Moosehead Treasure Hunt
One eco-entrepreneur sees a new future in hauling the past off the bottom of Maine’s largest lake.
By David William Turner
Photograph by Michael Ferry
Todd Morrissette, frantically operating a wheel in one hand and a tiny metal toggle switch in the other, stands in the six-by-six-foot aluminum cabin of his pontoon boat as it sways in the autumn chop. He squints his eyes under an orange cap brim, peering at the side-scan sonar, searching for valuable submerged lumber in the waters of Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake. This season he will salvage more than two hundred logs from the lakebed. A few gray hairs date Todd’s otherwise youthful appearance. He turned forty last April, three years after he mortgaged his home to become the owner, operator, and sole employee of the DeadHead Lumber Company.
Thirty feet below the surface, two hydraulic winches fitted with large cast-iron claws extend toward a red birch log. “You can tell how old they are by the way they’re cut — the axe marks,” Todd says. In the snowy winters of the 1800s, when Bangor was still the largest lumber-shipping port in the world, these hardwood logs were hauled to the iced waterways with sleds and horses, chained to buoyant spruce, and left to await the thaw. In the spring, steamships towed huge rafts of these timbers to places like the Atlas Plywood Mill in Greenville. “Moosehead was special,” Todd says. “The wood was cut for veneer, so it was very high quality.” But not all the lumber made it to the mills. Chains slipped and booms broke. Thousands of dense hardwood logs sank to the lakebed. Protected from the sun and deprived of oxygen, there they’ve sat for a century, preserved and waiting for someone like Todd.
No one knows for sure, but most estimates say about nine billion board feet made its way down the Penobscot River and through the lakes by the late 1800s. About 10 percent sank. Since those days of the virgin growth hardwoods, Maine’s North Woods have changed. Todd’s business now operates under a modern ecologically minded philosophy in this wild landscape. “When someone buys this wood, there’s no new wood being cut,” he points out.
The muted silhouette of Mount Kineo is visible in the distance. Harlequin leaves line the forested shoreline. The boat hovers above the harvest as Todd works the helm. Todd’s innovative design allows him to work Moosehead alone. A swell sends a few small rocks rushing across the dashboard. “My daughters came up here a few weeks ago,” he says, spinning the wheel. “We went out on the beach and just collected rocks. So, these are the lucky rocks.” Until the lake freezes, he spends most weeks working around Lily Bay, 170 miles from his family’s home in Scarborough.
Todd meticulously tightens the tongs around one log, aided by four LCD video screens above. The robo-rig tugs at its new anchor, sending the rocks against the far window. Todd guides a waterproof video cable through a hole in the deck. On a steel pole, underwater cameras are pointed at the tongs. He scrambles back to the cabin to check his progress. “This boat is built specifically for doing this and it’s the only one there is,” he says. When the cameras broke down last season, Todd reverse engineered them, replaced only the broken pieces, and had a machine shop assemble new casings. “I’ve always liked the mechanical aspect,” he admits. In the tape player is Isaac Asimov’s audiobook The Robots of Dawn.
The waves continue to pick up, quaking the thirty-foot pontoons. On occasion, strong afternoon winds have forced him to cut loose a whole day’s load of logs, sending them back to the bottom of the lake. “Which is why it got there in the first place,” he says, with the kind of smile that comes with seasoned understanding. “So you gotta be respectful of that.” Todd quickly navigates to the pier he rents from Lily Bay resident Steve Cole, and secures his boat tightly on the cleats. The salvage day is over.
Todd is not the first to harvest this lost resource from Moosehead Lake. The idea of making money from submerged lumber has been an alluring prospect for many years. By most estimates, the lakebed of Moosehead alone held close to half a million board feet of hardwood.
Mickey Squires, of Greenville, was salvaging as early as the 1950s. Over the past ten years alone, Steve Cole has rented this same pier to a handful of different outfits, including two simultaneously, causing a small-scale turf war. They all attempted to sell the lumber wholesale, which did not generate much profit. No one lasted very long, and the shallow waters were picked clean. “When they were working with scuba divers, they didn’t like to go below twenty feet,” Todd says. He planned to go deeper.
In 2008, Todd approached Cole, explained his plan, and wanted to set up a lease for the dock. “Given the economy and given what he was trying to do,” Cole says, “I pretty much figured he would get one year in, and we wouldn’t see him back.” Cole noticed Todd’s financial investment and watched him spend nights curled up in the cabin of his boat. “All I did was kinda cross my fingers and said ‘good luck.’ ”
“The first year was all about answering: ‘Can I even do this,’ ” Todd says. Still, it was less a matter of luck for him than an innate sense of adventure and work ethic. His grandfather left the family farm in Canada at seventeen to work the Aroostook woodland. “He always told us that he went to the ‘Allagash University,’ because he was cutting wood,” Todd says with a laugh. “My grandfather, from my mother’s side, did the same thing. He worked his butt off as a wood cutter around the Lewiston-Auburn area.”
Todd acquired an interest in travel from his father, who entered the semiconductor business as a janitor and eventually became a general manager, working in Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. When, at twenty-five, Todd was offered a position as the first U.S. employee of international flooring supplier PanTim, he jumped at the opportunity. As the company expanded, Todd became vice president of international purchasing. He traveled alone to remote woodlands across Eastern Europe, Siberia, and eventually Indonesia and China.
“Traveling was the draw of the job, and being in that industry,” Todd says, “I got to see all these places and earn money while doing it. If it was just sitting in an office pushing papers, I would have been out a long time ago.”
As the economy began to dip in 2007, Todd found himself spending more time sitting in his Portland office. Despite the excitement of frequent international travel, his eye-opening experience of working the lumber market in Asia had worn on him. “There was just a lot of ecologically damaging things going on that I didn’t want to be a part of anymore,” Todd says. “China had a very small wood supply, and yet they were the number one exporter of wood in the world. It just didn’t make any sense.” What made sense was developing a different kind of lumber business.
In the frigid winter air of 2008, Todd armed himself with a heavy coat and began his new project of boatbuilding in his icy Scarborough driveway. Initially the boat sat in pieces as Todd began to lay the aluminum deck across the pontoons’ cross members. His wife and three daughters watched from the playroom above. This was Todd’s last paid vacation. On his ten-year anniversary at PanTim, Todd took his boss out to lunch and submitted his resignation. As a self-employed businessman, vacations now became a thing of the past. He invested close to a half a million dollars and mortgaged against the 3,500 square-foot home he built. “You’ve got to have somewhat of an entrepreneurial spirit. I like the work, I like what I do,” he says. “I jumped in with both feet, and I had to make a living; I had bills to pay and all the financing stuff of starting a business. It definitely woke me up at three o’clock in the morning with cold sweats.”
To diversify his salvaged products business, Todd hauled three truckloads of weathered dock from the old Snow shipyard in Rockland to his Scarborough warehouse. “I guess this is a break-even year,” Todd says, pulling a crooked piece of metal from one beam. “I think I stopped sweating so much.”
He places the hammer down and walks into the warehouse. He began renting this building his first year after trying to sell his wood wholesale. He quickly realized he had to mill and store it. The second season, he began to market hardwood flooring to individual customers. With the fourth salvage season rapidly approaching, Todd now prepares to ship another order of milled maple to Japan for high-end guitar necks. (His wood produced ten thousand necks this year.)
Todd shuffles through the empty floor space where 15,000 board feet of salvaged pine sat before being sent to the kiln in Hardwick, Massachusetts, to dry. The pine will soon be new siding for Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Todd’s innovation, in both his boat and his business, allows him to make a living. “Unless you know what to do with the wood,” Todd says, “it’s useless junk.” His knowledge and expansion in the lumber market is what separates him from underwater salvagers from the past and present. “You have to be out there and work every single day,” he says. “If you’re looking for successful guys in the country, there’s got to be less than ten.”
Standing on a mat of sawdust from his newly purchased saw, Todd rattles off ideas for when he has some free time. He needs to install lights on his rig so he can start salvaging below sixty feet. He also envisions marketing the sonar and underwater camera setup he created for the boat to Maine’s search and rescue teams. For now, though, there is work to be done. “I definitely started with more of a glorified idea of what this would be,” he says. “I was going to sell the logs and the winter was going to be easy, but I’ve learned the growth is going to be from more than just salvaging. I am now a distributor, a manufacturer, and a salvager.”
Todd walks out the warehouse door. He squints as the warm sun hits his face. In the next few months he plans to get out on the water again and hopefully afford to hire some full-time help at the warehouse. New permits to start salvaging from Eagle Lake near Fort Kent will come through this summer. In his initial scan, he found more than three hundred logs there. “The Indian name for the lake was ‘Place of Many Maple Trees,’ ” Todd says with a smile. “I hope that’s what I find.”