Detecting History in Lake Michigan
By Anna Roche Clark
On a sunny afternoon in June, as Chicagoans flocked to the extensive Lake Michigan shoreline, Andrew Pollak stood chest-high in the water offshore. He did not hear the seagulls, kids’ yelps, barking dogs, or motorized watersports—instead his headphones emit high-frequency beeps signaling potential treasure beneath the lake floor. “My wife and I saw a commercial for metal detectors and thought we’d try it,” he explained, “but I ended up opting for underwater detecting over land detecting.”
That was eight years ago. When he found his first gold ring in 2012, he was hooked. Since then, Pollak, a Chicago history teacher, has spent most of his summers, weekends and holidays wading into the lake, attuned to the excitement of those beeping sounds. “COVID has given me a lot more time in the lake,” he confessed with a jolly grin. It’s hard not to be drawn in by his approachable happy-go-lucky manner!
“It took me about two years to learn the basics,” he disclosed. “I started primarily by watching YouTube videos and then joined a local metal detecting club to learn from others who’d been doing it for some time.” There are clubs in every geographic region, as the specifics of hunting vary by different unique coastlines. For instance, saltwater hunting is more difficult because of tides and machines react differently to saltwater. The red clay and soil down south are very different then here in the Midwest. He also began watching treasure hunting TV shows. “But I soon realized that some of the shows are pretty bad and the discoveries are staged,” he divulged. Pollak says “Beach metal detecting is competitive. One of my early teachers became unhappy when I found more objects than he did that year and, well, let’s just say…it got ugly. Because of that, we are protective of our favorite spots, we spy on one another, and we don’t often show off the things that we find. We nod our heads in agreement as can sometimes be the case for beachcombers as well.” With a promise to protect any identification of where we met, he was more than willing to share his knowledge and some photos of his fabulous finds.
In addition to patience and time, underwater detecting requires specialized equipment. Pollak’s gear for this pastime includes his waterproof metal detectors “I’m on my fifth one, but I only have three left that still work” ($800 each), a “finds bag” he slings over his shoulder, a $200 stainless steel sand scoop (“these only last about a year each”), a $150 set of headphones, heavy-duty water rescue shoes, waders for cooler weather, a wet suit that allows him to go to water up to his shoulders, and a variety of coils. The coils send out the electromagnetic signals and interprets the beeps as numbers and tones. Bigger coils cover more surface area and detect items deeper below the lake floor but make it harder to distinguish items. At our second meeting, he also wore a large-brimmed waterproof hat and zinc oxide over his whole face. “I’m very fair, so I’ll turn lobster if I’m not careful,” he chuckled.
“With my wet suit and waders, I can go out searching all year long, but I have to be more careful in the frozen months. For starters, I can’t go out as deep, I’m very weighed down and the metal on my detector and scoop gets heavy when caked with ice. While the lake does not freeze solidly too often, it’s necessary to identify at least two places to get in and out because the ice moves,” he warns.
As I contemplate the risks of that, he admits, “Sometimes both my exits have disappeared, and I’ve had to use my scoop as an ice pick to get out of the lake. I’ve had a close call once when I stepped through a drop off in the lake floor—I needed to lean back, using my sand scoop for balance until I could recover and crawl backwards up onto the floor ledge. I’ve had two friends who’ve fallen through the ice, one is a Vietnam War veteran whose waders filled up with 60 pounds of water and it took him 15 minutes to get out of the water using his scoop—that’s a dangerously long period of time in near freezing water.
“The good news for combers,” he reveals, “is that in winter, ‘ice heaving’ occurs when stones conduct temperature faster than the surrounding soil which heaves stones up, unearthing whatever lies under and around the stones including glass, metal, and found objects.”
Without warning he offered, “Would you like to see what I found today?” And with glee he produced from his bag two coins and gently placed them in my hand. I read a date of 1914 on one and 1897 on the other. I wondered what he does with his finds. “I don’t sell them,” he says, “instead I try to identify the owner. I’m a history teacher, so I am fascinated by the potential journey of a piece and what it can tell us about what life was like around the time it was lost. When I found a class ring, from the 1920s or 1930s, it had some identifiable information on it that sent me on another hunt for the history of the piece. In about half dozen cases, a find had identifiable markings that allowed me to track the owner down.”
With characteristic humility Pollak shares “I’m still a beginner, there are others who’ve been at it for decades that can run rings around me. For example, I’ve only found 15 gold rings this year but I know one person who’s found 73 gold rings this year…. And this is a slow year for him.”
When I asked what his all-time favorite finds are, Pollak pauses for more than a few beats “That...” he says, “...is difficult.” And we both shared a knowing laugh, acknowledging how fond one can become of their finds. “I guess some of my favorite things include jewelry, relics, and coins. Things speak to me in weird ways—like a very worn two cent piece made of copper from the 1870s, pre-World War I lead toys, an 1897 quarter, and a 1904 presidential candidate ‘flip pendant’ with Teddy Roosevelt and Alvin Parker, part of a large police badge from the 1934 World’s Fair, and a commemorative coin for a jeweler from the World’s Fair. As a history teacher, those things excite the heck out of me,” he admits.
“But the best finds,” he discloses, “I have given my wife, including silver rings, diamond platinum rings and a Tiffany diamond ring.” Days before this interview was finished Pollak texted me a video and photo of a man’s gold ring with 54 diamonds he found in the process of locating another woman’s lost silver band. Having no way to identify the ring’s owner, he tried the gold ring on for size and it fit perfectly.
Highlighting one of his favorite moments, he tells the story of the day he was approached by a woman on the beach who asked, “Does that metal detector go in the water?” He smiles “she asked this as I was detecting in the water up to my waist!” Quite distressed the woman explained she had lost a 1946 gold class ring belonging to her mother who’d just passed away. “I was reaching for a piece of driftwood and I saw it drop off my finger,” she illustrated, “and I spent 5 hours looking for it with no luck.” As she brought him to the exact spot where the ring had fallen, he said “and how long ago was this?” She replied, “Three weeks ago,” and his heart fell, knowing the various storms, high waves, and water movement that can occur over a three-week period. Regardless, he set to work searching as she said, “It was a gold ring with a black onyx stone. I have a photo of it on my phone, let me look for that and show you.” As she scrolled through the pictures on her phone, he tapped her on the shoulder holding a ring pinched between thumb and four finger he offered “You can stop looking, I think I found it.” Not surprisingly, she began to cry. That night she posted the story on Facebook. “That’s probably one of my happiest moments,” he admitted.
“I also found a Korean War-era dog tag that did not appear as if it had been in the water for very long. I could make out the name on it and after researching the last name, I found three people with that name: a grandfather, father, and son. I found an email, but there was no response for some time, as the family was suspicious. It turns out that every year the family would get together and celebrate their grandfather, and it was scheduled to happen the following week. I was able to return the dog tag just before their family’s party. So, that was also very rewarding,” he said beaming.
Pollak’s profession, teaching history, drives this underwater detecting hobby of his. “I try to get my hands on as many books, articles and news stories about the Chicago lakefront.. For example,” he smiles, as I struggle to stay in place in my kayak while he explains, “this area we’re in now was advertised a hundred years ago as a ‘therapeutic area from the ills of the city.’ So, it was a favorite spot for lakefront recreation for the well-to-do.”
In years past, Chicago would dredge the sand and put it back on the beach but they’ve stopped that for the past several years. As recently as 2013, Lake Michigan’s water levels were at their lowest in 50 years, but with the recent polar vortex, minimal evaporation has left the lake with record high water levels, comparable to 1986, three feet higher than average and six feet higher than in 2013.
When asked about his bucket list, Pollak says “Well, I’d like to find a gold coin—they have been found in Lake Michigan. When the sand clears, I can get to new areas and that’s what I’ll be looking for. I also have a friend that runs detecting tours in England—there’s likely a better chance of finding a gold coin there. I’d like to do my metal detecting until my body gives out. But when I can no longer do this, I’ll clean up my finds and perhaps offer them online. I’d also like to do more research on my finds and others from Lake Michigan. I’m also interested in looking up and finding coin errors and other anomalies that interest me.”
As I paddle away, Pollak returns his headphones and gives me a wave goodbye. His concentration returns to the sounds from the detector, finding treasures and stories yet to be told.
Learn about metal detecting in South Carolina ›
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2021 issue.
Hello everyone I’m from CT, I’m a beach water hunter and dirt digger I run the Excalibur ll and the Equinox 800 for dirt. This is my first time checking out your site everyone his some awesome finds congrats to everybody….. I would love to post some of my finds if that ok Thank you…