Rich Synowiec of Monroe swims beneath 20 inches of Lake Erie ice during a dive in Colchester, Ont.
COLCHESTER, Ontario — This small village on the northern shore of Lake Erie is billed as the “Walleye Capital of Canada.” Wineries dot the landscape and shipwrecks litter the lake bed. Residents here are used to a diversity of visitors.
Jeff Omstead of Wheatley, Ont., begins his dive on Jana’s Wreck in Colchester.
But even ice fishermen departing Colchester Harbour pause to look at a man dressed in scuba gear riding a snowmobile toward an oversized triangular hole in the ice.
Beneath that hole lies a recently discovered shipwreck 500 feet from shore in 15 feet of Lake Erie water. The expanded underwater visibility and accessibility that the ice pack provides has created a unique scuba diving experience. And divers this winter are taking advantage.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view more photos of the plunge.
Three years ago, Mike Drexler, a Colchester resident and owner of Drexler Diving Systems, found the wreck that — until it’s officially identified — he has named “Jana’s Wreck” in honor of his wife.
Mr. Drexler believes it’s a side-wheel paddle steamer dating to around the mid-1850s.
In the late 1800s Colchester Harbour was home to a large maritime salvage company. Mr. Drexler thinks it was taken there for salvage. How it became submerged and forgotten is a mystery.
But that mystery is one of the allures of the dive, Mr. Drexler said.
“The fact that it’s a real shipwreck in the Great Lakes this close to shore — and you don’t normally get a shipwreck and stable ice — plus the uniqueness and challenge of an ice dive, it’s priceless,” Mr. Drexler said of the dive.
“On a good day in the summer, you’ll have 15 to 20 feet of visibility, he added. “With the ice there’s got to be 50 to 60 feet of visibility, give or take a few feet.”
Getting to see this wreck under the ice, however, is a challenge even for experienced divers. Ice diving requires special training and gear.
On a recent Sunday eight divers from Michigan and Ontario used a chainsaw to cut a large triangular hole in the ice, and in teams of two and three, plunged into the 34-degree water for 30 to 45 minutes of frigid exploration.
“That wreck right there, end of discussion, end of story, is the reason to become ice certified,” said Rich Synowiec, a Monroe resident and owner of Diver’s Inc. in Ann Arbor.
“When I dropped down I turned around toward the wreck and said, ‘wow’ this is going to be cool because we can see,” he added. And unlike many near-shore wrecks, it’s not “a pile of lumber.
The wreck site features much of the hull, two large boilers, a large debris field, and most notably a capstan with the maker’s plaque clearly legible.
Perhaps as important as having specialized gear and training is having a special mindset.
“I’ve had more than one person say I need my head examined,” Mr. Drexler admitted. “But think about it. That capstan is 160 years old. When you are going through that triangle in the ice you are going to a different world. You are going back in time.”
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