Alexandria fishing guide and divers discover hundreds of bones in Lake Victoria
He tugged his line and reeled it in slowly. It was a big one, he thought.
When Alexandria fishing guide Roger Van Surksum, 64, finally got to the end of the line, he found something many would dread.
The creature on the hook was not a walleye or any sort of fish at all.
In fact, it wasn't even alive; and had not been for many years.
JUNE 14, 2011
The story unfolds like fishing line from the reel; but it's not a traditional fisherman's tale.
It was a cloudy morning when Van Surksum set out on Lake Victoria in his boat, aptly named a "Warrior." He was testing a walleye fishing spot for an upcoming guided trip.
About 10:30 a.m., as billowy clouds whirled above the lake, Van Surksum tossed his Lindy Rig, night crawler and hook into the waves.
He began to reel the line.
Suddenly, it went taut.
"This was just a steady pull," Van Surksum recalled. "It had quite a bit of resistance."
He knew it wasn't a fish. He kept reeling it in.
As he turned the crank, he wondered if he had hooked a tackle box or some other equipment that had fallen into the murky depths.
"It didn't fight back," he said. "I brought it in very slowly."
When he finally pulled the object out of the water, he found something dark snagged onto the hook.
It was a bone.
The stocky extremity appeared to be a leg bone. It was black as coal, he said, and about 10 inches long.
Van Surksum's mind reeled with various scenarios that might explain how the bone ended up in the lake.
A shadowy question lingered in his mind. Was it human?
He started to research the potential origin of the bone, scanning the Internet for information and asking friends and family for advice.
But Van Surksum's mind would not rest.
He knew there was a deeper story behind the solitary bone and believed his find was the hook to a much greater mystery.
On July 2, when Van Surksum was fishing in Lake Carlos, he found Wayne Wagner, 56, of Brandon and Wesley Torgrimson, 49, from Evansville diving nearby.
"We were wondering what that cranky, old guy was yelling about," Torgrimson said with a good-natured chuckle about that first meeting.
Wagner and Torgrimson had been friends since working together at 3M. Torgrimson now runs a farm and Wagner has retired. The men had only been diving for about a year, but they were excited to join Van Surksum in hunting for more bones or other artifacts burrowed into the lake's floor.
Using a GPS system that retained the location of the initial bone, on July 9 the group took their first dive.
Their excitement bubbled over as the unexpected happened.
The men found 10 bones in the same southwest region of the lake where Van Surksum reeled in the first bone.
On July 17, the group went into the lake again, and this time they found hundreds of bones, including a jaw bone.
"You should see them now," Van Surksum said. "They are more excited than I am. They can't wait to go down again. They're like kids in a candy store."
He said gratefully: "Without them, I couldn't do this."
They dove again August 20 and located about 50 more bones, including what appeared to be a special find, a bison's horn.
Other bones recovered in the dives included the upper and lower jaw, pelvis, neck bones, and vertebrae. Van Surksum thinks he has bones from at least a dozen animals and maybe many more.
In all, the group collected more than 200 bones from the lake.
A BUCKET FULL OF BONES
Traveling with a large bucket overflowing with bones in the bed of his black pickup truck, Van Surksum drove to St. Cloud State University on July 27.
"I was really thinking, could this be human?" he said.
Experts at the university told him the bones were similar to those of the Great Plains Bison in the region and were quite possibly at least 200 to as many as 10,000 or more years old, according to their initial review. The bones were also beginning to fossilize.
They were able to distinguish them as bison bones rather than those of another animal, such as a cow, from the jaw hinges and the large vertebrae that extended about 22 inches, much longer than that of a cow.
Van Surksum matched the first bone he had found at the end of his hook to an ancient bison's metacarpal or lower left front leg.
He pondered the reasons why so many bison met their end at the bottom of Lake Victoria.
The site where the bones were found is located at the bottom of a steep cliff.
Perhaps, native inhabitants living in the area had driven the great beasts over the cliff's edge many years before to claim their pelts, meat and other materials for sustenance, tools and weaponry, he wondered.
Today, in his garage, Van Surksum has five apple boxes, 2 feet by 1.5 feet, filled with bones.
"I am having a lot of fun with it and I am going to turn it all over to the state of Minnesota," Van Surksum said. "Who knows? We might have a kill site with artifacts."
The archeologist at St. Cloud State referred Van Surksum to the Minnesota Historical Society's National Register Archeologist David Mather because of the number of bones found.
Mather will travel to Alexandria September 9 to meet with Van Surksum and assess the bones.
And even if it turns out the bones do not find their way into a museum, all is not lost. Van Surksum plans to preserve one of the magnificent creature's teeth in a necklace in remembrance of their fascinating adventure.
See continuing coverage in the Echo Press.