1968: Voyage to the Bottom of the Lake

Google the term “marine research institute” and you’ll be (pardon the pun) flooded with responses from all over the globe. Invariably each list will contain the following:

  • Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Scripps Institute of Oceanography
  • Plymouth Marine Laboratory

Sadly, you will not find a single mention of SLMR or more commonly the “Scout Lake Marine Research Institute.”  Perhaps that was because it was in existence for less than three years, never had more than three members on staff and the physical facilities consisted of a dock floating 50 feet from the west shore of Scout Lake in Sterling, Alaska.

While our collective interest in undersea technology  had been ignited by the ABC science fiction series Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea that ran from 1964 to 1968, my own personal interest had started during my family’s brief sojourn in San Diego in 1960.1 It was a little tougher pursuing subsea interests living in a subarctic environment but while the ice was in place I vicariously explored the depths  by throwing myself into science class, devouring anything National Geographic published  about Jacques Cousteau and spending every spare minute designing submarines.2

…but once the ice was gone?

The most accessible body of water was Scout Lake, located a couple of miles east of the homestead and just downhill from my friend Wayne’s house – in fact all of our marine studies centered around a dock anchored about fifty feet out into the lake. Built by Wayne’s dad as an anchoring point for his float plane during the summer, the dock provided an ideal base for our voyages to the bottom of the lake.

…which wasn’t too terribly deep. One of the basic principles of the Institute’s program was that the lake was 30 feet deep, a figure that had something to do with limits for decompression which had nothing to do with us as we had no tanks or breathing gear. Based on our average heights and the dock’s anchor cable we were probably sitting over a depth of 15 to 20 feet. That figure changed – and has continued to change over the years. Word was that Scout Lake had originally been fed by a spring that had somehow gotten blocked during the 1964 earthquake and one of our goals was to find and unblock that spring.

In retrospect I’m not sure there ever was a spring but it’s obvious that the water level had gone down. There is an abrupt shelf that you step down from to get to the beach at the state recreation area on the east end of the lake, but when we camped in that area as Boy Scouts in 1965 that step-down was the edge of the lake.

My family had been swimming in the lake every summer since moving to the Peninsula in 1964 but it wasn’t until the summer of 1968 that Wayne and I got serious about diving. By then we had access to better masks and were both stronger and more confident in our aquatic skills. I also I passed the lake every day when hitchhiking home from my janitor’s job in Soldotna so there were plenty of opportunities to “do research”.

…which meant repeated dives down to the bottom of the lake where we did make a discovery: a noticeable temperature layer/boundary of sorts located about four feet above the lake-bed. The water became markedly colder, cold enough to trigger a sort of gulp/shiver/choke that had me making my ascent much, much faster than usual. We also kept a lookout for plants and sea life, but the water was so murky that visibility was very limited. Besides, even though the lake had been periodically stocked since 1957 I had never even heard of anyone catching a fish.

There actually were other projects, most of which were unsuccessful:

  1. Lack of candlepower defeated my attempts to waterproof a flashlight. We knew we’d never even find that stopped-up spring much less repair it unless we could find our way through the murky water. It took me a couple of attempts to come up with a method for sealing a flashlight, but the process was an irreversible, one-time process and any light that I could afford to buy was not strong enough to pierce the watery gloom.
  2. Using a length of hose as extra-long snorkel worked as long as the snorkel-hose was extended across the surface of the lake. The pressure from diving even just three feet down was more than my lungs could inhale against.
  3. The submarine designs we’d come up with during seventh and eighth grade…well, we didn’t even try to make working versions. We were having trouble enough just coming up with money for decent masks and other gear.

We got fairly proficient in our skills and we managed to avoid mishap or trouble, except for the one time my other friend Donny ended up at the lake with me.  As another California transplant he was equally arrogant about his superior aquatic skills, even after I explained to him how cold the water was and how quickly it got deep as you swam out to the dock. Brushing my warning off as hysterical overreaction he smartly waded out as far as he could, pushed off…and immediately began to sink.

At first, I thought he was joking but as he would alternately sink then bob up choking I realized that for all his bravado Donny really couldn’t swim that well – and that he was in serious trouble. With Wayne gone for the day any life-saving was up to me but I couldn’t remember enough from my lessons at scout camp to make a text-book save. However, it didn’t seem to matter because Donny was choking and failing so hard that I couldn’t get in close enough to reach around his shoulders. Finally, in desperation I dove down to stand on the bottom, then I reached up, grabbed his tush like a shot-put and threw him as far shoreward as I could. After a brief surfacing to catch my breath I dove down to repeat the process. After three or four tries I got him back into water shallow enough for him to touch bottom and I let him wade in the rest of the way by himself.

Between school starting up again and dropping autumn temperatures our diving came to a halt, but this time there were no interim activities during the snowy months, and this time there wouldn’t be a return to the lake during the coming summer.  While my friendship with Wayne never came to a specific halt we started drifting into very divergent lifestyles during our sophomore year of high school – and summer employment left little time for extended diving sessions in Scout Lake anyway. The closest thing to another session happened during the summer after high school graduation when I took my little sisters down for a dip and found Wayne and his girlfriend already there at the dock. It was much less physically intense than the “institute” days but the afternoon nicely capped off a happy part of my life.

Guam: 1985

It was truly amazing – as we swam through the fish, fronds and coral in the water just off of Gab-Gab beach I was struck by the incredible variety and brilliant colors of my surroundings. I was also amazed at how LOUD the noise was; years of watching movies and TV had prepared me for the color but I had no idea there would be so many clicks, hums, booms and “whooshes” assaulting my ears. I was smiling so wide I thought I was going to lose my regulator mouthpiece, but I managed to keep breathing and survive my twenty-minute underwater diversion from my duties in the 1/19th SFG(A) battalion Forward Operating Base.

I sat back against my tanks on the sand, looked back at the water and thought “I wish Wayne could have seen this!” it was the same thing I said the first time I saw Star Wars, the same thing I said when I made my first solo flight in a TH-55 at FT Rucker – the same thing I said during the previous seven years whenever I’d encounter something amazing.

Wayne had been murdered in the spring of 1978 – not much was known other than he’d been living on a boat in Juneau and his killer was never found. I knew he had been living very much on the edge in the years leading up to his death, but I never pushed for more information. I preferred to remember him as the fifteen-year-old aquanaut that shared a lake with me, and hoped those “I wish Wayne could have seen this” experiences were somehow vicariously shared with him wherever he was now, and left it at that.


 

  1. see 1960: JFK and Quonset Huts
  2. see 1965: Submarine Races

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