Sunken treasure in our own backyard
What was once an area bustling with iron mining activity is now one of the Midwest’s best locations for diving and snorkeling.
The Cuyuna Iron Mine Pits near the city of Crosby, made up of 27 separate bodies of water, attract underwater explorers from across the country to enjoy crystal clear views of Minnesota’s past and aquatic wildlife.
Todd Matthies, one of the owners of the Minnesota School of Diving (MSD) in Brainerd, said that in a typical Minnesota lake, visibility ranges 4-10 feet. In the mine pit lakes, however, one can see up to 50 feet of spectacular views, including a flooded forest, abandoned vehicles and mining equipment, roads cut into bluffs that once led miners to the bottom and numerous fish species that live among the relics.
When the mining industry left the pits in the 1970s, large pumps that kept groundwater at bay were turned off. In the next 10-20 years, the pits slowly filled until becoming lakes. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has stocked the lakes with crappies, bluegills, largemouth bass, northern pike and rainbow trout, among other species.
Matthies, who’s been diving since high school, and his father, Bill, have led diving expeditions and classes in the pits for many years. Bill, who opened MSD in 1959, has been diving in Minnesota and around the world for 55 years.
Bill has discovered countless treasures while diving in the lakes area. His collection boasts bottles of Brainerd’s soda making past, guns of all shapes and sizes, Native American tools and even buffalo bones. One skull on display at MSD came from Fish Trap Lake in Morrison County, and Bill was later told the skeleton came from a species of buffalo that went extinct around 12,000 years ago.
The Matthieses and their team are often hired to dive for lost items, from false teeth that have fallen through an ice fishing hole to cars and airplanes. Todd said they once recovered 18 snowmobiles from the waters of Cross Lake over a two-week time period.
Todd said one of the unique things about diving is it attracts all types of people, from a 15-year-old working at McDonald’s to executives from large companies.
“You get to meet some very interesting people,” he said. “In the normal walk of life, they would never intermingle.”
Through sharing a thrilling experience like diving, he said, people form bonds they would not otherwise.
To discover your own treasures through diving in area waters, certification is necessary. Todd said many customers learn diving before embarking on a tropical vacation, but open water training at the mine pits shows them they can use their skills for fun at home, too.
MSD offers certification through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, which certifies 70 percent of divers in the world. The course includes classroom instruction, skill development using pools and open water diving. Todd said students can expect to pay around $425 for the course and materials.
Once initial training is completed, students are ready to dive recreationally. There are several more levels offered for those with serious interest, however, up to becoming certified as a master diver.
If you’re not ready to make the commitment to a scuba diving course, MSD also runs a program, “Discover Scuba,” which allows the opportunity for one night of pool instruction for $25. If participants choose to continue with their education, the fee will be applied toward the certification course.
If you would prefer underwater exploration with less of a commitment, snorkeling is a wonderful option at the mine pit lakes. Todd said the lakes are particularly great for snorkeling because you don’t have to go too far from shore to see some of the most interesting things.
“You can be in 30-40 feet of water only eight feet from the shore,” he said.
MSD offers fun dives one weeknight and on Saturdays from May to October. The fun dives are intended for divers and snorkelers of all experience levels to receive guidance in viewing the hidden treasures below. With more than 50 access points in the mine pit lakes created for underwater exploring, the opportunities are nearly endless. The school offers half-price rentals of diving or snorkeling equipment for these events, and it wouldn’t be a summer outing in Minnesota without a barbecue.
Todd said he hopes more locals and visitors will give diving and snorkeling a try. The school is currently working with area resorts to offer snorkeling as a recreational option for vacationers.
For more information on classes, events and equipment rental, visit www.mndiving.com or call MSD at 218-829-5953.
Chelsey Perkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at facebook.com/PEJChelsey and on Twitter @PEJ_Chelsey.