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‘Epic heroic and tragic’: How a family quest ended with a son lost at sea

Hunter Lewis left his father’s home on California’s far northern coast last week with a plan. The adventurous student, 21, had spent years creating an elaborate treasure hunt for his friends and family. Now it was time to hide the final price.

On December 30, Lewis is said to have launched a green canoe 4.5 meters deep into the icy waters of the Pacific Ocean to hide the treasure that would complete the journey.

He never returned home.

Lewis’ adventure was years in the making. Lewis, an accomplished outdoorsman with a scuba certification and a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, had always been fearless, his father, Corey Lewis, said. The boy grew up outdoors strapped to his father’s back as a one-year-old, while the elder Lewis went snowshoeing in the Sierra Nevada.

The Lewises loved lost treasure movies like National Treasure and the Goonies. And during the pandemic, while studying aerospace engineering and earning his pilot’s license, Lewis designed his own epic treasure hunt: the quest for the “lost Lewis treasure”.

Hunter Lewis spent years designing an elaborate treasure hunt for his family and friends before disappearing. Photo: Courtesy of Corey Lewis

Whenever he was home from California State University, Long Beach, he would sketch maps and come up with riddles.

The days before his disappearance had been joyous. Lewis spent the holidays with family, and then the scavenger hunt began.

The searches took participants throughout Humboldt county, rappelling off a cliff, climbing a railroad trestle, and walking secret trails. Dozens of people took part in the adventure, which contained extensive clues, with code and, in one case, Braille.

“I’ve seen more secret beaches and coastlines and trails in the last few days than I have in the past decade,” Corey Lewis said of the hunt. “He wanted to give us all an adventure and an experience. He wanted everyone to experience those adventures.”

Lewis wanted everyone to participate. He spent three hours teaching a friend with a fear of heights how to rappel so he could search for the treasure, Corey Lewis said.

“We would stay up late at night studying maps and riddles to solve numbers. We would get up early. We would celebrate seeing photos and videos of someone finding a clue. It was amazing,” said Corey Lewis. “He would show up and hang out with you for an hour or two while you kept looking and then celebrate with you when you found it.”

On the last Thursday of December, Lewis set out to prepare the final leg of the search. He launched his canoe on the state beach of Trinidad. When he didn’t return home, the US Coast Guard began a nighttime search.

In recent days, pieces of the canoe and other items Lewis had with him that day have begun to wash up. Lewis’s family and friends refocused their quest, no longer looking for a hidden treasure, but for the body of their loved one. Along with hundreds of others, they scoured the local beaches and caves on foot, horseback, boats, quad bikes and airplanes.

Lewis’ family believes he never got out of the water.

“We know it’s not a rescue operation. It’s a recovery of the lost Lewis treasure: the body of my son Hunter,” said his father, Corey Lewis.

The Coast Guard last week suspended the search after covering 1,000 square nautical miles, citing difficult conditions and exhausting efforts.

“It’s always hard to interrupt a search if you don’t have answers to what happened. In this case, with no further information to proceed and given the terms and conditions, we have exhausted our reasonable search options. We can only hope that additional information is found in the future that will help reveal what happened to this young man,” Captain Mark Hiigel, Humboldt Bay’s sector commander, said in a statement.

A black and white portrait of a young man with a hiking backpack in a wooded area while looking out at the sea.  An island can be seen in the background.
Hunter Lewis was an accomplished outdoorsman with a scuba certification and a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo. Photo: Courtesy of Corey Lewis

Using the treasure hunt he designed for them, Lewis’s lovers believe they know what happened. Corey Lewis and his son’s fiancée, Kinsley Rolph, solved the latest clue in the treasure hunt on Saturday using a heart-shaped key Lewis created on his 3D printer. The key’s grooves match the pattern of sea stacks off the beach where Lewis was last seen, and the heart points to Flatiron Rock, a small island just offshore.

Corey Lewis suspects that his son, unaware of a hidden dangerous reef along one side of the island, capsized while approaching Flatiron Rock. Volunteers recovered pieces from a large bucket that Lewis used to hide the treasure from the shore, along with a small wooden cigar box. Lewis had the box since he was a kid when his father organized a treasure hunt for him and his younger brother.

“It’s both epically heroic and tragic,” Corey Lewis said. “Here we are involved in this epic treasure hunt, which began with a letter stating, ‘You are heirs to the lost Lewis treasure. Some of the Lewis family sank in the sea years ago and that treasure is hidden, but you can find it.” Tragically, that happened. We’re looking for the lost Lewis treasure, and that’s him.”