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Ben Mikesell | The Journal Gazette
Bear Lake in Noble County was the site of a recent dive by members of the Fort Wayne Dive Club.

Searching for treasures

Local divers visit area lakes lured by the mystery below

A fishing boat is among the divers’ bigger finds.
A common find in area lakes: Bottles of every kind.

– Because John Riley came ashore a few minutes earlier than the others, he was out of his gear and standing on the 15-foot wide cement boat launch that gradually angles into Bear Lake when fellow scuba divers Kevin Betz and Bridgette McCue, who were next to emerge, trundled up the ramp.

“Find the Andrea Doria?” Riley asked whimsically.

No, they had not.

As it turned out, the Noble County lake was much too murky below the surface for any of the Fort Wayne Dive Club members who explored the small lake several weeks ago. Although none had found a keepsake, the early evening was part of the club’s weekly excursion into northeast Indiana lakes. Next week will be a different site, as will the week after that and the week after that.

“All of us would rather dive in salt water, with coral and pretty fish and sharks,” says Betz, 61, of nearby Brimfield. “If we did that, we would go once a year. Because we dive in local lakes, we go every week and get a lot of time under water. There’s nothing to see, but it’s interesting finding stuff.”

The club has roughly 35 members, but only five had climbed into their black diving suits, strapped their single tank of air onto their backs, put their fins on at the water’s edge and wandered into Bear Lake by the prearranged 6 p.m. start.

At 68, Riley, a retired architect, was the group’s more experienced diver, with over 300 dives to his credit. Betz and 51-year-old Ken Hayduck, of Angola, have over 200. Andy Stroh, 40, of Fremont, has roughly 80, and McCue, 30, of Fort Wayne, around 25.

Before they ventured into the serene lake, with the reflected sun still three hours in the sky, they would help one another zip, fasten and secure their gear. To warn boaters of their presence, they took a yellow buoy, shaped like an inner tube, and a red one that resembled a boxer’s speed bag, into the water, each with a warning that divers were below. And whenever the divers moved, they moved the buoys with them.

As a courtesy to the group, a lone fisherman, anchored several hundred feet away on a pontoon boat, picked up and moved. Kids splashed in water across the shore from where the five entered. A bullfrog in the nearby weeds repeatedly announced its presence.

After roughly 45 minutes below the surface, Riley was the first to climb ashore. Then the others surfaced.

Because they agreed the lake was too dark to scour the bottom, it might be their last visit.

“But next time, it could be clearer,” Riley chirped. And as he likes to say, “Every dive is different.”

It is the mystery of the unknown that is the lure. It’s why these five and other club members wade into waters, then submerge for an hour. When they surface and reunite on shore, they share the stories of what they found, what they saw, or perhaps what they didn’t see. Yet the thrill was there, regardless.

“At first I liked to see if there were any fish or this or that,” Stroh says. “These guys (Betz and Hayduck) were finding bottles. They’re looking for treasures. When I found my first bottle, I thought that was pretty cool. It was an old 7-Up bottle. … Once you find something, it changes your outlook.”

Hayduck and Betz were diving Lake George in Steuben County together recently when Hayduck saw something that intrigued him on the lake’s bottom.

“Usually it’s just junk,” Hayduck says. “But it was round, and I was going to pass it by. But I gave it a little tug, for the heck of it, and it turned.”

So he moved a little more sand and silt.

“I thought it was one of those old-fashioned fans that came with the metal blades on it,” he said. “When I pulled it, I realized it was a prop. … What I thought was a corroded piece of junk was nice, shiny gray paint.”

After his find was hooked to a lift bag, which inflates and floats to the surface, Hayduck saw rise from the bottom of the lake a 15-horse Evinrude outboard motor.

Shortly after it was stored, dried out and provided fresh gas, the motor started on the third pull. The plan is to have it attached to the stern of a 15-foot aluminum fishing boat the two also found.

“The DNR (Indiana Department of Natural Resources) gave us the okey-dokey that we could keep it if it wasn’t stolen or anything,” Betz said of the boat. So far, no one has claimed it through its registration number.

While the local club has organized dives in Cozumel, the Bahamas and North Carolina, the divers also venture out individually. Diving has taken Riley from the shores of India to the Great Lakes to Seattle. Stroh introduced his 11-year-old daughter to diving in Honduras. Hayduck and Betz have been in the waters near Fiji. And McCue has discovered the waters of the Caribbean.

“This was my first lake dive,” she would say of her venture into Bear Lake. “I was hanging onto (Betz’s) arm.

“I feel very safe with them,” she says. “I trust them with my life. They’re very experienced, and I’m learning from them. They’re great mentors.”

Now and then, the group bands with others on days designated for ridding area lake bottoms of debris.

“The stuff people throw away,” Riley says with disdain. “I’ve dived Lake James, and I’ve picked up refrigerators.”

Meanwhile, the Andrea Doria continues to rest in the Atlantic – a significant distance from murky Bear Lake.