Rivers are a lot like people, Jody Bakker suggests.
On the surface, the water can appear serenely calm. Underneath the surface, in the heart of a river, is where the action is.
“There’s stuff moving — currents, fish,” Bakker mused. Underneath is where the treasures lie.
These days Bakker is a one-man band, so to speak, in his diving operation to salvage logs that were destined for the sawmill at Somers more than a century ago.
“It’s old-growth timber that you can’t find in the woods anymore,” Bakker pointed out. The tight grain of the wood makes it sought-after for flooring, wallboards and table tops.
“It cures underwater and pulls in minerals and colors” to give the wood a unique look, he added.
During a log salvaging operation in Flathead Lake that Bakker participated in a few years ago, one of the logs was dated to 1538. After a lengthy debate and legal battle over ownership of the sunken logs, North Shore Development began the Flathead Lake log salvage work about five years ago, pulling century-old logs that have languished in Somers Bay since the early 1900s. The reclamation work was fairly short-lived, though. Bakker was one of the divers who helped retrieve logs; he worked on and off on the project for three years. The Flathead Lake salvage operation was averaging 40 to 50 logs a day, Bakker estimated, but North Shore Development shut down the log retrieval in 2015.
Bakker wanted to continue salvaging logs. The Swan River seemed like a plum spot. He’d flown over the river and had seen firsthand the sunken treasury of logs remaining on the river bottom.
“I saw great opportunity,” he said.
In the early 1900s logs were moved from Swan Lake along the Swan River in what became a kind of “river highway” for the logging industry, according to a Swan Lake history written by Edmund Craney and Martha Craney Wiberg.
“In the spring, during the early rush of water towards the sea, the logs were rolled into the river,” the historians wrote. “They usually floated down the river with no stoppage. It was as the water started to recede that jams occurred more frequently.”
Inevitably, some of the logs became waterlogged and sank.
When Bakker couldn’t muster interest among other divers to salvage river logs, he met with state officials by himself and had a permit within three months.
He is permitted to retrieve logs on a stretch of the Swan River in the Ferndale area.
Diving alone more or less “breaks all the rules,” he admitted. “As long as you know your limits … the secret is self-rescue.”
Bakker is careful and methodical in his diving, and relishes the solitude of underwater work.
“I love the peace,” he said. “It’s neat down there. [The water] almost has a spirit.”
Bakker doesn’t use a motorboat during his salvaging.
“I don’t want to interfere with recreation, so I dive in the fall and winter, and early spring, to keep everyone happy,” he said.
He also leaves any gnarled logs or log clusters to retain the fish habitat.
Bakker, 56, would like to one day quit his day job — he owns an excavating business, Bakker’s Bobcat Works — and focus exclusively on salvaging logs.
“My goal is to just do this,” he said about diving as he geared up on a recent rainy day on the Swan River.
Bakker has another part-time gig. He runs the karaoke sessions at the Rainbow Bar in Evergreen two nights a week. That was his wife Kristy’s idea. Kristy passed away from cancer five years ago, but he kept going with the karaoke.
He tells people his life revolves around three Ds: “Digging, diving and deejaying.”
Since becoming a certified diver in 2005, Bakker has brought up all kinds of things from lake and river bottoms.
He dove for and actually found a woman’s wedding ring in less than a minute when he saw a faint flicker.
Bakker has done underwater pump work, and last year he helped locate the historic Kee-O-Mee houseboat that sank in 1937 in Somers Bay.
He’ll dive anywhere, for anything. Bakker even brings his dive gear when he goes to Havre, where he graduated from high school in 1978. But rivers are his favorite spots for an underwater excursion.
“You never know what you’ll find around the next bend.” he said.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.