Friday, June 09, 2023

Ambitious program looks to document the depths of Flathead Lake and beyond

For the Eagle | May 17, 2023 11:35 AM

With a wetsuit, a camera and an indomitable passion for the depths of Flathead Lake, Kyren Zimmerman and the members of the Flathead Maritime Archaeology Project are hard at work documenting the underwater mysteries of the area’s waterways before they disappear forever.

What began as a cooperation between Zimmerman and the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center last summer to explore a few sites in the lake has turned into the Flathead Maritime Archaeology Project, an ambitious project which looks to identify, locate and document underwater historical sites in the north part of Flathead Lake and beyond.

With the help of Project Historian/Writer Kyle Stetler, Historical Advisor Denny Kellogg, Digital Media Archivist Ed Gillenwater, Project Advisor Jeremy Weber and Bigfork Art and Cultural Center Director Julie Bottum, the project hopes to preserve the underwater history of the area for future generations.

“During the summer of last year, we started looking at what we referred to as a ‘treasure map’ of different areas of the Flathead that might hold some historical artifacts underwater,” Bottum said. “After our start last year, we really want to take a more extensive look at the lake and the surrounding waterways this year, even up into Glacier National Park this season.”

For Zimmerman, a graduate of Flathead High School, the project provides the opportunity to delve into his passions for underwater photography and historical preservation.

“Most everyone is aware that Flathead Lake is an amazing natural resource. What many people are not aware of are the amazing mysteries lying beneath the waves. I now get to go down and explore those mysteries,” Zimmerman said. “This project hopes to help put together a lot of the missing history from that early settler history around the Flathead. This is about getting the opportunity to put our stories together and share that story with future generations.”

“The goal for all of these projects is to be able to have them on exhibit at the Bigfork Art and Cultural Center in a permanent history install and to be able to take them to other history museums and venues like senior centers and schools,” Bottum added.

According to Zimmerman, as soon as people began developing the areas around Flathead Lake, steamboats quickly became a critical way to transport people and materials to Demersville and, eventually, Kalispell. These boats were the fastest way around the lake before roads could be constructed, but the large amount of boat traffic on the lake inevitably led to a sizable number of those boats ending up on the bottom of it.

Enter the Flathead Maritime Archaeology Project, which is on the hunt for those wrecks and the history that lies beneath the waves.

“Water is an important part of our culture in Montana and it always has been. Flathead lake is integral to its surrounding communities, both past and present,” Zimmerman said. “We have a significant amount of boats that are still submerged beneath the lake that we are excited about surveying using modern technological advancements, whether that be by diving on the sites or using ROVs. We are here to share our passion for the lake, go down and explore what is on the bottom of the lake and preserve that history. This is a passion project of mine and I am glad to see that so many people in this community share the same passion.”

Zimmerman, who has worked on underwater projects for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, New Zealand Fish and Game and other organizations returned to his roots in Flathead Lake in 2016 when he worked as an underwater cameraman on an expedition to find the Kee-O-Mee, a large luxury vessel that sank to the bottom of Somers Bay in 1937.

“Being a part of that expedition and being one of the first people to get to dive on and document that site was a transformative experience for me,” he said. “Putting the skills I learned on Kee-O-Mee and other projects to work in Flathead Lake allows me to work on one of the big mysteries that has been pulling on my heartstrings.”

Last year’s dives included a survey of the remains of the original O’Brien Lumber Mill in Somers Bay, which was deposited there after the original mill burned in 1910.

“There is a lot of that structure is still there, it is just obscured under the water,” Zimmerman said. “It made for a surreal experience diving down and documenting that site.”

This summer, the project looks to expand its search, surveying Woods Bay and several other sites, such as Painted Rocks and the original Demersville site.

After first searching through the historical record and using the stories and tips of locals, Zimmerman and his group of intrepid volunteers use boat-mounted and towed side-scan sonar arrays to identify possible targets on the bottom of the lake before exploring them through diving or with the use of remote operated vehicles.

Once a historical site is located and identified, the group uses photogrammetry to create a three-dimensional model of the site, which can be rendered as a physical object using the process of 3D printing.

The use of the technology allows the sites to be documented and preserved without being disturbed by human hands.

Unfortunately, the process is not cheap.

The nonprofit organization uses donations to help fund the exploration, which has already spent more than $26,000 to explore its first six sites.

For Zimmerman and the members of the project, the information they preserve is more than worth the cost.

“If zebra and quagga mussels ever do get introduced into Flathead Lake, we could potentially lose a lot of these archaeological sites without ever knowing they were even there,” Zimmerman said. “The value of this project goes far beyond taking photos and documenting sites, it’s about preserving our history.”

“We need to create a record of these sites before they disappear,” Stetler added. “Water is a powerful force and if we don’t document these sites now, they could be gone forever.”