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Waterlogging

After more than a century on the bottom of Lake Superior, a sunken treasure of old-growth wood comes alive again

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The forgotten past, in the form of waterlogged wood, excites Ashland, Wisconsin's Scott Mitchen. As the inveterate treasure hunter discovered in 1989, entire timberlands fell to the bottom of the lake as the wood awaited sawing during logging's heyday in Wisconsin between 1870 and 1910. Preserved by the fresh water and its low oxygen content at the bottom, the logs are valuable for their tight grain, typically found in old-growth forests. Writer Julie Wakefield follows Mitchen, and the company he founded, as they prospect for wood.

Using imaging sonar, divers can locate and then identify valuable logs. Hauled up with winches or air bags, the wood must be dried for 45 to 90 days before being transformed anew. Craftspeople prize the ancient wood, some up to 800 years old, for its lustrous beauty - as well as its potential in making fabulous instruments.

Musicians and makers of dulcimers, harps, guitars, flutes and violins are finding that the submerged wood possesses special acoustical resonance. Indeed, Mitchen and his company keep hoping that a salvaged log will provide the wood for a violin like those of the unsurpassed 18th-century master Antonio Stradivari.

In the meantime, for Ashland, Wisconsin, once at the heart of the region's logging industry, bits of the past are surfacing all the time.

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