Breaking the ice

Published 11:26 pm Friday, January 21, 2011

Members of the Michigan Underwater Divers Club, a group of southwest Michigan scuba divers, prepare to plunge into the icy water of the Holland Channel in Holland, Mich. The group dives in lakes and rivers throughout Michigan. (Photo submitted)

While many people were at home drinking bubbly and watching the ball drop or out partying, Larry Steelman did something a little bit different for his New Year’s Eve celebration.

He spent the waning moments of 2010 and the opening moments of 2011 several feet below the surface of the St. Joseph River.

Steelman, a Niles resident, is a member of the Michigan Underwater Divers (MUD) Club, which has been holding icy New Years Eve dives at local rivers and lakes for 30 years.

“I’ve been to all of them except one, and that’s because my sister was getting married that day,” said Steelman, who is a charter member of the southwest Michigan club that formed in 1972.

Members of the club, who come from Niles, St. Joseph, Dowagiac and Berrien Springs, get asked all the time why they would brave the frigid temperatures and delve beneath the ice on New Years.

“What possesses us to do ice diving is the clarity of the water,” Steelman said. “When you go under the ice, the wind and boats are not creating any waves. The water is almost as clear as being in the Caribbean, mainly because all the sediment is settled down.”

Steelman says the icy water temperatures are not an issue, as their wet suits insulate them. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t risks involved.

“It’s a high risk dive because you can’t just automatically come up to the surface if you have an emergency,” he said. “Whenever you dive under the ice, you have a safety line on, so you can signal them and they can pull you back to the hole.”

Steelman has been scuba diving since 1966 and estimates he has done 700 dives in his career. But he says that’s nothing compared to other members of the club, who dive three to four times per week.

So what makes the 22 members of the MUD club so committed to their hobby?

“It’s addicting,” Steelman said.

He still remembers the moment he fell in love with the sport. He was diving a ship wreck at Lake Superior.

“I remember descending down the line in 40 feet of water and I could see the ship sitting there,” Steelman said. “At 70 feet I was standing on the deck of this wooden vessel that had sunk 80-some years prior to that. I was in awe.”

Steelman and other MUD Club members also love the treasure hunting aspect of scuba diving.

“We call ourselves the ‘Grubbies’ sometimes because we’re always looking through the silt for old bottles and whatever we can find,” he said.

Other items recovered from lakes and rivers include anchors, coins, lanterns, boat motors and antique dishes. The divers even get hired sometimes to retrieve snow mobiles and other expensive items that fall through the ice.

Steelman says Barron Lake and Paw Paw Lake were resort lakes in the 1920s and 1930s, making them good locations for “unique finds.”

While Steelman and his scuba buddies mostly dive local inland lakes and the Great Lakes, they also have swum through caverns in Florida and underground mines in Missouri.

Steelman says scuba diving is a hobby that is easy to quit, because it is time consuming.

But for the members of the MUD Club, who have spent countless hours exploring the depths of various lakes and rivers, it’s time well spent.

For more information about the club, visit The club meets every third Tuesday at Andrews University, holds monthly organized dives at area locations and organizes an annual trip.