DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — Blame it all on “Sea Hunt,” a popular TV show in the late 1950s and early ‘60s.
As a kid, Gary “Seal” Thompson loved this show about the diving adventures of a former Navy frogman. It got Thompson hooked on scuba diving — and hooked on the lure of sunken treasures — at an early age.
“I grew up watching that show,” he says. “We had a cabin on Roy Lake by Mahnomen. When everybody else was fishing, I was diving. I bought my first scuba diving gear with my high school graduation money.”
Thompson went on to start his own diving business, Tri-State Diving, on Little Floyd Lake just north of Detroit Lakes. And over 53 years and more than 4,000 dives, Thompson, 71, has found a boatload of sunken, often buried objects — from wedding rings and an ancient buffalo skull to excavators and a rubber chicken.
Some historical items he’s found are now displayed on the walls of his shop, including tools lost during the winter ice harvests on Big Detroit Lake — antique packing tools, splitting tools, chisels and others. Most were found with the help of an underwater metal detector.
“They were down in there” and had to be dug out, Thompson says of the ice harvest trophies. He’s also discovered remnants of the area’s pioneer-era logging industry, and is especially happy with a branding tool he has on display: “Logging companies stamped their logs and got credit at the sawmill,” he says. Through research, he discovered that “the Department of Agriculture controlled the brands — they had to register their brands.”
An archeologist by training, Thompson loves the history of the local lakes, and has always enjoyed researching his finds. He probably knows as much about the early logging industry in Becker County as anybody, because he also loves to talk to people. Over the years, he’s spoken with people who were involved in the trade, or had relatives who were.
He’ll tell you that Big Elbow Lake, at the north end of Becker County, was the epicenter of the local logging trade. Back in the day the lake was filled with logs waiting to be floated down to the sawmill in Frazee, at the south end of Becker County.
At one time, the bottom of Elbow Lake was filled with big sunken logs left over from the logging days. Many of them were later salvaged by Otto Johnson, who used a raft made from beer kegs to remove the logs, Thompson says.
“Most of the cabins on Ada Beach (on Big Elbow Lake) were built from lumber from the bottom of the lake,” he says.
Thompson also helped salvage logs from the bottom of Many Point Lake, and many of those logs went to build cabins at a camp on Lake Plantagenet near Bemidji.
These days, it’s hard to imagine what it was like from 1869 to 1919, when thousands of logs were floated down through Becker County via the lakes and the Otter Tail River chain to the sawmill at Frazee. Some years now, there’s hardly enough water to float tubers comfortably down the Otter Tail River, let alone giant logs.
But back then, “they flooded big areas so they could release logs during dry years … the Otter Tail River was big back then,” Thompson says. Dams were built freely across Minnesota to build reservoirs for the logging trade or boat traffic.
The Pelican River was also bigger then, and was used for navigation to get to resorts. Thompson has some antique whiskey, patent medicine and soda pop bottles on display at his shop — some salvaged from the bottom of the Pelican River from the pleasure boat era.
“How do you know where to look for bottles? How far from shore a kid can throw it,” he says with a laugh.
His favorite treasure is a 1916 Evinrude outboard boat motor he salvaged from the bottom of Deadshot Bay.
“It was hard bottom — the prop was sticking up,” he says. He also has two vintage Sears & Roebuck Waterwitch outboard motors.
And it isn’t only man-made objects decorating his shop: Thompson has a 13,000-year-old buffalo skull and a giant set of elk antlers from 570 years ago. He thought it was just a big tree root when he first saw part of the buried antlers two years ago while diving in Buffalo Lake. He raised about $700 through a GoFundMe page to get the antlers carbon-dated.
“A lot of people say they’re the largest elk antlers they’ve ever seen,” he says.
Near the displays of cant hooks and peavy hooks from logging days are rows of fishing poles and lures, some with the old glass eyes. His favorite is an antique wooden Chippewa Falls lure with a spinner inside it.
“The weirdest thing I ever found was a rubber chicken,” he says. It was near the Pavilion on the bottom of Little Detroit Lake, and he can’t help but suspect that it was thrown there by a member of the Unbelievable Uglies, a Detroit Lakes-based band that was a big hit in the 1960s. The group used to play at the Pavilion regularly and was known for playing around with rubber chickens (it was a ‘60s gag).
Some of Thompson’s diving work involves investigation and tracking down leads. The Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, for example, had camps in the area and planted millions of trees. But when they moved to a new site, Thompson says CCC policy was to dump all its equipment in the nearest lake. The federal government bought the shovels and other equipment so cheaply that it wasn’t cost-effective to move it, and it would have hurt the local retailers to sell it.
Thompson learned there was a CCC dump site in Bad Medicine Lake, and was able to track down the man who had actually done the dumping. The man took him there by canoe and easily located the spot by memory.
“We found all sorts of stuff there,” Thompson says with a grin.
He has found and recovered everything from drowning victims to cars that went through the lake ice. He has the radiator cap from a 1935 Chevy that still sits on the bottom of Detroit Lake, where it went through the ice in 1955.
He’s still actively exploring today, and continues to do commercial and salvage diving as well as teach scuba classes, which he says are more popular than ever. He’s living out his “Sea Hunt” dream in fresh waters, and what he finds next in the murky depths, only time will tell.