On Dec. 30, 21-year-old Hunter Lewis launched his canoe into the Pacific from a picturesque beach in Humboldt County.
He might have been heading to Flatiron Rock, a tiny island a few hundred yards offshore, to place the final “treasure” of an elaborate treasure hunt he had been planning for nearly two years for his family and friends.
Hunter was a skilled outdoorsman with pilot’s and scuba licenses, but he was not an expert in navigating the waters off Trinidad Beach. He might have approached the rock from the east, not knowing of the rocky, treacherous reef in his path.
He has not returned from his voyage, and his father now believes the weeklong search for his son is no longer a rescue mission.
“At this point, it’s a recovery operation, not a rescue operation,” Corey Lewis said in an interview Tuesday. “I am just hoping to find my son to return to his mother to bury.”
For the last few days, portions of Hunter’s canoe and other objects have been washing ashore, including a wooden cigar box given to him by his father.
“I did a treasure hunt for Hunter and his brother many years ago,” Corey Lewis said. “And at the end of that treasure hunt, I hid the treasure hidden in this little tiny wooden cigar box.
“I gave it to Hunter, and he kept his little treasures and belongings in it, and he had it with him and was hiding treasure in it,” he said. “We found it on a beach.”
Lewis, a creative writing professor at Humboldt State, spoke lovingly of his son, his voice cracking and wavering at times.
“The guy was full of so much life and love and [had] the biggest smile on his face ever,” he said.
Hunter, an aerospace engineering student at Cal State Long Beach, harbored dreams of becoming an astronaut. He was an avid hiker and rock climber but also found time for fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons.
He poured all of those pursuits and interests into the treasure hunt he masterminded for family and friends, imagining a legend of a lost Lewis family treasure, creating clues and keys with a 3-D printer, hiding some in spots that required his treasure seekers to rappel down a cliffside.
The elaborate hunt began as Hunter and his girlfriend were visiting Humboldt County on their winter break.
“We were out searching through the different clues that day [Dec. 30] and we knew he was hiding the treasure,” his father said. “And he never returned.”
Lewis knew the spot from which his son had launched his canoe, so he searched for Hunter on the beach. He eventually alerted the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office around 5:30 p.m.
The Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Coast Guard searched the beach and waters with boats and aircraft, finding nothing. The search was suspended at nightfall and resumed the following morning. That afternoon, on New Year’s Eve, authorities suspended their active rescue searches.
But hundreds of people continue to scour the beaches of Trinidad Bay, with a Facebook group devoted to the search gathering more than 2,500 members who post photos of their beach walks and the items they find, along with memories of Hunter.
Jerick Enclan-LeBlanc, a friend who met Hunter when he moved into a Long Beach apartment complex in 2019, posted a video of Hunter on his 21st birthday, singing karaoke to Green Day’s “Holiday.”
“I still have his Christmas gift right here, I’m looking right at it,” Enclan-LeBlanc said Wednesday.
Hunter’s father is also active on the forum, posting updates about the search for his son.
In a video posted Tuesday, he said the family had solved Hunter’s final clue, which indicated that the treasure would be found “where his heart is.”
Corey Lewis holds up to the camera that last clue: a 3-D printed key, which, when aligned with the rock islands whose shapes match its teeth, ends in a heart that encircles Flatiron Rock.
“We know he was going there,” he said. “We also know he doesn’t know that reef exists.”
That reef, he said, is visible only at low tide and is probably what overturned Hunter’s canoe. When the family was on a Coast Guard vessel circling the islands that dot the ocean around Trinidad Beach, they were told they could not circle Flatiron Rock because of the reef.
“We have just been hiking and searching ever since,” he said. “We’re trying to keep moving because once we sit still, we miss our son.
“The real ironic, tragic and epic part of this is he started this whole thing with an Instagram page and a letter saying that we had a lost Lewis family treasure that we didn’t know about off the North Coast,” he said. “He’s that lost treasure.”