Solomon’s Menorah? The Ark of the Covenant? Jimmy Hoffa? Something’s buried under Oak Island—at least that’s the belief that has led generations of shovel-toting treasure seekers to the small Nova Scotian islet. Exploration of the island is currently being conducted by a tag-team of Traverse Citizens, Craig Tester and Marty Lagina, along with a band of their closest confidantes—friends, family, and a few long-time residents of Oak Island. Their adventures are chronicled on the History Channel’s The Curse of Oak Island, which airs Sundays at 10.
When not moonlighting as treasure hunters, Tester and Lagina head Heritage Sustainable Energy of Traverse City. MyNorth staffer Evan Perry sat down with Tester, Lagina, and their Heritage co-worker, Shari Chouinard, to talk conspiracy theories, coconuts, and the mystery of Row 7.
Spoiler alert! It’s not Jimmy Hoffa.
For the sake of those who haven’t seen the show—and this is a question particularly for Marty—what originally captivated you about Oak Island?
Lagina: Well, my older brother, Rick, read an article in Reader’s Digest in 1965—we always read Reader’s Digest—and the article was about Oak Island. It explained the Money Pit’s wood timbers, and the booby traps, and the treasure that nobody knew anything about. Rick became really fascinated by it. I was the younger brother—and I probably didn’t even read the article—but he comes and tells me, “Hey, look at this! This is really cool!” So he gets me really interested because, well, I’m the younger brother. Sometime later, the Wall Street Journal ran two front-page articles—one by a writer named D’Arcy O’Connor. My dad used to read the Wall Street Journal, so he showed it to Rick and me. That only fed the fire.
The show overlooks much of the story regarding how you came to own a stake in the island. What sort of complications were there regarding purchasing the property, and how much red tape did you have to cut through to begin excavation?
Lagina: It started when I was in Florida. I picked up a magazine called Islands Magazine, which had a bunch of islands for sale in the back, and Oak Island was for sale. So I called Rick and told him. When I called about the island, it turned out that it wasn’t for sale. Somebody had jumped the gun. The agent said that he had a listing from David Tobias—David owned most of the island with his partner Dan Blankenship—but he didn’t. Eventually, we talked David Tobias into selling his share to us. That was in 2007. We’re now fifty-fifty partners with Dan Blankenship.
And the permits?
Lagina: It took us years to get what’s called the Treasure Rights. Canada had something called a Treasure Trove Act—which was a thorny mess. We only got that sorted out two years ago.
Tester: The Canadian government actually got rid of the Treasure Trove Act, so we didn’t have any way of getting a license to excavate at first. The government replaced the Treasure Trove Act with what’s called the Oak Island Act. Only after that was enacted could we apply for licenses.
Lagina: With the Treasure Trove Act, you could apply for licenses to dig anywhere. Now, the only place you can have the rights to treasure—to my knowledge, anyway—is on Oak Island, pursuant to the Oak Island Act.
It’s my understanding that you have to split the findings with Canada.
Lagina: 90-10. We get 90. Except for artifacts. We don’t know what “artifact” means, because almost anything can be an artifact.
So unless you find freshly-minted Canadian dollars…
Lagina: I think it means that we could have gold bars, and maybe jewels. We’re not sure.
Tester: I think coins are probably good…
What’s it like watching yourself on television? It seems like it might be a little like watching a really well-edited home video.
Tester: To me, I guess it doesn’t seem that weird. My wife had a harder time seeing me up on the screen, and then turning to see me in the chair at the same time. It really is like watching a home video.
Lagina: It’s like you’re in your living room with a few people and we’re watching what we did on vacation. The fact that there are maybe millions of other people watching—it just doesn’t register.
Chouinard: From my standpoint, I was watching a really well-done TV show about something I was interested in. It didn’t matter that it featured people I knew; they just happened to be in it. That’s been the weirdest part.
There are a lot of theories that attempt to explain why there’s a booby-trapped, hundred-and-some feet deep hole on Oak Island, and a lot of circumstantial evidence to support those theories. Do you ever get caught up in the whirlwind of ‘what-ifs’ that the island presents? Rick, who is featured prominently on the show, seems to entertain those what-ifs. I only ask because one episode featured a Norwegian writer who helped you discover an undeniably large rock exactly where he thought it would be—which is either extraordinary or very lucky.
Lagina: Rick is a true believer. He’s convinced—convinced—that there is something of at least major historical value. I often scratch my head and think, “What happened on this island?” There’s a lot of room for misinterpretation, but then I’ll think, “Well, my son just pulled coconut fiber out of the shore of the ocean, and Craig—who knows what he’s doing—just dated the fiber to 1200 to 1400 AD. Now what the heck?” But I just don’t know, and it bothers me that we may not succeed in finding out what happened on Oak Island. Rick would never say that, though. He’d say, “We will succeed!”
Tester: At this point, my excitement is tempered. Marty and I gained a lot of experience in oil fields when we were younger, and we had those exhilarating moments—the “Whoa this is fantastic, what if we can do this” moments. But once we got slapped around a bit, and our expectations weren’t matched by reality, we learned to temper ourselves. For Oak Island, it’d be great if it were something big, and I hope it is, but I keep my expectations low. And it’s still fun in the meantime.
Are you excited to go back in the summer? Are there even plans to go back?
Lagina: Oh, we’re not done.
Tester: I’m looking forward to going back.
Lagina: We might yet do some things this winter.
Do you think people might have conspiracy theories about you? You’re part of this story now, and the show has certainly introduced a lot of speculative people to Oak Island.
Lagina: I would be surprised if there weren’t conspiracy theories. They might find out that Craig is a member of the Illuminati or something.
Tester: Yeah, I recently read one on the Internet—they think we’ve already found it, and the government has taken it, and everything is being kept quiet.
And that’s a hard theory to disprove…
Lagina: Actually, the nicest thing that’s happened during this whole thing is a call I received from a friend, who watches the show with his daughter and son. He said that his daughter—who doesn’t read that much—got really interested and said, “Hey, dad, are there any books about this?” Her dad said that there were, and she responded, “Can you get ‘em? I want to read ‘em!” I thought that was great. And his son—who is not that interested in school —said, “Wow, that’s treasure hunting! How do you get to do that?” And his dad said, “Well, you can’t just quit school and go treasure hunting. These guys are mechanical engineers.” His son said, “Good, that’s what I want to do, because I want to do something exciting like that.” I think that’s the most gratifying thing I’d heard. If that’s happening, then I’m glad we’re on Oak Island.
How has your experience in oil and gas exploration informed your approach to solving the Oak Island mystery?
Lagina: We’re trying to bring science to the whole thing—an educated perspective. We may bumble through the woods a bit, but our approach is, at its core, scientific.
Chouinard: The fact that we’re taking our time, and not going full-steam on every idea that comes to mind, is something we’re proud of. This process has already taken a long time; we wouldn’t rush if it meant making mistakes.
Lagina: It’s a hard nut to crack. Some very smart, very sophisticated people have tried and failed at figuring that place out.
What’s Nova Scotia like in the summer? Have you become adopted sons?
Lagina: It’s a beautiful place; it reminds me of the U.P. The people there have been great to us—really nice, really supportive. And I think I speak for all of us when I say I’d like to thank all the people in Nova Scotia, and also the Canadian government, who helped us get to where we are with this project.
We could talk about Oak Island forever, but I want to turn to Marty’s adventures in the world of Northern Michigan wine. How’s your winery, Villa Mari, shaping up?
Lagina: We’re trying to push the envelope. We want make world-class red wine right here in Michigan, and are using advanced techniques to do that. Many of our vines are planted under tunnel greenhouses. The idea with reds is to extend the growing season. We’re on the same latitude as Northern Italy and Southern France, so we get the same amount of sunlight as those regions. The only thing is, we don’t have the heat, since we aren’t on the Mediterranean; the tunnels duplicate that extra warmth. In fact, our wines should be better, because reds grow the best when the days are warm and the nights are cold. Those regions in Europe are pretty warm both day and night. But here, the tunnels make the vines warm during the day, yet that heat dissipates during the night when the temperature drops. That’s what you want.
Tell me about Row 7.
Lagina: It was our first vineyard. This is about 15 years ago, and we planned to plant just 3 acres of vines, which comes out to being about 3000 individual plants for the whole plot. When the vines arrive, they’re dormant, and you have to put them in water to activate them. You have two or three days to plant them once they’ve been placed in the water. To plant them, you have to use a post-hole digger to go deep enough into the dirt, and all the digging is by hand.
The bottom line is that if you worked hard—no bathroom breaks, no food—one person can probably plant 12 vines an hour. There were only two or three of us doing the work—3000 vines in two days. There was just no way; it’s a matter of arithmetic. So we called all the people we knew to come help us.
It was wet and cold and muddy. People are sliding around all over the place. I’d ordered vines that grow well in Northern Michigan, like merlot and cabernet franc, but I also ordered ones that aren’t typically grown up here like syrah, malbec and sangiovese—things that aren’t known to grow well in Northern Michigan. I wanted to experiment with these other varieties, and they were in a separate box.
So chaos ensues, everyone is helping out—which is great—but I go over to the boxes and they’re all empty. I say, “Hey, I wanted to put those ones in a special spot to monitor them. What happened?” Three or four people kinda shrugged: “I don’t know, they’re probably somewhere in that row.” They pointed to what turned out to be row seven. We still don’t know exactly what’s in our Row 7 blend—it’s a mystery. But it ended up being a nice blend that we’re very proud of.