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Underwater Treasures Discovered in Lake Bottom

Diver Ron Bakken has never discovered a steamboat, ferris wheel or other artifacts rumored to be at rest on the bottom of White Bear Lake. But he has unearthed a relic from long before pleasure-seekers made White Bear a resort destination.

The lifelong diver and White Bear Lake resident found a bison skull thousands of years old off the coast of Manitou Island. The skull was mostly buried in muck — only the teeth were protruding. “It looked like neat lines of pebbles at first,” he said. Dozens of crayfish dodged out of orifices when he pulled the skull out.

Bakken said an expert from the Science Museum of Minnesota dated the skull at roughly 16,000 years old. The bison reportedly was as big as a full-size van and had horns nearly six feet long. He’s also discovered another bison skull, albeit much smaller, as well as a number of bones.

Perhaps it was inspired by reading books by Jacques Cousteau or watching “Sea Hunt” Bakken said of his love affair with the underwater world. As a young tyke, his first purchase with his allowance was a snorkel and goggles for explorations of White Bear Lake. He started diving in the late 1970s.

Back problems curtailed dreams of deep-sea diving, but Bakken has explored many of the major lakes in the Midwest. Shipwrecks in the Great Lakes are a favorite destination — the cold waters make them some of the best preserved wrecks in the world, he said.

He dives even when the lakes are frozen over. Winter is in fact the best time to dive, he said, because the water is most clear. A favorite wintertime game is “upside down underwater hockey” (by filling his suit and a ball with air).

Even a number of near-fatal dives haven’t halted his passion. He once ran out of air and got tangled up in wires but after “kicking for all I was worth,” managed to reach the surface. His scuba regulator also once failed — thankfully when he was only around 40 feet under. That incident prompted a nationwide recall.

His diving skills occasionally bring him a paycheck. He’s retrieved snowmobiles and other sunken objects and tested equipment for a manufacturer. He’s also worked as a dive master on Lake Superior and as an underwater cameraman for the local TV programs “Thunder on the Water” and nationally syndicated show “Simply Fishing.” He also scoured the entire bottom of White Bear Lake conducting a milfoil survey for the White Bear Lake Conservation District.

Along with bison skulls, he’s found quite a few unusual odds and ends on the bottom of White Bear Lake. As expected, most of his finds have been fishing equipment and boat parts. He’s also amassed a sizable collection of beer bottles and kegs. His most sizable find was a 20-foot-long pontoon float.

Still eluding him are the steamers that traversed the lake in the late 1800s and early 1900s. According to the “Looking Back at White Bear Lake” history book, at least two steamers have sunk.

Built at Ramaley’s Boat Works in 1899, the 80-foot ‘White Bear’ reportedly was sent to the lake bottom by a fire. The Dispatch hosted up to 300 passengers for parties and dances before it was dismantled and sunk.

Any hunting for the famed Wildwood Amusement Park ferris wheel would be fruitless, according to Historical Society Executive Director Sara Markoe Hanson. Talks of the ride being sent to the lake bottom, she said, are just local lore.

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