybe they left from this very beach to go fishing,” said James Skibo, Wisconsin’s state archaeologist. “Not only has it been underwater; it’s been under the ground. The reason it’s so well preserved is that it has not been exposed to the light. So that’s one of the reasons we have to start preserving it. There’s living organisms on it that are chewing away on it as we speak.”

Canoe graphic.JPG

The canoe will ultimately be displayed in the Historical Society’s proposed new and expanded museum on Capitol Square. But for the next two years, it will undergo a series of treatments. The first, in a 16-foot-long, 3-foot-wide tank at the State Archive Preservation Facility on Madison’s Near East Side, will preserve its liquid environment, although mixed in the water will be a biocide to kill any algae or microorganisms. That’s followed with a treatment of polyethylene glycol designed to replace the water that has saturated the wood.

The process will make the structure more solid and stable, and prevent further degradation, said Amy Rosebrough, a leading expert on the Effigy Mound builders of Wisconsin, who likely made the canoe and inhabited villages and encampments around Lake Mendota and throughout much of southern Wisconsin. A cache of net sinkers, used to weigh down fishing nets, was also found with the canoe, which could have been made from basswood or a walnut tree, two common woods used for dugouts during that time frame.

Dugout canoe

Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist who discovered the Native American dugout canoe in June in Lake Mendota, celebrates the recovery Tuesday with Jim Skibo, Wisconsin's state archaeologist. The canoe was placed in an enclosed trailer for its trip from Spring Harbor Beach to the State Archive Preservation Facility on Madison's Near East Side.

“This is extraordinarily rare,” said Rosebrough. “We really don’t have anything like this from Wisconsin. We have found pieces of dugouts before in various lakes (but) nothing this intact and nothing intact this old. It’s a fragile piece.”

Wisconsin is home to hundreds of shipwrecks in lakes Superior and Michigan. Many occurred in the 1800s and early 1900s and have led to a Maritime Trails initiative that encourages divers, snorkelers, boaters, maritime enthusiasts and tourists to visit wrecks in lakes. There’s also the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, a 962-square-mile area that protects 36 shipwrecks between Port Washington and southern Kewaunee County. Another 59 wrecks have yet to be found in the sanctuary.

Dugout canoe

Randy Wallander, a volunteer diver from Manitowoc, unloads gear for the dive. Wallander specializes in bringing up sunken objects, usually in Lake Michigan.

The people who built the dugout canoes in what is now Dane County were ancestors of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Typical techniques could have included using a combination of burning the inside of the canoe and using stone tools to scrape out the charred and soften remains. Bill Quackenbush, the Ho-Chunk’s tribal historic preservation officer, was on hand Tuesday to watch the dugout canoe emerge from the lake. The Ho-Chunk are referred to as “People of the Big Water.”

“When it comes to items of this nature, if it’s going to protect and preserve the history and culture of us in this area, we’re all in support of that,” Quackenbush said of the canoe’s recovery. “Looking at the crowd here, there’s a lot of interest in this one little project.”

Dugout canoe

A dugout canoe crafted in A.D. 800 was towed for most of its 1-mile trip to shore but guided by divers in shallow water for the final 100 yards or so to Spring Harbor Beach.

Tricky operation

Teams of people worked for months to prepare for Tuesday’s event, which officials wanted to complete before ice started forming on the lake. Archaeologists also wanted to remove the canoe before it deteriorated further or was moved by shifting waters and sediments. One theory is that boats that make large wakes, like those used for wake boarding, stirred up sediment, which likely led to part of the canoe being exposed.

Dugout canoe

Divers converged on Lake Mendota Tuesday to recover a dugout canoe that hadn't been to the surface in 1,200 years.

“I’m underwater a lot, but this is the first dugout canoe I’ve ever seen underwater,” said Thomsen, who has been diving for 30 years, has been with the Historical Society for 18 years and lives on Lake Mendota. “It’s really amazing to be working here, literally in our backyard.”

The recovery effort began last week with divers carefully dredging around the canoe. Once sediment was removed and the boat fully exposed, rods of rebar were stuck into the lake bottom and a web of rope tied over the canoe to keep it in place.

On Tuesday morning, a small armada of boats made their way to the site. It included the dive team from the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, a pontoon boat filled with photographers and videographers to document the process for the Historical Society, and one boat that was captained by Don Sanford, who has written a historical book on Lake Mendota.

Dugout canoe

Members of the dive team from the Dane County Sheriff's Office were among those who took part in Tuesday's dive near Shorewood Hills.

Thomsen drove another boat that included Randy Wallander, a volunteer diver from Manitowoc who has years of experience bringing up large objects from Lake Michigan. His equipment included large yellow floats, diving gear and four 45-pound bags of sand that were placed in the canoe to give it weight as it was towed into shore in a sling supported by the floats at just above idling speed. The 1-mile trip took nearly two hours, after which divers unhooked the canoe from a boat and walked it the last 100 yards or so to shore.

Once near shore, it was placed onto a piece of scaffolding and carried to an enclosed trailer normally used for carrying ATVs and snowmobiles for Department of Natural Resources wardens. An escort by Madison Police was provided as the canoe made its slow trip across the isthmus.

“It was a team effort,” Thomsen said. “I’m actually surprised at how smooth it went. You always expect for there to be problems and you anticipate the worst and hope for the best, but it came up faster than we thought. Everybody really danced together to make it come up.”

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