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For young Northland scuba divers, a chilly day will do

Cody Bauer (left), 18, of Cloquet and Justin Belanger, 11, of Wrenshall emerge from the waters of Pike Lake after a certification dive on Saturday aftenoon. The two are students at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School who signed up for an after-school diving class last year. (Clint Austin / / 4
James Friedman (left), 12, waits to get in the water during a day of certification diving Saturday at Pike Lake. Friedman is a student at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School who signed up for an after-school diving class last year. (Clint Austin / / 4
Fond du Lac Ojibwe School students and scuba instructors check equipment in the water of Pike Lake before departing on a certification dive on Saturday. The students are obtaining open-water diving certifications as a part of an after-school diving class last year. (Clint Austin / / 4
Julius Salinas (right) pours warm water into Justin Belanger's wetsuit during a break in diving Saturday at Pike Lake. (Clint Austin / / 4

Ideally, Cody Bauer and three of his classmates from the Fond du Lac Ojibwe School wouldn't have been scuba diving in Pike Lake this weekend.

"My original goal was to have these dives in the summertime," instructor Julius Salinas said about when he would have liked his students to have met their final requirements to be certified divers.

But federal sequestration budget cuts took a heavy toll on the K-12 tribal school in Cloquet, said Salinas, who is the school's STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) consultant. In a single day, 9½ positions were cut, Salinas said. After-school programs, such as the scuba diving class Salinas initiated, faced delays if they spilled over into summer.

"You start taking money from one place and putting it someplace else," he explained. "Do we do summer programs that we normally do, or do we make sure the kids have transportation for summer school and have lunch?"

Because of the delays, it was not a warm day in July but a chilly, breezy October day as Bauer, 18; James Friedman, 12; Jacob Ammesmaki, 12; and Justin Belanger, 11; donned their wetsuits in the portable shelter Salinas had set up Saturday near the shore of the picturesque lake northwest of Duluth.

Preparing for certification

The boys were among six who originally enrolled in the after-school program, Salinas said. More of the school's 250 students had expressed interest, he said. He doesn't remember exactly how the six were chosen except that they were the most enthusiastic.

Five completed the online coursework and dives in the school's pool under the tutelage of Yan Saillard, owner and operator of Innerspace Scuba Center in Duluth. One was absent this weekend, Salinas said, but still will have the opportunity to be certified.

On Saturday afternoon, they were only four open-water dives away from certification. A lot of people like to go to places such as Florida or the Caribbean for those dives, said Salinas, who was certified seven years ago. Some never find out what it's like to wear a wetsuit.

Not so for the intrepid Ojibwe School quartet. As they stood at the lake's shore while strapping on their gear, the $300 dive computers on their wrists showed the air temperature was 41 degrees. The water temperature was a comparatively balmy 53 degrees. The water, Saillard would report later, had a greenish tint, 15 feet of visibility and was replete with zebra mussels.

"The first thing we're going to do is a weight check," Saillard told the boys before they entered the water.

The weights are adjusted to bring the divers to the proper depth, explained Rick Fry, who was assisting Saillard.

"If they didn't have weights they'd all just bop along the surface," Fry said.

To the untrained eye, the air tanks strapped to the backs of the smaller boys appeared to be weight enough. Bauer's weighed 38 pounds and held 80 cubic feet of air, Fry said. That should be enough to last 50 minutes to an hour.

"But this is a new experience," Fry added. "You're going to suck more air."

Belanger, the smallest of the boys, carried a smaller tank with 63 cubic feet of air. But that would be plenty, Fry said. "With his size and his age, he could probably last longer than all of us."

Into the water

Under cloudy skies, they strolled into the choppy waters of Pike Lake, holding their flippers in their hands. They would spend 20 minutes 19 feet underwater in each of two dives on Saturday and two more dives today, when sleet and snow are a possibility.

"It's not as bad as it seems, but it will be a situation," Salinas said of the weather conditions. "The kids are going to get cold."

Yet as Bauer and Belanger emerged from the water after the first dive, both said they felt warm. Still, all four willingly took a break in the shelter after removing their air tanks. They expressed appreciation when Salinas poured warm water on their hands.

They didn't all have the same motives for taking the training. Bauer, a senior at the school and already federally certified as a wildland firefighter, envisions a career as an underwater welder. "Search and rescue would be fun, too," he said.

Friedman, a seventh-grader, said he shares those interests. Ammesmaki, also a seventh-grader, said he'd like to travel and go diving. Belanger, who is in sixth grade, said he was up for anything involving diving.

For Salinas, 60, his work at the Ojibwe School is a second career. He took early retirement in 2010 after 20 years with the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, finishing as aviation coordinator at Lake Superior College.

With a background in industrial education, the Esko man immediately started substituting at the tribal school. He likes what they're doing, he said, and he thought he could contribute. He's keeping his aviation skills alive there, spearheading a project to build an airplane from a kit.

The diving interest came more recently, when his son, now 17, was 10 and caught the bug. Father and son both became certified and serve as volunteer divers at the Great Lakes Aquarium.

But all of his life experiences didn't diminish the importance of this weekend for Salinas.

"It'll be one of the proudest days of my life," he said, "when we can have these guys in front of the whole school and say they're certified scuba divers."