So Mum just shared an article from her University of Wisconsin alumni magazine about a canoe they pulled up from the bottom of Lake Mendota. Why was this news? As a reminder not to drink and paddle? An example of good j-strokes gone bad?
Nope. It’s because the canoe turned out to be 1,200 years old!
Experts figure the vessel was crafted centuries ago by members of the Ho-Chunk Nation. And I love the idea that ages before Badger students began jumping around after the third quarter of Big Ten football games, this time capsule disappeared under the water and has quietly awaited its chance to provide a lesson in Madison’s history!
The story reminded me of the above-pictured box that had sunk to the bottom shelf of a bookcase in my apartment. Its contents came to mind because they’re also connected to a body of water – this one in the PAC-12 region (okay, in the West). They’re precious to me both as little testaments to those who called the area “home” long before my ancestors did, and as a link to my dad and his folks who found and held onto them.
I see the box as evidence of a family trait for digging up and saving treasures of one sort or another! This could trace back to my Gold Rush prospecting kin, to my Cornish mining roots – or maybe even to ancient Celts in Europe who also had a thing for digging (and for really cool jewelry)! Honestly, I could have done without whatever genetic coding left me nearsighted and missing a prominent tooth – but if I’m hardwired to like unearthing things and preserving them, well that I’m good with.
I may have mentioned before how I don’t go to the hassle anymore of stooping for change less than a quarter – but the time was when I was quite the little hunter-gatherer! For one thing, I was a kid in the days when soda and beer cans had “pop tops”. For anyone younger than Boomer age, those were rings you pulled all the way off to open your drink and then threw away – or you were meant to. In practice though, a much needed activity at my Girl Scout Day Camp in the Bay Area’s Tilden Park (ancestral home of the Ohlone, by the way) was to compete to see which Scout could collect the most pop tops that had been carelessly strewn all over picnic sites and hiking trails.
Now that we open cans without that removable piece, current Scout troops have to earn merit badges in other environmentally conscious ways – which is a good thing. I can’t help but recall those infernal pop tops with a bit of fondness, though. I mean, we were picking up trash, plain and simple – but there was something about keeping a sharp eye out amid the brush and oak leaves for those shiny aluminum rings that made it feel more like this big, fun hunt for treasure!
And I have happy memories of other grand quests from those days! One time on a backpack trip in the Emigrant Wilderness, Dad brought a metal detector and we swept it around what we thought could have once been a camp – maybe for a tribe of Me-Wuk. We found what looked like grinding holes on top of a big slab of granite, and lots of little obsidian chips where someone may have sat and sharpened arrowheads (aka “flint knapping”). It was good fun to have lunch there and imagine a distant summer’s day when people might have fished the nearby lake, ground acorns on that rock, or geared up to hunt for game!
Elsewhere around the site, we “detected” pits full of rusty – and wholly uninspiring – old cans. We wondered if they’d been buried by previous generations of campers who brought food in by pack train but forgot the “pack it in, pack it out” motto we go by today. Regardless, the day’s hunting rounded out my youthful theory by proving that trash can be a kind of treasure – but it can also pretty much just be trash…
Anyway, the fact that Dad would carry a metal detector on a pack trip – a gig where your back can end up resenting the heck out of every ounce you take along and will make sure you know – well, it confirms for me that this need to search for things is well represented on his side of the family tree.
And that box holds some pretty irrefutable proof as well.
It’s full of items that Dad, his folks, and his sister Sally collected when he was a little boy living in The Dalles, Oregon, during the tough Depression days. This area beside his beloved Columbia River was a hub where Native Americans from tribes all over the Northwest gathered to mingle and trade – and it became the focus of a family hobby as Dad describes:
“The Depression years were no doubt difficult for my parents. I loved family adventures, humble as they may have been. Digging for arrowheads was fascinating. Mom, Dad and I spent many fun-filled hours shoveling sand into a two-mesh rocker to sift out arrowheads and other artifacts, which were at the time plentiful along the Columbia. Any find was a thrill.”
I was told that when Dad turned up an artifact, he’d run away into the nearby hills to inspect it on his own (not quite aware, I imagine, of the value of in situ analysis…). And only when the scientist-to-be had studied it to his satisfaction would he return and share the discovery.
The boy grew up to be a professor – and to invest not just in that metal detector, but in a magnet that could pick up items as heavy as 50 pounds. He once hoisted an outboard motor up from the bottom of a lake! Dad never discovered a canoe that way – but he and I did use one to paddle around lakes and streams, dragging that magnet behind us and delighting in the collection mostly of tangled fishing tackle of every kind and color.
Yes, it’s more than fair to say that neither the detector nor the magnet ever paid off in financial terms – and even though Dad would have loved to unearth or haul up some gold doubloons or Pieces of Eight, I’m not sure that was really the aim. I think he was actually feeding a boundless curiosity that would always lead him to look under some rock or hike over the next hill – because he just had to know what was there! And that’s a valuable quality, I think.
I expect there are lots more reasons besides monetary ones for deeming something a treasure. The Lake Mendota canoe is certainly one for having survived to tell an eloquent tale to current residents of the people who resided there before. And I prize that little pop top (which, yeah – I saved) as a reminder of how much I enjoyed doing my part to keep those bits of trash from speaking poorly of my generation in the future – nope, not on this Brownie’s watch!
I’m also pleased that I “dug” out those arrowheads again! It’s truly amazing to hold one and try to conjure up an image of the person who made it, or to ponder how it came to be thrown away or left behind. I love too to think how each caught the eye of one of my loved ones who picked it up, brushed away the dirt, and passed it around (well, eventually did, in Dad’s case) for everyone to marvel at. Isn’t it wonderful how something that seemed lost can yet be gathered up again that way!
Just thought I’d share a few of these treasures here.
Cheers – and best wishes for finding some treasures of your own!
Here’s a link (I hope…) to the On Wisconsin alumni magazine article about the canoe: