Well-Versed in Treasure Lore, Unrehearsed in the Outdoors | Sports Destination Management

Well-Versed in Treasure Lore, Unrehearsed in the Outdoors

Mar 23, 2022 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher
The lure of buried (or at least hidden) treasure is undeniable. Unfortunately, people keep getting themselves into the wilderness (or into legal trouble) by hunting where they should not. Photo © Gunter Hofer | Dreamstime.com

A North Carolina hiker who ignored weather reports of an oncoming winter storm and set out without proper equipment or provisions on the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail in Pisgah National Forest, and who then had to be rescued, frustrated authorities, as well as the six-person rescue team who had to go out on snowshoes to find him.

It’s certainly not the first time that people have ventured into the outdoors and gotten into trouble. The lucky ones are able to get help or be rescued. Some, however, never return. The 2,660-mile Pacific Coast Trail, a Holy Grail among through-hikes, has seen a total of 14 people perish. Falls have been the most common cause of death, followed by heatstroke and drowning; the link has other statistics.

In fact, in Colorado, the search-and-rescue industry is on the brink of collapse, being stretched far beyond its capacity by the ever-growing number of errant hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers who far outpace the amount of professional teams available to get them out of tight spots, according to a recent report.

Hikers and climbers in the USA are often lured by the history of an area. Robbers Roost, for example, is the nickname given to a canyon and surrounding area in southern Utah where the infamous outlaw Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch Gang” would often meet up and hide out after their big heists in the late 1800s and early 1900s. People still go there today for a variety of reasons: some to enjoy the beauty, some to challenge themselves with the terrain and some with the hope of finding treasure left behind by the outlaws (there’s still quite a bit of it that is unaccounted for).

But make no mistake – it is dangerous. One of the popular slot canyons in the area, Bluejohn, was the scene where the real-life struggle of Aaron Ralston took place, in which he was forced to amputate his own arm after becoming pinned by a fallen rock. The movie, “127 Hours,” chronicled his experience – although as seen in the link, many criticize him for taking what they view as unnecessary risks.

“What's kind of irritating is that rescuers have to go out and deal with those types of situations — a lot — and most of the time they're preventable, said Rex Tanner, commander of Grand County Search and Rescue, a volunteer organization that is responsible for 3,600 square miles (9,324 square kilometers) near Bluejohn Canyon. His group participated in 80 rescues in one year alone and was on call to aid in Ralston's rescue.

And while Ralston’s story had a triumphant ending, not all those who set out to challenge themselves will make it back.

Officials liken those ill-fated treks to the problems caused by so-called armchair treasure hunters in the U.S. wilderness – including one incident, according to the Washington Post, in which a man was ordered to repay the $2,880 that it cost rescuers to save him when he got lost years earlier searching for a treasure chest he believed was hidden in Yellowstone National Park. He was also banned from entering Yellowstone for five years.

The treasure chest, stashed in the American Rockies in 2010 by wealthy (and eccentric) art collector Forrest Fenn (who left a poem with maddeningly cryptic clues as to its location), was finally found in Wyoming in 2020 – although avid treasure hunters, who have invested years of hunting and untold amounts of their life savings into their own hunt and who don’t want to be deprived of their chance, are claiming the find was a hoax. One or two went so far as to press lawsuits. Others are still out there hunting, unable to give up the chase.

And that, say officials, means trouble. Many treasure hikers (who had spent more time reading message boards and poring over Fenn’s books than training for actual wilderness expeditions) were unprepared for the conditions that include extreme weather conditions, hazardous terrain and dangerously fast and deep rivers, as well as threats from wildlife, including bear, venomous snakes, mountain lions and wolves.

If they’re lucky, rescuers can find them in time. About 350,000 people, for example, were estimated to have searched for the treasure in the rough wilderness in the 10 years that elapsed between Fenn's announcement of his hidden treasure, and the news that it had been found. And at least five people were known to have died in the pursuit; however, considering the enormous and remote area that comprised possible locations for the chest and the number of people who ventured out without telling anyone where they were going, there could have been others.

There is not a formal count on how many people have been rescued from the danger they encountered during their treasure hunts; however, rangers in national parks, as well as safety officials across New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have all reported having to warn people off, if not outright remove them from dangerous situations.

“It doesn’t matter to them; it’s not costing them anything. What do they care that it costs two thousand, ten thousand dollars, whatever. They’re not paying for it. They just want to get back out. Then it happens again,” a fire department employee told Daniel Barbarisi, a senior editor at the Athletic and former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Ironically, Fenn told people, he took the chest into the mountains to encourage families to “get off their couches” and head into the outdoors for some fun bonding experiences. He has since died, but not before seeing someone find his treasure - and plenty of others get outside.

So, for those who have given up that hunt for Fenn's gold, how else are they going to get into trouble what other mysteries lurk in the USA?

Plenty of them, as it turns out. Some are even in urban areas.

In 1982, children’s author Byron Preiss published The Secret, about a mythical treasure and its guardians—magical creatures hidden from human view. This vast universe of creatures existed solely in Preiss’s imagination – but the treasure was real. Prior to the book’s release, the writer concealed 12 ceramic keys in hand-painted casques, then buried them in public parks in metro areas around the U.S. Each key could be returned to Preiss in exchange for precious jewels, collectively worth around $10,000.

Metro areas, people. Where there are no bears.

But, writes Atlas Obscura, Preiss’s treasure hunt had a different problem: The treasure was simply too well hidden. Seekers found it nearly impossible to unravel the rhyming riddles and elaborate paintings that mapped the location of the casques. In the nearly 40 years since the book’s first publication, only three of the treasures have been found. No one knows exactly where the remaining casques are buried. Because the casques are ceramic, a material that does not register on a metal detector, treasure hunters require ground-penetrating radar, which is far more expensive than a metal detector. According to the site, CLU-IN, the cost of GPR systems varies widely depending on their complexity and abilities. Systems generally fall in the $15,000 to $50,000 range. Many GPR systems can be rented for about $1,000 per week and a $300 mobilization charge. Obviously, this is a hunt one does not undertake on a whim.

And before you ask, Preiss can’t provide any more clues; he died in a traffic accident in 2005.

The one thing we do know, however, is that the hunt has been bringing people to public parks in order to search. After all, the first casque was found by three teenagers in Chicago’s Grant Park. The second was located next to a wall marking the perimeter of the Cleveland Cultural Gardens. Another was found in Boston's Langone Park, buried under home plate. And treasure hunters seem certain yet another is located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, although there have been multiple digs, all of them fruitless. Others are believed to be located in Charleston, South Carolina; Roanoke Island, North Carolina; St. Augustine, Florida; New Orleans, Houston, Montreal, Milwaukee and New York City.

Preiss may have believed that by burying his treasures in parks, it would make it possible for people to locate them without taking unnecessary physical risks, such as venturing into the wilderness. Unfortunately, he didn't take into account that park officials, even those at a local level, aren’t all that happy when people show up with shovels and other equipment and try to do excavations.

In the meantime, here are some other lost treasures in the USA that have not (yet) been found, and for which people are still searching.

Captain Kidd’s Treasure: Yes, it’s real and hunters continue to look for it. When Kidd was hanged in 1701, only a part of his fortune was recovered. The rest was supposedly buried. But where? USA TODAY’s App says that several locations in New Jersey have a strong link. One of these, Cliffwood Beach, is of interest to many Kidd enthusiasts, and “To this day, you can still see people occasionally searching for treasure at Cliffwood Beach using shovels and metal detectors. On occasion some tiny bits of gold and silver are still found, but whether they are ancient or modern in age has not been determined.”

The Lost Ships of the Desert: Yes, there are more than one. The first is (supposedly) buried in the American West. According to the Cool Material blog, a Spanish vessel sailed up into the Salton Sea (it’s now just a lake in California), “possibly riding a tidal bore, a surge of water that moves against a river’s normal flow. When they captain and crew tried to return the way they came, they found the waters had receded back over the natural dam, leaving the vessel stranded in the sea. This happened as recently as 1922 and would still be happening if people hadn’t completely drained the river.” According to various reports, the ship has been uncovered by shifting sands now and again through the years – but its location has never been pinpointed.

It may never be, adds Wikipedia. “The greater part of the Salton Sink has been submerged under the Salton Sea since 1905, and much of the adjacent land is under military control and has even been used for bombing ranges, rendering on-the-ground searches highly hazardous and/or illegal. Lands adjacent to Laguna Salada in Baja California, and between the Gulf of California and the Salton Sea, regularly receive wind-blown sand from the desiccated delta of the much-diverted Colorado River, generating vast sand dune systems. Aerial searches using ground-penetrating radar might reveal ships' remains, but there has not yet been an agency that undertook this project and revealed its findings. Whether or not any such ships actually existed, the legends persist and remain entertaining to many.”

That’s far from the only ship that, as legend has it, is buried in a sand dune in a desert somewhere. Here is a list that takes in everything, including a Viking ship supposedly underground in the badlands of Mexicali, Mexico (talk about being a long way from home). It has been theorized that some ships never existed – but that’s hardly stopping the interest. Everyone loves a shipwreck; it's the reason the Titanic remains fascinating after all these years and the reason the world collectively went nuts when Earnest Shackleton's ship, the Endurance, was found in Antarctica earlier this month, more than 100 years after it disappeared into the ice in 1915.

And nothing but nothing captures the imagination of the public like a riddle that can’t easily be solved. It’s the reason Stonehenge is popular, the reason people are still seeking clues on the Lost Colony of Roanoke and the reason there are still hunts going on for information on D.B. Cooper's fate. It is, in fact, the reason Jimmy Hoffa is more than just a cold case.

America’s West, where there was plenty of criminal action in the old days of stagecoach robberies, prospecting and mining for gold and other precious metals – and where gangs of bandits made (heh) a killing, is still fertile ground for treasure hunters; Colorado, in particular, has become a haven for those with metal detectors.

The Old Ozark Treasure Cave: Reader’s Digest has a list of treasures still believed to unfound and waiting to be claimed in the USA. Writers note: “In one of the Ozarks’ biggest mysteries, the Old Spanish Treasure Cave in the northwest corner of Arkansas is believed to hold hidden treasures buried by Spanish conquistadors fleeing from Native Americans over 350 years ago.”

By the way, that RD article is a font of information on other treasures in the USA, including loot from Jesse James (it’s believed to be in Oklahoma, in the area of Robbers Cave in the Wichita Mountains), a sunken Spanish ship loaded with gold (somewhere off the Oregon coast), a fortune in silver (apparently buried on the grounds of the ranch of the murdered casino heir, Ted Binion), money and valuables taken in a stagecoach robbery (believed to be somewhere in Idaho, with enthusiasts saying it is in the Portneuf Canyon), criminal John Dillinger’s loot (supposedly buried in Wisconsin since 1934) – and plenty of others.

Oh, and the loot supposedly awaiting someone brave enough to try Robbers Roost, of course – although Aaron Ralston’s experience might serve as a warning to those who are inexperienced in the outdoors.

The Beale Ciphers: Okay, admittedly, people have called this a hoax but it has hardly stopped anyone from getting interested. As the story has it, a man named Thomas Beale buried a fortune in a secret location in Bedford County, Virginia, in the 1820s. He put information about the treasure into a box, gave the box to a friend and disappeared, never to be heard from again.

When, years later, the box was opened, it was found to contain three cyphertexts (that is an encrypted message that is unable to be read without a cypher, or key – which Beale did not provide). The friend worked on deciphering the three messages for 20 years. To date, the first text (unsolved) describes the location of the treasure, the second (solved) reveals the content of the treasure, and the third (unsolved) lists the names of the treasure's owners and their next of kin.

Some have scoffed at it, some have pursued it (with shovels and even construction equipment, all to no avail) but there’s no doubt it remains enticing. Even the National Security Agency (NSA) has compiled a file of articles and reports on the issue. (To look at a sampling of the ciphers, go here).

And apparently, Virginia has quite the reputation among treasure hunters. Four treasures are said to be located there; the link above provides this information:

  • The Bureau of Engraving Treasure is a cache consisting of approximately $31,000 in new paper currency, along with a set of twenty-dollar bill printing plates concealed in a leather pouch. They were supposedly cached near a creek bed just north of Warren, located on Route 11, in Fauquier County.
  • The Captain John Mosby Treasure is a buried treasure in Virginia worth $2 million. Mosby, a Confederate guerilla, supposedly buried the cache between two large pine trees between Culpeper and Norman, near County Route 522, in Culpeper County. The treasure is said to be gold and silver objects worth $350,000 at the time of burial (est. more than $6 million today).
  • Hog Island Bay may hold pirate treasure.
  • Cape Henry has produced many coins and relics. In the early 1700s a fleet of 24 British ships carrying hundreds of thousands of pieces of eight, and gold coins, along with cargo, crashed onto the shores.

The oddest part of all: all this searching just might help turn people on to other outdoor quest-related sports events.

Geocaching, the outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use GPS technology to seek out containers worldwide, is one example. Orienteering, in which participants use a compass and map to navigate between control points in unfamiliar territory, is actually a competitive sport. Trail running, mountain biking and camping, fishing and open water sports may also see a benefit.

So the question becomes: how can parks and event owners take advantage of the wave of treasure hunters and use them to bring new treasure hunters into the outdoors, and into the world of competitive sports? Hosting clinics that use entry-level routes and skill sets could help get some new visitors into parks – and teach them the importance of safety. After all, with competitive climbing having just been featured in the Olympics, it’s likely there will be an uptick of interest in outdoor pursuits.

Somewhere, Forrest Fenn and Byron Preiss are smiling. They got people outside after all. Unfortunately, in the case of Fenn's treasure hunters, not all of them were prepared for the conditions. Officials are hoping that, as people put in the time to research these other treasures, they’ll spend equal time training, in addition to investigating whether it’s (a) legal and (b) safe to go looking in the places they’d like to hunt.

About the Author