MADISON (WKOW) — For thousands of years, Madison’s Yahara Lakes have provided resources, food and a home for the people who lived and settled nearby. And over time, much of that history has been preserved just below the lake’s surface.
Thanks to advanced 3D imaging technology, researchers and divers have been able to reveal the hidden history beneath the lakes to the public for the first time – and the images are astonishing.
It all started with diver and renowned lake explorer Rick Kreuger. On average, Kreuger spends more than a third of his days at one of the Yahara lakes, searching for a story.
“You never know what you’re going to find here,” Kreuger said. “There’s just stuff all over the place out here.”
With special equipment, sonar and underwater cameras, Kreuger has discovered more than 70 wrecks of ships, cars and other structures below the surface of the lake.
“You just start doing a back-and-forth, back-and-forth search pattern,” Krueger said. “When you see something, you mark a point, then you go see what it is, and then you just keep going.”
Kreuger’s findings provide great destinations for divers and fellow researchers like Tamara Thomsen, an underwater archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society.
She is the one who discovered the 1,200-year-old Ho-Chunk canoe last year. Some of her favorite places to explore include a section of the lake bottom off Picnic Point, where several cars, boats and other structures are located, and an underwater cliff near Maple Bluff known as “The Wall.”
We joined Thomsen and her team on a dive just 50 yards from Picnic Point.
“There are several features that are at the bottom here,” Thomsen said. “There is an underwater experimental station – a habitat for three people that has been abandoned.”
“The Habitat,” as it is often called by fellow divers, was an underwater research module under Lake Mendota and commissioned by UW-Madison in the late 1970s. When it was still in use, the module could house three researchers to conduct experiments and tests on the bottom of the lake.
And that’s not all this part of the lake hides.
“There are two cars down here as well, and in deeper water we only have a small motorboat that has been abandoned,” Thomsen said. “So it’s kind of like a little underwater park right here in Lake Mendota.”
Between Thomsen and Kreuger, the two have discovered hundreds of artifacts at the bottom of the lake that have until now remained invisible to most people.
But that is changing.
That’s because Thomsen and her team of researchers are able to use new 3D imaging technology to scan some of the lake’s underwater features and bring them to life in a virtual reality space.
Zach Wittrock, who specializes in this underwater modeling, was able to bring dozens of structures to life on the bottom of the lake.
“I used an underwater propulsion vehicle with a camera mounted on the front,” Wittrock said. “I end up just going around the wreck at different angles and different heights and getting a bunch of shots of it. And then the program will take all these individual pictures and create a 3D model from it.”
3D models allow online users to explore some of the hundreds of artifacts submerged beneath the surface. The models can be explored in standard resolution and in virtual reality here.
The models reveal several cars that slipped through the ice before roads were widespread, sunken ships and sailboats, and other structures such as Habitat.
The new way of preserving history also gives divers like Thomsen and Kreuger an excuse to keep looking.
“There’s a lot waiting to be found,” Kreuger said. “I can go back every now and then and find something that would be a really great find. Or you might find nothing at all. So that’s the mystery of it all.”