COEUR d'ALENE - On a cold, foggy winter afternoon, Dennis Rachunok took slow, deliberate steps in Lake Coeur d'Alene.
Yep, he was in the 38.8 degree water on a 22-degree Monday.
When you're searching for pieces of history, you gotta dig when the digging is good.
"When the water goes way low, that's when the real diehards will come out," Rachunok said as he stood in the water wearing his insulated hip waders. "Otherwise, you can't get to this."
Armed with his waterproof metal detector and his scoop/shovel/sifter, the Hayden man peered into the crystal clear water just off the shoreline of the beach at North Idaho College.
It is, he says, a great place to seek long-lost treasures since it's so near the historic Fort Sherman, that was open for about 20 years before being abandoned in 1900.
The fort, first officially named Fort Coeur d'Alene and later renamed, stretched a half-mile or so on the shoreline.
Those stationed there left bits and pieces behind. Bullets, buttons, belt buckles, coins, pins, emblems, parts of pocket watches, are more than 100 years later still pulled from the lake's bottom.
"This could be hunted forever," he said. "I've been hunting it for 30 years, and I still find stuff that amazes me."
"You'd never believe it could show up around here," Rachunok added.
Despite the cold, this is the time of year to be out there. The water level on Monday was 2,119 feet, 6 feet below summer level.
"This is what it was like when the fort was here," he said.
Rachunok came out Sunday when it was sunny, had a good time and decided to return Monday.
Perhaps not a great idea, considering the frigid, cloudy, chilly conditions that awaited him.
"It's pretty miserable," he said.
Historian Robert Singletary said Fort Sherman's troops did walk and ride horseback and along the shoreline during the two decades it existed. Boats came and went, so it's very likely there were items left behind and they wound up in the water.
Military buildings went right up to the edge of the water, particularly where the lake and the river meet.
"That whole beach area, there is likely something there," he said.
Businesses like brothels and saloons set up shop near the edge of the fort, and tent cities were established to get business from the soldiers.
"There were structures along that whole area," he said.
Singletary wasn't surprised to hear people with metal detectors are still hunting for history. Many like to dig up pieces of the past.
"People have been doing it for years," he said.
Rachunok said there are tricks to the trade.
First is safety. His gear and gloves are waterproof and insulated. He doesn't venture out too deep.
"When it's this cold, you don't want to get too far out. Your waders will fill up, you might stay out there. There's a little risk involved, especially with all these logs and stuff," he said.
Because those logs and bark cover the lake's bottom near NIC beach, he targets areas where he can see gravel. When he hears the beep of the detector, he stops, scoops, and sifts.
Most often, nothing. But occasionally, it's a keeper.
He collected so much silver, at one point, that when silver prices shot up in the 1970s, he sold much of it.
"I wish I hadn't now," he said.
He still finds Native American artifacts like arrowheads.
"This was all campsite, way back before the fort was even here," he said.
A bit east, at Independence Point, Playland Pier Amusement Park was open from the late 1940s to 1975, when it was destroyed by fire.
In that area, too, Rachunok said there are old bottles and coins at the lake's bottom. And with the low lake level, it's now within reach.
His hobby catches on each time there's publicity about what lies beneath, but he just grins and bears it.
"One day I came out, there were 10 guys in my area, so I had to go to another spot," he said.