TRAVERSE CITY— As a teenager, Steve Libert was mesmerized by a teacher’s stories of the brash 17th Century French explorer La Salle, who journeyed across the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi in a quest for a trade route to the Far East that he hoped would bring riches and renown.
Particularly intriguing was the tale of the Griffin, a vessel that La Salle built and sailed from Niagara Falls to the shores of present-day Wisconsin before sending it back for more supplies. It departed with a crew of six and a cargo of furs in September 1679 — and was never seen again. Although widely considered the first wreck of a European-type ship in the upper Great Lakes, its fate has never been documented nor its gravesite found.
After nearly three decades of research, dives and legal tussles, Libert believes he is about to solve the mystery.
Beginning this weekend, he will lead a diving expedition to an underwater site in northern Lake Michigan, where archaeologists and technicians will try to determine whether a timber jutting from the bottom and other items beneath layers of sediment are what remain of the legendary Griffin.
“I’m numb from the excitement,” said Libert, 59, a burly ex-football player who talks passionately of his mission and whose flair for adventure bears some resemblance to La Salle’s. Raised primarily in Dayton, Ohio, home of the Wright Brothers, he learned to fly before making underwater exploration his avocation.
The just-retired intelligence analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense has a passion for maritime mysteries and has journeyed from Okinawa to the Florida Keys for diving expeditions. A biography posted on his website says he’s advised searches for the Titanic, five Navy torpedo bombers lost in the Bermuda Triangle during World War II, and John Paul Jones’ warship Bon Homme Richard, among others.