Erik Johnson, of Calumet, Michigan, is accustomed to seeking treasures along the stone beaches of Lake Superior along Michigan’s Copper Harbor.
A treasure, to Johnson, could be an agate chipped from the bedrock, fossils or precious copper for which the area near the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula is named.
Never in his wildest dreams did Johnson think he would find a treasure like the one he uncovered on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving.
“I went up to Copper Harbor looking for agates,” Johnson explained.
“I was three-quarters of the way up the peninsula. I’d gone 3 miles up the beach in an area that no one goes this time of year,” he continued.
There was a lot of stuff on that beach. Stuff that had washed to shore as the change in seasons brought 6- to 12-foot waves to shore.
And that’s when Johnson saw his treasure.
“It was a bottle, and, no way, the bottle had a note in it,” Johnson said.
It was a find that would eventually connect the retired Michigander with a 16-year-old Milaca High School student.
Rewind three months to Labor Day weekend. Cole Barsody and his parents had just sailed out of Bayfield, Wisconsin, on a 44-foot boat owned by lifelong family friends who live in Duluth. Seven people set sail, in all.
It was the last week of summer vacation, and the two families set off for four nights on the boat, Barsody said.
“I wrote the note on our first day on the boat after leaving Bayfield,” he said.
Barsody said his mother is a wine connoisseur, of sorts, and the adults on the boat had just finished a good bottle of wine. When the wine was gone, Barsody took a piece of paper and scribbled: “This letter is my message to you. My name is Cole. I am 16 and from Milaca, MN & we are spending my last week of summer on a boat exploring and adventuring. If found, please call or text me.”
Barsody then rolled up the letter, placed it in the wine bottle, sealed it with a cork, and sent the bottle overboard.
“It’s something I’ve done before in the past,” Barsody said of sending a message in a bottle. “But I’ve never had a response.
Three months and 181 miles later, that response came.
Johnson found the bottle and contacted the Mille Lacs County Times by email, asking for help in finding the writer of the letter. Times staff agreed to help in the search.
Johnson sent the bottle and a copy of the letter by mail to the Times’ Princeton office. He also included artifacts of items from along Lake Superior that are found at Copper Harbor, including pieces of copper, fossils and agates.
“To me it’s a hobby, and I wanted to give him something he’d remember,” Johnson said.
Barsody was in band class at Milaca High School when he first received a text message from the newspaper that his message and bottle had been found.
“I stopped and looked at the message and thought, ‘Really?’” Barsody recalled. He shared the message with some friends, who equally thought the whole episode was “pretty cool.”
He said he was confused at first, trying to figure out why the newspaper had the bottle. But as Barsody and newspaper staff further communicated by text message, he realized that the pieces of the story were lining up and the texts were legitimate. A meeting was set up and the box was in his hands on Thursday, Dec. 10.
Barsody was fascinated by what Johnson had given him in the box.
Back in Michigan, Johnson was waiting to hear if the box reached its intended destination.
When the Times’ relayed to Johnson Barsody’s story about boating out of Bayfield, he said he didn’t realize how far the bottle had traveled.
“It’s actually amazing it made its way to shore,” Johnson said.
Another week, and the waves on Lake Superior would have been higher, or it could have been buried in 13 feet of snow or packed in ice.
“Chances are good no one would have ever found it,” Johnson said.
Now Johnson hopes Barsody’s letter has a second life.
Even though he sent the original bottle back to Cole, he kept the original letter and has put it in a new bottle.
“I’m going to take it to the farthest part of the peninsula and give it a new start. Maybe the same letter can be found again,” Johnson said.
No one knows the odds of the new bottle ever being found. The odds were slim that Barsody and Johnson would have ever been connected by Johnson’s finding of the bottle.
Barsody knows this for sure: It was a special person who found the bottle and went to such lengths to connect with the writer of its letter.
“I think it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot for both of us,” Johnson said.