Lake diving in Alberta
Diver uncovers submerged artifacts of forgotten Alberta communities
Most visitors to Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park see only its natural beauty above the water surface. For diver Greg Mossfeldt, however, the water’s depths offer a chance to travel back in time.
The flooded ruins of the 1888 Minnewanka Landing township are just one of the underwater sites in B.C. and Alberta that Mossfeldt has explored and documented in recent years, while running his Calgary diving school, Mossman Scubaventures.
“I always imagine what it would have been like to live there at the turn of the century,” he says.
“The hardships people faced, those who moved there from another country and were setting up enterprises and how they created their homes.
“I’ve found teapots under there, lanterns; I even found an old bike under there once, covered in silt.”
While wrecks in saltwater rust quickly, the depths of freshwater lakes have low oxygen levels and are cold and dark enough that algae does not form.
Consequently, most artifacts are covered in a layer of silt but are otherwise unaffected, even by 100 years underwater.
One of Mossfeldt’s prize discoveries came last year in Crowsnest Lake, in southwest Alberta next to Highway 3 in Crowsnest Pass.
He and fellow diver James Dixon heard a local legend about a train that derailed into the lake during the Prohibition era, submerging boxcars filled with barrels of moonshine that were being smuggled by rumrunners.
They set about exploring likely locations around the lake. Before finding any sign of the train, they came across a submerged 1929 Chevrolet car — covered in silt, but fully preserved.
“The local story goes that a couple that were in a band at the local dance hall were coming back from a night of playing in 1929 and found the road was impassable, so they drove out onto the frozen lake as people did back then,” Mossfeldt says.
“They broke through the ice. They managed to make it out safely but, local legend has it, their belongings — along with a cherished violin — went down with the vehicle.
“When we found it, James and I could hear each other’s shouts of joy right through the breathing hoses of our diving apparatus.”
The winter chains were still visible on the back wheels of the car, as well as the metal springs in the car seats and the metal supports that would have held a soft roof.
The divers didn’t open the engine compartment, as they believe the movement would have caused the vehicle to break apart.
Another expedition to nearby Emerald Lake revealed a 1960s Ford Meteor, although not in as good condition as the 1920s vehicle. The team doesn’t know the story behind that submerged car.
Later, the group returned to Crowsnest Lake and found a trail of debris that led them to several 1920s boxcars on the bottom of the lake, but no sign of any moonshine containers.
A local newspaper story about the find did, however, prompt contact from a woman whose father was the “Mr. Big” rum-runner of Fernie; he used to tell her a train load of booze was at the bottom of the lake. Mossfeldt and Dixon hope to return to the lake in search of the stash.
Mossfeldt took up scuba diving in 1989 and soon took further courses to become an instructor.
He was one of the first divers to adapt video cameras to film underwater, earning him invitations from Discovery Channel and HBO to travel around the world filming famous shipwrecks.
His expeditions included a Second World War German U-boat that sank off New Jersey, and Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic that was lost in the Kea Channel of the Aegean Sea alongside Greece.
More recently he has concentrated his efforts on Canadian dive sites. He was part of a team that discovered the Athel Viking in the approaches to Halifax Harbour, a ship supposedly carrying molasses that was torpedoed in 1945 along with the British Freedom and Martin Van Buren.
He also leads dives to sunken vessels in B.C.’S Kootenay Lake and the Slocan Valley, including the ferry MV Anscomb, which sank in 2004, and the City of Ainsworth paddle steamer sternwheeler, which sank in 1898 in the Crawford Bay area of Kootenay Lake.
Along with leading dives, Mossfeldt instructs on the mixed-gas closed-circuit diving equipment that en- ables him to explore great depths. These “rebreathers” recycle the breathing gas, allowing divers to stay at a depth up to 122 metres for more than four hours with a very small system.
Battery-powered underwater scooters, meanwhile, allow his team to move through the water faster than swimming, widening their search areas.
“I use technology that allows me to get to the deeper sites, where recreational divers can’t get to, so they are all untouched,” Mossfeldt says.
Mossfeldt strictly does not remove artifacts from dives, believing it is important to leave sites untouched, but says many other divers break Cana- dian law in taking items, which means many shallow water sites have been stripped.
He says that just about any freshwater lake in Canada contains artifacts that show the effect human life has had on the area, and that to him is more interesting than exploring underwater wildlife.
“Most lakes will have something of interest at the bottom of them from the early years of settlement in Western Canada,” he says.
“There were a lot of cars and mining trains passing through. They had to get across those waterways in all kinds of conditions — there are good fruits of history under the surface, I’m sure of it.”