THE MEMORY OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
This weekend we honor the memory and the spirit of exploration. But not all discoveries involve many men, many ships and much money. Not all discoveries make the history books.
Dennis Holden is an explorer, too. Watch him early one evening as he pads in webbed rubber feet down to the edge of Lake Mahopac. See him slip, like some primordial creature, into the murky water. Gaze as he disappears under the surface, leaving behind only a few dark bubbles.
His wife, Betty, stands on a small wooden dock and watches. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes. Finally her husband emerges. In one gloved hand he clutches a pottery jug. He pushes his mask back from his eyes, stares at his find. ”Too new,” he says, disappointed. ”I’m going back down.”
Mr. Holden is a scuba diver. But he is no ordinary scuba diver. Instead of fleeing to the crystalline Caribbean, he seeks waters more-sybaritic divers often shun – the lakes of Westchester and Putnam Counties. In their depths, he prowls for treasure: for the coins and jewelry others have lost while swimming; for bottles, old and beautiful, that he studies and collects; for any object that has suffered a sea change.
STAY IN FLORIDA
”There are people I call fair-weather divers, go to Florida or the islands once or twice a year,” he said, a twinkle in his eye, as he stood dripping on the dock. ”My friends call me the Mahopac Mucker. I like to search for things in this muddy water.”
Mr. Holden, 42 years old, by trade services word processors and computers for the International Business Machines Corporation. He is tall and trim, but with an air of mischief. He is, he says, an ”Army brat,” who grew up ”mostly up and down the East Coast” as a nonexpert swimmer.
”I don’t swim all that well on the surface; I always liked to go underwater, like a frog.” He made his first dive nine years ago, after taking a Y.M.C.A. scuba course and found his first bottle on that same dive. Since then, he has logged 556 dives and 581.4 hours in his dive book:
”You record the date, time, location, depth, bottom time and type of every dive you make,” he explained. ”Also each new lifetime total of hours underwater. Then your dive partner signs each entry.”
Things that are the stuff of nightmares – Stygian darkness, slime, disorientation – are for him a source of fascination. He does not, however, brag about his exploits, but shows respect ranging on awe for the alien environments he penetrates: ”One of my first low-visibility dives was in Candlewood Lake in Connecticut,” he recalled. ”In the dark, 30 feet under, no idea what was around. Candlewood is a manmade lake, and on the bottom are traces of what was there many, many years ago: a munitions factory, a road, wooden fenceposts.”
There are no lost cities under Lake Mahopac, but there are the relics of an age past. The lake, Mr. Holden said, was once ringed with summer hotels; crockery and bottles and cutlery still rest at its bottom, silent reminders of long-gone revelry. Mr. Holden also dives in Copper Tea Kettle Spout Lake in Mahopac, Lake Osceola in Jefferson Valley, Lake Oscawana in Putnam Valley, Long Island Sound and, yes, occasionally, the Caribbean, where he takes pictures of brilliant-hued fish. Lake Mahopac remains one of his favorites.
On a recent evening, a reddish sun hung low over water that looked like black glass broken only by a few long, curved ripples. Mr. Holden stood at the edge and metamorphosed from man to amphibian. He pulled on a pale blue wetsuit, pants, jacket, boots, fins, hood, gloves, mask. Also a weighted belt to allow him to sink and a buoyancy vest to assist his rising; an air tank, a clock, a thermometer, pressure gauge, a compass, a knife, an underwater metal detector and a ”goodie bag” in which to stash treasure.