Joe Spaly says he and his son stayed safe from Covid-19 over the summer by "going to the river."
by Jan Schlain
From the November, 2020 issue
Heading out in their Prius in their swimming trunks and swim shirts, equipped with goggles, snorkels, and GoPro cameras, Joe and Jacob, fifteen, search the Huron for stuff people dropped while kayaking, tubing, or canoeing on the river. One of their favorite places is the Argo Cascades, but they've been as far upriver as Hudson Mills Metropark, and as far down as Frog Island Park in Ypsi.
"We started doing it last year," Spaly says by phone as he drives around Detroit. "My son and his friend, Jack, we started up again this year ... we've decided to take video. Then we found out it's kind of a thing, and people are interested in what we find in the river." So they started a YouTube channel with his wife, Jen, adding dry-land videography. In mid-October, it had sixty-one subscribers (search YouTube.com for "Dive & Find.").
Spaly is a photographer whose "real" job, mostly taking wedding photos, evaporated when Covid hit. Diving seemed like a good way to get out while keeping socially distant. "We've got our masks and snorkels, and most of the time we're under water," he says. "It's something to do, and keeps my son and his friend busy, active, and out of the house ... I felt pretty safe. We were careful."
They've found a lot of sunglasses and quite a few phones. At Argo, "a guy jumped off the train bridge, and he dropped his phone," Spaly says. "He saw us diving around and asked us if we could take a look.
"He didn't think we'd find it. We found it. He gave us sixty bucks."
Another time, Spaly found a phone still working--and getting text messages. "So I called one of the numbers, and the woman who answered didn't know what I was talking about. She thought I was the police." But she called back later and asked, 'Do you still have that phone? I think it's my cousin's.' That's how we
got a hold of him."
The strangest thing they've found?
"I was able to find two guns in the water--very shocking," says Spaly. He thought they might have been dumped at Huron Bridge Park after some kind of crime, "so I called the police. And they came, checked out the guns, and took them away."
He says one was "a burner gun--real cheap and real small. That one was in one location. The other one was kind of a Dirty Harry-looking gun -- it was long-barrel ... and that was in another location under the same bridge. That was kind of crazy.
"That same day there was a Spin scooter at the bottom. I found one yesterday, too. Both of those I just took out of the water, because I think they have a tracker on them."
He also found a motorcycle. He saw police nearby and told them, and they said they'd take a look at it--until he told them it was under water. "It's over by the train track bridge--as if they drove it off the bridge."
"You never know what you're going to find," he says--and "Jacob and I both love to be in the water."
Spaly is originally from Ann Arbor--he grew up on Parkridge and went to school at Newport, Forsythe, and Pioneer, where he was on the swim team briefly then played water polo.
He left for California, where as he put it, "I was searching for celebrities. I was a paparazzi." From 2001 to 2010, he photographed Britney Spears, Brad Pitt, and others, and he and his partner would sell the photos to magazines.
He moved back to Michigan with his family in 2010. There were celebrities here at the time, because "they were filming in Michigan quite a bit." That ended when the state cut its subsidies for filmmaking, but he was on a paparazzi mission when we called: he's driving down Woodward Ave. looking for a film crew's base camp. "Jon Hamm is supposed to be here, Jason Momoa was spotted yesterday, and Don Cheadle," he says. "It's that thrill of the hunt."
Jacob is now back in school at Ann Arbor Academy--in person, but in smaller groups. It's working so far, his dad says. But he isn't going to let the change of seasons stop his own treasure hunts.
"I haven't given up yet," he says. Though "I might have to rent a wet suit or something ... the find is very intoxicating. There's so much out there. Places I've been to numerous times, and I still find more stuff!"
[Originally published in November, 2020.]
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