Sifting for sunken treasure

Sunday, August 20, 2017
Paul Miederhoff, metal detecting specialist, gives a demonstration on how he looks for underwater treasures.
Andrew J. Whitaker

Paul Miederhoff is proof you don't have to go to an ocean to find sunken treasures.

The retired Kelso, Missouri, resident has made a hobby out of retrieving others' lost valuables, reuniting rings and fingers, often to the surprise of grateful owners, many who had also long ago lost hope.

Miederhoff only has to pull out his phone to access an index of his many underwater discoveries, including several newspaper clippings with pictures documenting the ecstatic presentation to an owner after a find. There is a recent one with Miederhoff in classic form, wearing a T-shirt, a ball cap emblazoned with Ringfinders and a humble smile; standing alongside him is a woman in a dress who looks like she's been proposed to by her dream fiance, her extended hand adorned with ring and her face with a glowing smile.

Those are the moments that keep him sifting through the less glorious times, ones spent scooping sludge and diving to the bottom of murky ponds, lakes or rivers with a metal detector.

"That's as much fun as finding it," Miederhoff said. "You see the reaction and smile on their face when you return it. They can't believe when they hear about it."

Paul Miederhoff shows off his underwater treasures he has found in the past.
Andrew J. Whitaker

Some of his finds come out of left field, years removed from their disappearance. And they're not all wedding rings.

He estimates he's returned about "13 or 14" high school class rings, one of the easier items to track since yearbooks provide a virtual phone-book-like source of possible owners.

One of the clippings details an Oklahoma man reunited with a class ring he lost while swimming 19 years earlier. The man told the newspaper he lost it while swimming on July 4, 1977, and he searched futilely for an hour. He was contacted by Miederhoff years later, and the man was so excited to get his ring he drove to Texas for the presentation.

Miederhoff is a former Navy seaman -- he spent two months at sea on a nuclear submarine -- who said he's always been attracted to water. He also had an interest in searching for valuable metal. The Sikeston native began sifting for gold while living in Arizona on weekends while employed as an electro-mechanical technician for Motorola. His ventures uncovered a few precious ounces.

His two attractions crossed paths when he moved to the Kansas City area, where Miederhoff bought a metal detector and joined a club. Through club members, he was introduced to the idea of searching water, which he proceeded to do for years by wading chest-deep, detaching the controller from the device to keep it dry and using a scoop to excavate items detected on the bottom.

Paul Miederhoff, metal detecting specialist, gives a demonstration on how he looks for underwater treasures.
Andrew J. Whitaker

While crude, the technique was fruitful.

"It was probably a couple days before I found my first class ring," Miederhoff said.

After moving to Texas, he had a couple well-documented finds, including the aforementioned class ring.

He also surprised a woman with her lost wedding ring.

"I got ahold of her husband, and we surprised her at work," Miederhoff said. "We had a newspaper reporter with us."

The woman's dumbfounded reaction was captured for the front page of the local paper.

Miederhoff moved back to Southeast Missouri 18 years ago and uncovered another class ring at Whippoorwill Lake near Advance, and he has since upped his game to include scuba diving. He gained certification at Mermet Springs in Illinois about 12 years ago to open new territory, and it has.

"The good stuff that's out deeper, nobody was going for that," Miederhoff said. "Not many guys do that; they still don't. It gave me an opportunity to cover more area."

Using a compressor hose instead of a tank, he can spend hours submerged while on the hunt.

Cold water causes fingers to shrink, making rings a common sunken treasure. He estimates he's found about 100 gold rings over the years, and he's found even more silver rings.

He registered online with Ringfinders last December and now is contacted by distraught people who have seen valuables disappear below the surface. He turned up two expensive wedding rings in July in a matter of days. He also was contacted about a ring lost in a party cove at Lake of Egypt in Illinois, which resulted in a non-productive search, other than the trove of red Solo cups, beer cans, sunglasses and swim goggles.

His finds also have included coins, a lead toy gun, a boot revolver from the mid-1800s, Civil War items, chains, pendants, earrings, tokens and you name it.

Recently he was contacted by a woman to search for her husband's wedding band lost in the Black River at Johnson's Shut-Ins State Park.

Searching at depths up to 30 feet, his four-hour excursion netted an Apple watch, coins, five pairs of sunglasses and ... a men's wedding band.

Happy ending? Not quite.

"It wasn't the one I was looking for for this woman."

jbreer@semissourian.com (573) 388-3632

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