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By Bob Kostoff

The long saga of a mysterious and often frustrating search for the Griffon, built three centuries ago on the Niagara River in the LaSalle section of the city, may be in its final year. Progress depends on the cold weather and ice in Lake Michigan.

Whether this final phase of the archeological search will actually turn up the Griffon or prove to be some other sunken historical treasure remains to be seen.

This new year of 2011 will see completion of Phase II of the so-called "non-intrusive" survey of the suspected site of the Griffon. This phase, under formal agreement, is to be completed by the beginning of next year.

Officials believe this phase will finally determine if the site is the resting place of the actual Griffon and whether it will be worthwhile to try to retrieve artifacts from the ship.

Over the years, many sites have been touted as the resting place of the Griffon, and several stories in these columns have detailed the hopeful searches. But Steve Libert, president of Great Lakes Exploration Group, believes he has found the actual site. He studied the Griffon for many years and in 2001 discovered the current site in northern Lake Michigan.

The Griffon was built under orders of French explorer Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle, at a site off the Little Niagara River across from Cayuga Island. Father Louis Hennepin, who accompanied LaSalle on his expeditions, and Henri Di Tonti, LaSalle's one-handed second in command, helped plan the project, accomplished amid some consternation and harassment from Native Americans.

In 1679, the newly constructed ship, the largest to ply the Great Lakes at that time, set sail up the Niagara into Lake Erie and on to Michigan. There it was loaded with valuable furs to be taken back to Fort Niagara and forwarded to France.

The ship began its return voyage on Sept. 18, 1769, without LaSalle, Hennepin or Tonti aboard. The next day there was a violent storm, and the Griffon disappeared without a trace, never to be seen again.

Over the years various theories have developed. One is that the ship simply sank intact, without breaking up or leaving debris. The crew may have mutinied, scuttled the ship and made off with valuable furs, or Indians may have attacked.

Libert believed the prior historical and environmental research verified the site where the Griffon went down. But Libert ran into difficulty when the state of Michigan laid claim to the site and whatever may be found there.

Then the French government intervened, saying the Griffon and its artifacts belonged to France because LaSalle was exploring under auspices of the French government.

Litigation ensued, delaying efforts to determine if this was indeed the actual site of the sunken Griffon.

Eventually agreement was reached and a formal document signed by all parties involved. Under terms of the agreement, the investigation must be completed by January 2012. No public funds are to be used during this Phase II archeological assessment.

The Great Lakes Exploration Group has hired the Center for Maritime & Underwater Resource Management to conduct this Phase II investigation. This group is a non-profit scientific and educational organization specializing in underwater archeology, historic shipwreck management and maritime heritage education. The project manager is Ken Vrana.

In a previous press release, officials said the Phase I exploration of the site used "side scan sonar, magnetometer and sub-bottom profiler to reveal a potential submerged cultural resource with acoustic and magnetic signatures similar to a shipwreck."

In the second phase, researchers will use "high resolution sector scanning sonar and an advanced sub-bottom profiling instrument to map and characterize the site in more detail. Scientific divers will also document diagnostic features and artifacts in hopes of positively identifying these cultural remains."

Vrana commented, "The assessment phase in archeology is similar to crime scene investigation in law enforcement. We work from a prewritten research design to collect scientifically generated facts needed to answer the primary question on the minds of maritime enthusiasts throughout the Great Lakes region and beyond -- is this Le Griffon?

Vrana added, "In brief, we plan to continue non-intrusive remote-sensing and 'ground-truthing' operations as soon as possible in 2011. Ground-truthing by scientific divers is needed to identify and document certain targets recorded by the remote-sensing instruments. Ice conditions are a major factor in determining when we can initiate that work." HISTORIC ANNIVERSARY -- The Gourmands Club will hold its 50th anniversary dinner meeting Feb. 15 at The Bakery Lounge on Niagara Street.

George (Teeker) Poulos, one of the group's founders, said the club was the idea of Art Avdoian. About 15 people got together for a gourmet meal and to play cards to while away a few cold winter hours.

A feud soon started with a rival gourmet club headed by the late lawyer Jimmy Librize. Gourmets like to prepare elegant meals, while gourmands like to eat same, according to Webster.

One memorable packed meeting was held at the Alps Restaurant on First Street. Alps co-owner George Churakos was zipping among the crowded tables carrying a flambe dish when his white jacket caught fire. It was quickly extinguished and he was not hurt, but it brought quite a chuckle from the crowd. I believe I was sitting next to Harvey Albond when the incident occurred.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com Feb. 8, 2011