Tuesday, November 10, History Channel’s popular Curse of Oak Island will launch its third season. Will the Lagina brothers find their Holy Grail? We don’t know, but we do know this is one heck of a story featuring two of our own Northern Michiganders. Not familiar with the story of The Curse of Oak Island? Here’s the backstory–then read on below for an interview with Rick Lagina on the eve of The Curse Of Oak Island, Season 3:
In 1795 a 16-year-old Canadian lad was hunting on the small, uninhabited Oak Island off the coast of Nova Scotia when he came upon a ship’s block and tackle (the pulley system used on sailing ships) hanging from the sawed off limb of a tree that grew on a knoll—which appeared to the boy to have an odd depression on it. He brought friends back the next day and they started digging. Thus began what has become a 220-year search, conducted by a veritable legion of seekers, for what lies under that knoll—now a hole known as the Money Pit. Theories about what is there range from pirates booty to the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail. While no treasure has yet been found, plenty of mysterious things have, including a set of booby traps that flooded the Money Pit with ocean water as searchers got close. Six people have died searching for the treasure. A legendary curse says a seventh must die before the treasure is found.
Time travel forward to 1965, and the Readers Digest story about all that had gone on on Oak Island. Among those captivated were two young brothers Rick and Marty Lagina who lived in a small town in Northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The story got them dreaming. Big. So 50 years later, after Marty had made his fortune in the energy business—drilling for gas among other things—he decided it was time to team up with his brother and old friend Craig Tester to see if they could crack the case. The Traverse City businessmen bought most of the island, worked through miles of red tape to get permits from the Canadian government to start digging and went to work. Along the way, they connected with documentarian Kevin Burns and his Prometheus Entertainment. Prometheus turned The Curse of Oak Island into a reality television show and sold it to the A & E’s History Channel. Two seasons later, the show has become a History Channel star.
Interview with Rick Lagina on the eve of Season 3
MyNorth.com: At 4 million viewers an episode, Oak Island is looking like it may become the next Pawn Stars—meaning you and Marty are looking like the next Rick and Corey. Are you surprised?
Rick: Definitely. We are just a couple of Northern Michigan boys—Yoopers—living our dream, so it is something of a surprise that people connect with it.
The credit really goes to A & E, the History Channel and Prometheus Entertainment (the show’s producer) for believing in the Oak Island story. And it is such a wonderful story, given that it is the longest running treasure hunt in history. I think people connect to the fact that there is still room for them to get involved—they can jump in and say to themselves, “What would I do, Where would I look, They should be looking here …”
MyNorth.com: Everyone calls this is a treasure hunt but in reality it is more (or less than) that. Can you explain?
Rick: Yes. It is very interesting because in a normal quote unquote treasure hunt you know what you are looking for. We do not know what we are looking for. It ranges from leprechaun gold to ancient alien deposition, to [some type of] treasures left by the Knights Templar, pirates, rosicrucians, conquistadors, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Bacon … The possibilities of this story are so rich. There’s a wonderful story on Oak Island waiting there to be written. Is the treasure still there? I believe it is. But whether or not there actually is a treasure, there is a wonderful story there. We hope that we can fill in some of those blank pages.
MyNorth.com: Bring us up to speed on what you accomplished in Seasons I and II:
Rick: Well we haven’t found the treasure or written all the pages of the story but we made some headway. Charles Barkhouse who gives the tours on Oak Island likes to say that the mystery is a 1000-piece puzzle with 400 of the pieces missing. We are trying to find those pieces. We want to get the point where we can say, “ah ha” this is what happened here, this is who did it and this is where we need to look. During the last two seasons we’ve confirmed the old records of the past searches. In the old days they [the treasure hunters] were loose on their record-keeping because they were solely fixed on getting the treasure. They weren’t focused on recording data or writing the story of the island, so much has been lost. So when the boys pulled the coconut fiber from Smith’s cove last season, it was confirmation that the old stories were correct.
Later, we found a coin in the swamp dated 1652—150 years before anyone was supposed to be up there. It is a Spanish Maravedis. It currently resides with the Nova Scotia Museum. We are hopeful that we will get it back for a museum we built on Oak Island.
MyNorth.com: What is the significance of the coconut fiber?
Rick: [Previous treasure hunters] believed coconut fiber was used as a filter bed to keep the flood tunnel system active, i.e., so it would silt in and the booby traps would stay in place. Carbon dating dates it to 1200 to 1400 AD.
MyNorth.com: Which also begs the question, how did coconut fiber even make it to the North Atlantic in the Pre-Columbian era!
Rick: Yeah. Right. [Laughs].
MyNorth.com: And better yet, you took a wood core from the Money Pit that may be a part of a legendary vault. Will you be revisiting that in Season 3?
Rick: I don’t think I am supposed to talk about that. I guess you’ll have to watch to find out!
MyNorth.com: Last season you and Marty sent divers down into 10X, another hole near the Money Pit, and then you were lowered into the hole to bring them supplies. Marty looked pretty anxious as you were lowered down. Was he really worried or just acting?
Rick: Oh no, we’re not actors. We aren’t capable of acting even if we wanted to [laughs]. He’s done some things as well that have made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. He and Alex [Lagina, Marty’s son], for example, have done diving on the ocean to assist with side scan sonar.
MyNorth.com: So let’s talk danger:
Rick: There is an inherent risk on the island, yes. There are tunnels, shafts and excavations that probably weren’t filled in properly. There’s always the possibility that a shaft or tunnel might open up literally under your feet. No one wants to get entombed under Oak Island but at the end of the day if you are not willing to engage in some activities that may possibly be risky, what is the point of being there? We try to assess situations and then make decisions based on risk assessment.
MyNorth.com: During the course of the 220-year search for treasure on Oak Island six people have already died. Which, of course, brings us to the legendary curse of Oak Island that predicts seven people will die looking for the treasure. Thoughts?
Rick: You can’t focus on a reported curse or you’d be reluctant to properly engage. We tried to chase down where the curse came from and no one has really been able to define where it comes from. But I will say this about Oak Island: it is a kind of a scary place, especially at night.
MyNorth.com: Do tell …!
Rick: Paranormal groups have worked there and some of their findings are unexplainable. The island has an aura—something I can’t really articulate. Strange, inexplicable things happen, especially as far as equipment malfunctions and especially on the eastern corner of the swamp—by the Money Pit and 10X. We have heard “That’s never happened before,” from operators of equipment more than we care to hear.
Several years back, for example, before we started filming the show, a geophysicist from Toronto came up with a piece of equipment he’d used all over the world. He’d just come back from Zaire looking for mineral deposits. But when he got to the island the piece of equipment malfunctioned. He actually called the manufacturer in France—we were privy to the conversation—and they said the machine has so many redundancies, so many default systems, that it can’t malfunction. The geophysicist said, “Maybe it can’t but it has.”
In other instances, people have seen apparitions. These are people who aren’t given to flights of fancy, including several members of the production crew. One individual, a very responsible, talented woman, was on the eastern end of the island in communication with film crews on opposite ends of the island one day. All of a sudden the mics cut out and this woman heard a woman’s voice say, “O my God.” Then the crew member said she felt “a presence”—her words—come from the woods and hover over her. She said it was the most peaceful, serene feeling that she had ever felt in her life. Slowly it moved off. And then the mics came back on.
MyNorth.com: Whoa. Was that on the show?
MyNorth.com: Will you be back working on 10X in episode 3?
Rick: We left off last season wanting to get to the bottom of 10X, one way or the other. David Blakenship and I want to it one way and my brother [Marty Lagina] and Craig Tester are somewhat resistant because they have serious safety concerns. But yes, 10X is somewhat of a focus this season.
MyNorth.com: Other focuses of the upcoming season?
Rick: There are still areas of discovery before we round back to the Money Pit because it is such a difficult engineering problem. I am still interested in the swamp. In order to get to the bottom of the Money Pit it is probably a $20 million investment. We would have to do a freeze ring technology [a technique for freezing the ground used in sinking mine shafts]. So we are looking at these other areas trying to do as much geophysical discovery work as we can so that we can decide for ourselves: Okay, we have done as much as we can so we need to cross this off and move on.
Ultimately the elephant in the room is, of course, the Money Pit.
MyNorth.com: After the two interviews with Marty and Craig that we ran on MyNorth.com, we got a number of letters and emails from your fans asking us to pass on their suggestions for where and how to look. You must get tons of mail!
Rick: Yes, we get lots of mail. We call the people who are fascinated with the mystery of Oak Island [ourselves included, of course] “Oak Island nuts.” Their ideas range from the sublime to the extreme.
Some people have said, “Why don’t you just put a huge cofferdam around the whole island?” Well, that would be great but this is kind of a risk/reward venture. How much are you willing to risk for an unknown reward? Also there are regulatory agencies involved. You just can’t do that type of thing without permits.
Some of the ideas that people have sent us are actually very intriguing. For instance, several people have suggested using an airlock system so that we can get to the bottom of 10X—literally what they do in diving submersibles where they pressurize the container to get into the airlock.
It was interesting because a Canadian student—a 7th grader, I think—on his own suggested the same idea, only a more rudimentary design.
MyNorth.com: That example begs the idea that the Oak Island mystery is a fabulous platform for teaching history, science, engineering and even creative writing:
Rick: No question about that. One of the most gratifying aspects of being a part of this show is when parents come up and say to one of us, “We watch this as a family” … it has incited interest in our children to do more reading, to realize that science is applicable to what their dreams are. Science, engineering, mathematics, just reading. Where their dreams might leave them.
We opened up tours of Oak Island to the nonprofit group Friends of Oak Island. One little girl—she was 7 or 8 and I think her name was Isabella—she posed the most interesting questions. I didn’t even have answers for her questions because they were so insightful. She obviously had pondered the Oak Island story for a long time and she knew it in the minutia.
MyNorth.com: So this season there will be 13 episodes. How long does it take to film those?
Rick: Was there from the end of May through October. My brother and Craig were in and out because they still have businesses in Traverse City.
MyNorth.com: That’s a huge commitment—do you hit it 24/7?
Rick: We generally take weekends off unless there is something going on because the production crew is governed by union rules, but if we do have something going on they will work through the weekend.
MyNorth.com: Is there downtime?
Rick: Not so much. It’s pretty much all consuming. Filming is 10 or 12 hours a day. By the time you get back home you just want to get in an easy chair and relax. Then there’s research. My brother likes to go on what he calls walkabouts—take a weekend and go see Nova Scotia but I haven’t done much of that.
MyNorth.com: How do you get to the island and where do you stay?
Rick: We fly into Halifax. There’s a causeway to the island. Sometimes we’ve stayed in the Atlantica Oak Island Inn in Halifax. In previous years I’ve actually stayed on the island with Dave Blakenship and his father, Dan, who are the only year-round residents on the island.
MyNorth.com: It seems that the 220-year search for the mystery of Oak Island has often been handed from father and son. In the past two seasons we’ve seen Marty’s son, Alex, Craig Tester’s son, Jack Begley and your (and Marty’s) nephew Peter Fornetti. Will they be making an appearance this season (the 20-something female viewers will want to know!).
Rick: [Laughs.] Yes, they’ll be on.
MyNorth.com: How many production people are working on the island with you?
Rick: There are usually 14 people plus. Three cameras. And there are ancillary people working in Halifax and in L.A.
MyNorth.com: It seems to me that the filming could hamper the discovery process—stretch it out?
Rick: There’s no doubt that we would move faster without the filming. But it’s all a balance. We wanted to tell the story to a wider audience and the History Channel is the proper venue for that—and Prometheus Entertainment has done such an amazing job captivating a large audience.
MyNorth.com: How much say in what you choose to do on the island and what guests you invite on the show, does the production company have?
Rick: They don’t say no to anything we want to do in that arena. In fact, we’ve often asked the production company for help with research or testing and they’ve been very helpful.
MyNorth.com: Where will you watch Season III?
Rick: I tend not to watch any of them. Yes, I am serious. We’re just a couple of Yooper boys, ya know, it’s hard to watch yourself on TV in my opinion. I am not a big fan of that. But I am a big fan of Oak Island, I believe in it. I believe there’s a wonderful story yet to be written and possibly a long-lost treasure to be found. I am gratified that people enjoy the show.
MyNorth.com: How far are you prepared to take this hunt?
Rick: We’ve made a decision collectively–I don’t want to leave with regrets but at the end of the day when it stops being fun it is possibly time to walk away and let someone else have a go at it. There have been some uniquely talented, gifted, resourceful, smart people who have tried to solve this thing and have failed. So we are in good company if we have to walk away.
But that’s not on the horizon. We are not giving up.
MyNorth.com: If I were to tell our readers to dress for the conclusion of Season III what costume should they wear—pirate, conquistador, knight, alien, explorer …
Rick: We can’t put a definitive statement on that but I think we can try to narrow it down for them this season. We present what we’ve found and what we’ve accomplished and let the viewers decide.
MyNorth.com: Are plans for a Fourth Season in the works?
Rick: That I don’t know. A lot of that is up to the audience at large. We are going to continue the discovery work.