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Mystery greets divers who probe Red River's murky depths

Bob Backman of the River Keepers FM on the banks of the Red River, Monday, June 10, 2013, in Moorhead, Minn. Logan Werlinger / The Forum

FARGO -- Roger Cullen got hooked on diving the Red River for its hidden secrets the day he found a military rifle, shotgun, pistol, steamboat clock and human skull embedded in the mucky bottom.

He was looking for something else in the murky water beneath the North Broadway bridge, an isolated area, on that summer day in 1979.

A scuba-diving friend invited him to help retrieve what he thought was a cache of guns stolen from a police evidence room.

The backpack turned out to contain a stolen video camera. Frustrated, Cullen and his diving partner decided to keep looking for buried treasures in the jumble beneath the bridge, then a popular dumping spot.

They found an M1 carbine, a rifle used by the U.S. Army in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, a shotgun and a pistol with an octagon barrel.

An old brass clock with spindles looked like it came from the wooden steering wheel of one of the steamboats that plied the Red River back in the 1800s.

Mystery bones

"The big thing we pulled up was a human skull," Cullen said, the amazement still in his voice years later. "Now it's a crime scene investigation."

A week later, at the request of Fargo police, Cullen and the other diver returned to look for more human bones. They found a collarbone.

"It was never identified," Cullen said, referring to the remains, which he said might have come from the old pauper's cemetery at Trollwood Park, where riverbank erosion has been a problem for many years.

No criminal prosecution resulted, but Cullen became intrigued by the historical artifacts that can turn up at the bottom of the Red River.

"The river seems to be one of the better places to find historical artifacts," he said. "That particular dive really opened my eyes to it."

Most don't want to delve into the inky depths of the Red River, notorious for sediment-laden water so dark that divers must grope with the fingers instead of looking with their eyes.

But a dedicated few, including Cullen, have repeatedly returned to the Red in search of bottles, crockery and other remnants of bygone eras.

Some prized finds hang from the walls of Northwest Divers in Moorhead, an informal museum of rusty firearms and ancient bones retrieved from watery resting places.

"I think there's a sense of adventure to it," said Rick Van Raden, proprietor of Northwest Divers. "There's always a sense of mystery, but there can also be a sense of loneliness."

In Cullen's case, an interest in history fuels his curiosity, and compels him to see what mysteries the river is ready to yield.

"Probably just the intrigue of finding stuff," he said, grasping to explain his motivation. "Stuff is down there. Very few people venture into the abyss -- the darkness, the uncertainty. It's kind of spooky, it really is."

Buddy system

Because of the dangers of diving "blind," divers go in teams or use tethers with a partner in a boat or on shore.

Even so, the sense of isolation can be spooky and even disorienting, an experience much like floating in a sensory deprivation chamber, said Van Raden, who has dived the Red for search and rescue operations.

"If you've been in there so long you don't know what's up or down; it's kind of a goofy feeling," he said.

Cullen, a Fargo native who now lives near Dead Lake in Minnesota, no longer dives the Red River as often as he once did.

"It's just amazing the things you can find down there," he said.

Especially in urban areas, the river bottom is dense with debris tossed from shore -- a tangle rescue and recovery divers must navigate when searching.

"You're pulling bike frames out of the way and old metal mattress frames and barrels," Van Raden said. "It's endless, the amount of stuff that gets thrown in the river."

In the era before landfills, the river was a convenient disposal site, although Van Raden believes most people today are more environmentally conscious.

"It used to be out of sight, out of mind," he said.

During the settlement era, following the arrival of the railroad in the early 1870s, saloons began to proliferate on the Moorhead side of the river because Dakota Territory was "dry" and alcohol was prohibited.

Many of the empty bottles found their way to the river. Also, settlers often buried crockery in the muddy river bottom to chill food.

Inevitably, some of the crockpots were lost or forgotten, but turn up more than a century later when the river meanders or fluctuating water levels uncover them from the bottom or riverbank.

"Every year, as the river moves, there are pickup loads of stuff," said Bob Backman, executive director of River Keepers, a local nonprofit advocacy group.

Notable findings

Besides shards of bottles or pottery, bones frequently turn up, he said.

"Tons of bones," Backman said. "They would primarily be bison, some are cattle."

Immense numbers of buffalo once roamed the Red River Valley, including an extinct bison species prevalent after the glacier melted 10,000 years ago.

"That means a lot of bison through the years came down to get a drink," Backman said. Some got stuck in the mud or fell through the ice and drowned.

River Keepers once had a box full of old buffalo bones, but ended up giving most away to local science teachers.

A rusty suit of armor once showed up along the river. It was obviously a modern replica, probably cast off from some theatrical production, Backman said.

Divers or beach combers should be aware that Minnesota law forbids taking archeological artifacts in protected areas. Glass bottles or pottery made after 1875, however, are not protected.

"The law is there, but it's almost never enforced," said Mark Peihl, archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

Still, "It may not be a good idea to take materials from the riverbank," he said.

"If I find anything unique, I bring it to the dive shop" so it can be on public display, Cullen said, referring to the wall collection at Northwest Divers.

Now in his 36th year of diving, Cullen still is fascinated by the dark Red River and secrets it protects.

"There's so much history there," he said.