Meet the researchers and young explorers investigating Lake St. Clair's sunken mysteries

Kyle Kahn knows Lake St. Clair holds its share of mysteries. In fact, the 17-year-old Milford High School student has actually spent quite a bit of time exploring them. He's particularly fond of taking trips to the bottom of the lake.

"Being underwater, it's just a completely different world than being above the water," he says. "60 feet out on the surface is nothing, but underwater 60 feet is aKyle Kahn completely different world!"

Kahn's excursions above and below Lake St. Clair are made possible through his association with the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, an organization he's been a part of since he was ten years old.

Created at the U.S. Department of the Navy's request in 1962, the Sea Cadet Corps is a national youth development program that encourages young Americans to take an interest in nautical issues and activities. It's open to young people between the ages of 10 and 17.

Kahn is part of the Mount Clemens-based Great Lakes Division of the Sea Cadets, which offers unique opportunities for maritime training and underwater exploration on the Great Lakes and related waterways like Lake St. Clair. Through the program, qualified cadets get to experience hands-on deck and engineering training as crew members of an 81-foot research vessel. That boat, which docks in Harrison Township on the Clinton River, is called the Pride of Michigan, a reference to the young Sea Cadets who use it to traverse the Great Lakes State's waters. 

While there are always qualified adults on hand to supervise their activities, Kahn says cadets are given a lot of autonomy when it comes to running the Pride of Michigan.

"I've learned so much," he says. "The officers are off to the side. It's the cadets that are actually driving the ship. They're the ones steering the ship. They're working the engine."

Khan's division is also regularly involved in conducting scientific and historical investigations. Each season, cadets participate in professionally led research missions, which are conducted to produce documentary films and increase public awareness about the Great Lakes.

This focus on research results from a partnership between the Sea Cadets and a nonprofit called the Noble Odyssey Foundation that's dedicated to assisting area cadets with their maritime studies and training. 

The foundation is actually the organization that owns the Pride of Michigan and is responsible for bringing Sea Cadets in contact with scientists and other professionals who work with them to collect underwater data related to the Great Lakes and connected waterways.

The Pride of Michigan's research expeditions have included everything from exploring submerged forests in Lake Huron off Lexington Harbor to assisting Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of the famous marine conservationist Jacques Cousteau) make a documentary on marine sanctuaries during a visit to Lake Superior.

Khan, who was recently accepted into the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, has vivid memories of surveying a shipwreck last summer on Lake St. Clair's northwest side.
"There was a lot of muck and silt, so the visibility wasn't the best," he says.  "It was more of a shallow shipwreck. They kind of break down after the disaster. But you could see the wooden beams, and it had a ship shape to it." 

Captain Luke Clyburn with Sea Cadets on the Pride of Michigan. (David Lewinski)

Shipwrecks and Zebra Mussels

The Great Lakes Sea Cadets and the Noble Odyssey Foundation have been exploring the historical and scientific enigmas of Lake St. Clair together for many years.

Their partnership first began in 1972, when a group of Michigan businessmen came together to find ways to bolster the sea cadet program. They eventually decided the best way to get young people interested in maritime issues was to get them out on the water. So, In 1977, the nonprofit bought its first ship, a retired Naval vessel named the Noble Odyssey. Not long after that, the cadets began taking it out for research missions.

Through the years, the foundation's work has been strongly supported by Macomb County, which has provided them with a dock and piece of property they use for training during the summer months. The Great Lake Sea Cadets currently use a building in White Lake for winter training and scientific diving classes.

As for Lake St. Clair, the Sea Cadets and the Noble Odyssey Foundation'sNOF diver (NOF) relationship with that body of water also dates all the way back to the 1970s, to the day the Noble Odyssey first arrived on the shores of the Clinton River after voyaging across the lake.

"Our work and research all started on Lake St. Clair … and we're still taking a big interest," says Luke Clyburn, president of the Noble Odyssey Foundation and captain of the Pride of Michigan. "It's because of Lake St. Clair and [its connection to] the Great Lakes that the population of Michigan became what it is."

One of the earliest research projects conducted on Lake St. Clair by cadets crewing the Pride of Michigan took place between 1990 and 2004. It involved a study of zebra mussels, an invasive freshwater mollusk. Working with the Noble Odyssey Foundation, Sea Cadets also researched zooplankton communities in the lake around the turn of the millennium. 

More recently, the Sea Cadets have been using the Pride of Michigan and some smaller vessels owned by the foundation to research shipwrecks and ship channels in Lake St. Clair. They've been collaborating on that effort with Dr. Dan Harrison, a Wayne State University maritime archaeologist, who's interested in learning more about the construction of vessels used on the lake during the 1800s and earlier,  as well as the kinds of channels different boats used. 

The Pride of Michigan crew is currently looking at 11 wrecked vessels in the lake and searching for more. They began their preliminary research there last summer and planned on continuing it this summer. Next year, they'll collaborate with Macomb County on some more advanced research and hope to begin production on a documentary, if they can secure grant money to do so.

According to Clyburn, the project is particularly focused on an area of Lake St. Clair called Anchor Bay, which was extremely important to the early shipping trade in Michigan.

"It was an area vessels would come in and drop anchor and wait for winds to get up the St. Clair River into Lake Huron," he says. "If they couldn't get the right wind, they'd have to pay for a tug to tow them, which was expensive."

The Pride of Michigan (David Lewinski)
Diving into the Past

Wayne Lusardi is no stranger to the Noble Odyssey Foundation's work. He's a maritime archaeologist with Michigan's Department of Natural Resources based at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary near Alpena. And he's been working with Clyburn and the Great Lakes Sea Cadets to do underwater research on the Great Lakes, including shipwreck surveys, for more than a decade.

Lusardi estimates there could be as many as 1,500 total shipwrecks buried under the waters surrounding Michigan. Of these, only about 400 have been located to date. As a scholar of the state's nautical history,  he's not surprised that the Pride of Michigan crew is looking for the remains of ships at the bottom of Lake St. Clair. 

"It's one of the interconnecting waterways that pretty much every kind of traffic from the lower to the upper Great lakes go through. That started in prehistoric times, but it continued into early colonial times," he says. "And obviously, when you put a lot of traffic into any place. There are going to be accidents."

The marine archaeologist estimates the number of known shipwreck sites on Lake St. Clair at about 30. While some of these were probably destroyed by accidents, Lusardi says others were often intentionally destroyed. Although crews sometimes beached ships on the shore after their time was up, it was more common for them to be stripped and left in the water. 

And because Lake St. Clair is so shallow, vessels that couldn't be towed away were often blown to clear shipping channels for other traffic. For this reason, the wrecks now being studied by the Pride of Michigan are often little more than scattered debris on the lake floor.  

Divers with the Noble Odyssey Foundation (NOF)Remembering the Tuskegee Airmen 

Boats aren't the only vessels to fall victim to Michigan's waters. In addition to researching shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, Lusardi has also been investigating crashed airplanes. 

One of the most compelling of the stories he's learned about in this regard is the case of Flight Officer Nathaniel Rayburg, whose Bell P-39 Aircobra plane crashed in the proximity of Lake St. Clair on Dec. 12, 1943. 

"His Aircobra lost power, and he crashed into the North Channel of the St. Clair River, out near Algonac," says Lusardi.  "He was killed. His airplane was found by recreational divers about 15 or 20 years ago." 

Rayburg was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily African American pilots and airmen trained by the U.S. military to fly, maintain, and support combat aircraft during World War II. In 1943 and 1944, those involved with that program got their basic flight instruction in Tuskegee, Alabama. After that, around 300 pilots flew to Michigan to engage in advanced flight training, which involved runs from Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Harrison Township to Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County. 

Lusardi, who's visited the site of Rayburg's crash for research and documentation purposes, says its submerged under about 30-feet of water near the edge of the river channel. Sadly, it's missing several pieces due to looting.

Rayburg's plane, along with another Aircobra that crashed into Lake Huron on April 11, 1944, taking the life of Second Lieutenant Frank Herman Moody, are now in the process of being recovered for a museum exhibit. The Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the nonprofit diving group Diving with a Purpose, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the State of Michigan have all been involved in that effort. 

Starting this August, the two planes, both heavily damaged, will be on display at the National Museum of Tuskegee Airmen, which recently relocated to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

Bell P-39 Aircobra (NOAA)
Submerged Settlements

Boats aren't the only objects on the bottom of Lake St. Clair being studied by the Pride of Michigan crew. They're also studying two settlements that have been lost to the lake's waters. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the sunken ghost town of Belvidere. 

"We're looking into the historic part of it, the building out of the lake community," says Clyburn. "Back in the 1800s, It was developed on the north side of the Clinton River. That part of history's kind of been forgotten."

Belvidere was founded by James Conger, an attorney and former U.S. representative who originally came from New Jersey. Together with his brother,Map of Belvidere (Macomb County) David, Conger established the Belvidere Land Company in 1835, and they bought several acres near the mouth of the Clinton River. During the middle of the 19th Century, the town prospered and proved to be a popular tourist spot for folks from Mount Clemens and Detroit. At one point, it had its own hotel, general store, sawmill, gristmill, warehouse, and docks, as well as 20 homes and 17 huts.

The town even got approved to be part of a railroad route connected to Utica and Pontiac, though a national economic slump derailed those plans. Conger also established a bank, The Bank of Lake St. Clair, with himself as president and $50,000 in capital. But it and much of the town were destroyed the year it opened by a series of floods that peaked in 1838. 

The lake rose 6-feet at the high point of the deluge, swallowing up Belvidere and sending its residents scattering. The floodwaters eventually receded, but the town never recovered. In 1882, a fire sparked by a passing steamboat torched any lingering hopes that Belvidere would ever come back.

Sea Cadets working with the Noble Odyssey Foundation also plan to study a lost church known as St. Felicity, which is thought to be the first Catholic church in Macomb County. Established in 1826, the 40-by-30-foot log church was overseen by Fr. Ghislenus Boheme. Parishioners were buried in a two-acre cemetery adjacent to the church building.

St. Felicity succumbed to minor floods several times during its existence, prompting churchgoers to temporarily abandon its pews until floodwaters receded. But the waters rose so high in 1855 that church officials decided to abandon the structure permanently. The church later relocated to St. Clair Shores, where it was renamed, St. Gertrude. St. Felicity and its cemetery were lost for many years before being rediscovered in 1995 by divers working with Fr. Michael Ruthenberg, associate pastor of St. Gertrude parish.

Both Belvidere and St. Felicity will likely end up in the Noble Odyssey's next underwater documentary.

"We're trying to go in and document [those sites] in addition to the shipwrecked vessels that we're working on," says Clyburn. "It's shallow, and we'll be using cadets this summer to film and to do research. We'll have a lot of young people in the water and a lot of eyeballs looking at the bottom."

A 1939 aerial survey photo of Belvidere. (Macomb County)Voyaging Forward

COVID-19 has presented some challenges to the Noble Odyssey Foundation and its work with the Sea Cadets. Last year during the shutdown of cruise vehicles, the groups weren't able to operate the Pride of Michigan. And like many organizations, they've had to adapt to the new world of social distancing. But they've been collaborating closely with Homeland Security to ensure protocols are being followed to keep cadets safe. 

Right now, the foundation is working intensely with two cadets on a 100-hour program that will allow them to receive their scientific diving certifications through the American Academy of Underwater Sciences. And the Sea Cadets have also been meeting with Lusardi and others who are encouraging them to think about potentially pursuing careers related to diving or other maritime fields. 

As for this coming summer, Clyburn is hopeful there won't be another shutdown of large vessels. If necessary, the foundation does have access to smaller ships that could be used for research. That said, he and the cadets are looking forward to getting back on the water Memorial Day weekend, if conditions allow. 

Beyond that, Clyburn is also thinking about the future of his foundation's work with the Great Lakes Sea Cadets. Reflecting on the fact the nonprofit is a volunteer outfit that depends on donations to survive, he wonders what the Pride of Michigan could do with a paid staff and additional funding that would allow the vessel to operate full-time from April through September.

"We're really trying to develop the next generation of caretakers for our freshwater lakes," he says. "I've been very fortunate to be part of what has been done over the past years. But, I think it could be much more."

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking, and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.

A NOF diver surveys the Great Lakes. (NOF)
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