SUBMITTED JULY 2015
I guess I picked a bad time to go. The rain was coming down in buckets as we drove up the road from Lander to Dubois and the future forecast did not hold out much hope for improvement. Glad I brought extra boots.
Since we are searching under the cover story of being a pair of out-of-state fisherman, the first stop was Bob’s fly shop (name changed to protect the innocent). I don’t want to out-and-out call ‘ol Bob a liar exactly but I have to say that almost none of the advice I got in there produced a fish. It did strike me as coincidental, though, when Bob suggested we head to the upper reaches of Warm Springs Creek, above DuNoir if we “wanted to avoid other fishermen”, and “didn’t mind catching smaller fish”. So armed with a validation of our cover story and some sketchy directions on how to get there, we dodged more rain drops on the way back to the car and headed off looking for a camp spot.
Mud was building up fast on the side of the pickup when we finally rolled in to a nice campsite alongside the Creek. We passed some of the old remains of the DuNoir logging camp on the way in but there’s not much left. Only a few collapsing log cabins exist that now act mainly as historical lawn ornaments adjacent to someone’s $300k summer home. It’s flat and open here and the creek isn’t all the big but very pretty country. Bob was right about the fish here though. If you caught anything over 4 inches in this section it was going in the record book. Dark was coming on so time for a quick dinner, a last scan of the maps, and finalizing the next morning’s search plan.
I’d spent the last year collecting as much information as I could on this area and narrowed it down to two possible search areas around Warm Springs Creek: DuNoir proper, and the Natural Bridge. If you accept DuNoir as HOB, then “put in below the home of Brown” phrase meant everything downstream of DuNoir had to be considered. My gut said that the Natural Bridge was the most likely suspect but I didn’t want to miss anything in my zeal to get there. It’s 3 miles from DuNoir down to the Bridge and all indication were that is was going to be a rough 3. We didn’t know what to expect. The maps don’t show any trails…would there be some kind of path? Do people actually hike in this canyon? As I said before, this place isn’t promoted on the town website under things to see and do in Dubois so we were flying blind. I wasn’t sure why people wouldn’t go….it looked like there were plenty of Forest Service access roads relatively near the creek. I suppose I could have called around to different places in town and asked but gold fever comes with a certain burden of paranoia…why start asking questions that might raise suspicions …..better to coast under the radar. I was hoping to see parts of the flume still standing in the canyon but didn’t really expect there was much left.
Stepping out next morning the air was damp, still, and ground fog hangs over the creek like tendrils of smoke. Since we were camped right there in DuNoir it made sense to start with a top down search. Because of F’s admission that he hid the chest “in two trips in an afternoon”, I’d concluded that each one-way trip probably couldn’t be more the 2 miles at the outside. Depending on terrain, this made it highly unlikely that he would get from DuNoir to the Natural Bridge but who’s to say there isn’t something else special in the canyon in between.
We donned our waders (I mean disguises) and headed down the creek and into the canyon. I was pretty surprised that quite a bit of evidence of the tie flume activity still remains. Right at the mouth of the canyon is the remnant of the cable dam. Cables were strung low in the water between rock bulwarks to hold back the floating ties until it was time to release them down the flume. There are large portions of flume too. It’s all pretty much worse for wear given the 70 years it’s been exposed to the elements but it exceeded my expectations. Close your eyes and you can still see the stacks of wooden R&R ties being readied for a quick ride on this water slide.
Right from the start it’s clear that the canyon narrows quickly and the creek occupies what little room that is on the valley floor….no trail here….this was going to be a bush-whack. We explored, poking under the rotting flume, and traveled downstream about a half mile before it became apparent that Forrest probably didn’t go this way. It’s just too much of a struggle to get through what with all the river crossings, and dense vegetation. Traveling the required 3 miles from this approach is going to take way more than an afternoon. No apparent blaze here.
After catching a few fish, it was time to fold the tent on this end and head for the Natural Bridge. I came well stocked with maps. Topo, forest service, the Wyoming Gazetteer…you name it and I had it. Seems that getting to the other end wasn’t going to present much challenge with all the forest roads we were seeing…or was it? The closest road was shown taking off directly below DuNoir after cutting through a development of summer cabins. The maze of roads was awesome and poorly documented, but by using our trusty GPS we quickly found ourselves up against a …..locked gate? Surprisingly, the FS road was locked from the private property side. We were definitely in the right place within 10 meters, there’s no government signage, so what’s the deal? You just can’t gate off public access like that….at least not where I’m from. Well no problem. It looks like there are plenty of other FS roads heading back into the target area just off of US 26 between Dubois and DuNoir.
The locked gate episode is still eating at me as we hit the turnoff for the next potential access point. We take a bridge across the Wind River, then a left, a right, and now we’re parked in farmer Bobs front yard looking at nothing but uninterrupted barbed wire fence. OK screw-it. The next turnoff looks like a much more direct approach anyway, so it’s back out on the highway down a couple more miles, across the River again……dead end at a big berm of rock and dirt, planted fields, and more barbwire. I’m beginning to sense a pattern. Slow learners that we are, we went down a couple more blind alleys before we had enough. Time to visit our ”friends” at the Forest Service office in Dubois.
The man at the Dubois FS office, Joe, pads around quietly behind his counter in stocking feet….all 250 pounds of him. Hmmm, must be casual Monday. Joe is pleasant and soft spoken. “Yeah, that road is gated off by the private land owners up there ‘cause they don’t like people coming into their development from that forest side.” “Seriously”, I said, “you let private individuals lock a public access road.” Of course this makes no sense because, as we proved, anyone and their dog can get into the housing area from the other side. No gates, signs, or even a disapproving look was cast in our direction on the drive in over there. “So what about all these other access points shown on your map off Hwy 26. They seem to be completely blocked by private land too,” I said. “In Colorado most landowners have to provide easement at historical public land access points.” “No,” Joe drawls lazily, “not here. If they want to block it off they can.” Well that cleared things up. Apparently in Wyoming the inmates are firmly in charge of the asylum. “Ever been up to the Natural Bridge?”, I asked, knowing the answer full well . “Nope.”
But we aren’t skunked yet. There’s one more road to try that comes in form the southeast. It’s a round-a-bout way to get in but seems to be the last option. Skirting south, looping up by the airport, and passing through another development of summer homes (this didn’t look good) we finally found our way onto a rough two-rut dirt track heading in the right direction. The afternoon showers were just setting in. Due to the camper on the back of the truck we crabbed slowly sideways up the “road” occasionally slewing side to side on water slicked rocks and clay. Definitely not a maintained forest road but we’ve got 4WD so we’re getting by. After a number of miles the ruts turn into a narrow downhill shelf road that’s so thin we’re brushing back tree branches on both sides. I crossed fingers that we didn’t meet anyone coming the other way. …..backing up this was not an option. In fact, we didn’t meet anyone but the next worse thing did happen. At the bottom of this ravine the road made a sharp hairpin turn to the right while simultaneously dropping off sharply two feet down into a tiny creek then sharply up two feet on the opposite bank. After a beer and a half an hour analysis about how stuck we were likely to end up, it was decided that the truck needed to get turned around. Long story short, after some precision driving, a 12 point turn, another beer (for medicinal purposes only), some new whiskey dents in the Chevy, and the sacrificing of two small trees, we made it back up the shelf road and found a very spectacular camp site overlooking the Wind River valley. The adventure had finally begun.
Next morning we’re up and out of the camper to more gently falling rain. It’s going to be an extra 2 mile approach to the canyon….more than we anticipated. Had we been able to get where we intended, the canyon to Natural Bridge distance would have been about ½ mile. That seemed to match easily with the “two trips in an afternoon” statement but now we’re looking at traversing in and out of three drainages just to get to Warm Spring Creek. Raincoats, food, and fishing gear are hastily stuffed into packs then we’re off. About ½ mile down the road I reach for the camera to shoot a picture of what appears to be some very large cat tracks in the mud when I suddenly realize I left it in the camper. My minimalist buddy, with a camera that’s so worn you can’t read the words around the buttons, says he’s got his so no worries …..why am I still worried?
Soon enough I’m standing on the rim of the canyon peering 100’s of feet down sheer cliffs to the river bottom. It’s nothing short of spectacular. “Pull out that camera and get a few shots”, I said. “What’s that, it’s not working?” Oh….that’s why I felt uneasy…..mister minimalist forgot batteries. I didn’t come all this way to go home without pic’s so we’re scrabbling through packs looking for spares. No spares but at this point the Garmin has serviced its purpose and is deemed expendable so I dump out the double A’s and we’re back in business. Yeah, AA’s….luckily it’s an old camera.
Next order of business is to find a way down to the stream. Try as we might, it’s impossible to see exactly where the Natural Bridge is located down there. I study the topo and by matching up landmarks on the opposite side of the canyon (yeah there’s that road over there that we couldn’t get to due to the gate) we guess that we are probably in about the right spot. Maybe we can see more from creek level? There are cliffs here but by working downstream a bit we find a useable game trail heading diagonally down a more gradual slope into the canyon. Arriving at the water doesn’t bring much clarity. Are we upstream or downstream of the NB? I consult the map again and make the executive decision that we need to head upstream. We are now faced with the reality that there is no trail and, to top it off, the sides are literally too steep, overgrown, and loose to side-hill next to the stream. To save on weight we didn’t bring waders so it boils down to go home or get wet. The first step is chilly but Warm Springs lives up to its name….not freezing.
We could just make out bits of flume from the canyon rim but as we slosh around the first bend in the creek we are suddenly confronted with huge sections of flume still clinging to the canyon wall 50 feet in the air. I don’t impress easily but this is incredible. How the hell did guys in the early 1900’s build this with no access roads, no trails, and no machinery? I can’t even image clinging to a cliff trying to hammer support beams into place with probably little more than a cheap rope preventing a long fall onto jagged rocks. I would have loved to see this contraption in action with the loads of wooden ties floating down the flume on their way to the Wind River. It’s wild here. This is no place for the meek.
As you may have guessed, slogging through knee deep running water and feeling for every foot-hold on slim covered rocks is not a preferred hiking strategy. It’s hard work and that ½ mile seems more like 2 miles. It’s also not a straight path since there are pools too deep to wad and short water falls that can’t be climbed directly. We are forced to zig-zag back and forth across the stream and sometimes scrabble up the steep loose banks to portage the worse of the obstacles. Log jams are everywhere composed of 2 parts limbs and trees, and 1 part old flume lumber. But the effort is worth the cold when we round the bend to see the entrance of the Natural Bridge gaping open like a huge mouth.
With growing anticipation, we close the final 100 yards to the cavern and enter it on a small beach area. What a place! It’s a tunnel really, but there are stalactites, stalagmites, and glistening terraces of travertine just like a real cave. Water drips from the roof everywhere and I’m especially amazed by a feature I’ve never seen before…..several of the ceiling stalactites have running jets of water issuing from their tips like small inverted geysers. It suddenly dawns on me that we aren’t here to gawk, there’s got to be some treasure around here somewhere. My working theory came from the literature that claimed abandoned sections of flume still remained inside the tunnel and had been slowly encased in calcium carbonate by the dripping water from the roof. What if F had cleverly stashed the box under some boards knowing the mineral deposits would slowly seal it in place becoming ever more encapsulated with each passing year? Well the tunnel isn’t a very big place and it quickly became apparent there aren’t many, if any, nooks, rocks, crannies, or loose boards suitable for a treasure stash. Most of the real estate in the tunnel is given over to stream and it’s pretty obvious what wasn’t currently covered in running water gets a thorough scrubbing during the spring run-off. There did look to be some “petrified” flume near the exit (hard to say) but short of having a jackhammer on hand there was no way to tackle it. I’m sorry to say we walked away empty handed but I’m sure most of you expected that when you started reading. We did fish our way back down the creek and between the two of us we caught almost every species of trout you could reasonably expect in the Rockies (browns, rainbows, brookies, cutthroat, cut-bows, and mountain white fish). That in itself was a bit of an unusual and unexpected trove.
I won’t bore you with the walk-of-shame back to the car other than to say it was a 12 hour round trip. I’ve been a lot of places in the Rocky Mountains and weathered some amazing adventures but this one quickly slid into a top 10 position. While this seemed like an ideal hiding spot on paper, once again, the reality of the on-the-ground conditions probably rules it out for further consideration. Could Forrest have managed to get it in there? Perhaps…. but common sense says no. If you are able to take full advantage of the roads via jeep or ATV you can get within ½ mile and a 200 feet elevation gain/loss but that last ½ miles a tough one. Slip on a slimy river rock and you could be a goner. This is not a place anyone should attempt alone. It also clearly a late summer trip….this has death trap written all over it with higher water conditions. In the day and a half we were there we only saw one ATV pass by on the road. It’s a remote, seldom used area that’s probably not on the Dubois C of C’s things-to-do list for a good reason.
This trip is going on a year old now but, at the time, with just a little imagination, I did believe there was a reasonably good match-up between possible clues and the features of the land/history here. My thinking has moved on since then. I’m no longer convinced that historical events or a theme based solution is the proper direction. Hopefully you will agree that this was one of the more “straight forward” solutions that’s been published on this blog to date. If not, I’d like to hear why. I know you will have comments.