That day, his father Corey Lewis believes his son set off in a canoe from Trinidad Beach in an attempt to reach Flatiron Rock, a tiny island a few hundred yards off the Pacific coastline, in order to hide the treasure ... but he never came back.
The final clue left by Hunter, an aerospace engineering student at Cal State Long Beach, was a 3-D printed heart-shaped key, with a note indicating the treasure would be found "where his heart is"; when held against the horizon from the correct location, the teeth of the key align with the rocks surrounding Flatiron, while the heart on the head of the key encircles the island itself:
"We were out searching through the different clues that day [Dec. 30] and we knew he was hiding the treasure," his father told the Los Angeles Times. "And he never returned."
Lewis contacted the Coast Guard and thus began a search along the shoreline and surrounding waters.
While Lewis said Hunter was a skilled outdoorsman with both pilot and scuba diving licenses, he believes his son was unaware of the dangerous reef hidden around Flatiron Rock; indeed even as the Coast Guard rescuers took to the waters, they advised the family they could not get to close to the island because of the treacherous rocks just beneath the waterline.
"We know he was going there," his dad said. "We also know he doesn't know that reef exists."
Then, more clues — but not the kind the family wanted to find. Belongings of Hunter's began washing up on the shore. A Facebook group set up to aid the search, which now has almost 3k members, have been posting items they have found on the beach, along with prayers and words of encouragement.
But Hunter's dad now accepts the worst.
"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. At this point, it's a recovery operation, not a rescue operation. I am just hoping to find my son to return to his mother to bury."
In a painful twist, one of Hunter's belongings that washed ashore was a wooden cigar box given to him by his father as part of a treasure hunt he made for his sons years ago — a box that likely sparked his love for creating treasure hunts, and a box that likely would have likely held the treasure on this final hunt.
"I did a treasure hunt for Hunter and his brother many years ago," 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. We found it on a beach."
"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 added. "He's that lost treasure."
On Friday, Lewis thanked those on the Facebook group who continue to search.
"I hate waking up. Every night and every morning when I wake up I have to remember and realize My son who I loved so much and was so full of life is gone. It hurts so much. I am so empty," he wrote.
"Thank you for continuing to look for him. It's not over for us. Everyday it starts over again and again. We lose him every day over and over again. Thank you for your help."
He also posted a picture of another treasure he believed Hunter had with him: one half of a pair of heart pendants he shared with his beloved girlfriend, begging volunteers to help reunite them if found.
"The one single love of Hunter's life was his girlfriend and fiancé Kinsley Rolph," he wrote. "This is a picture of the promise necklace that he was wearing when he went down at sea."
"As you walk Trinidad State Beach and College Cove over the next days weeks and months and keep your eyes open. I would love to return it to her. He loved her so much with all of his heart and still does."
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