SUBMITTED OCTOBER 2017
As a 5th-grader in 1979, living in the midwestern US, we learned about that year’s total eclipse in school. We made pinhole viewers in class and were allowed outside at the appropriate time to view the shadows that they made. It was pretty cool, but I was envious of those in the Pacific Northwest that were in the path of totality, and I decided right then and there that I would definitely get myself to the right place for the 2017 eclipse. I even saved the next day’s newspaper to remind myself!
Fast-forward to 2012, when I first heard about the Treasure Chest while living in Ohio. Intrigued, I studied the clues for a few days and tried to solve them. Living so far from the search area was daunting, though. Unless I had a perfect solve, it just wasn’t practical for me to fly out to the Rockies on a hunch. I bookmarked the poem, and put the search in the back of my mind, only looking into it once or twice per year.
Two years ago, I realized that I missed the mountains, and decided to move back to the Denver area, where I had lived in the late 1990s. My request for reassignment at work was granted, but with planning the move, the treasure was the last thing on my mind. A few weeks before my move, I was at the dentist’s office, and in the waiting room I came across an article in Outside Magazine about the treasure hunt. Wow! I would soon be living in Colorado, and almost any search area would be within a day’s drive of my new home!
After my arrival in Colorado, I had a few days before I had to start work, and I decided that I had to spend a day in the mountains, coupled with the treasure hunt. I spent a day searching the Brown’s Canyon area, but found myself just hiking around without any direction. Still, it was a day with spectacular views, affirming my decision to return to the Rockies.
I didn’t search at all in 2016, but that Spring I looked into where the path of totality for the eclipse would occur. I was excited to see that it passed through the Grand Tetons. I would be able to combine my eclipse trip with a search in Yellowstone! I was dismayed that nearly every hotel in Wyoming was booked for those days 18 months in advance, but I was able to make a reservation in Gardiner, Montana.
As the trip got closer, I thought that I would be able to narrow down my search area. Instead, the more I looked at maps and read clues, the more directions my mind went. If you follow the Firehole River south, it heads toward Goose Lake, which is next to Feather Lake. Goose feathers are “down”, as in a down pillow. Was this the “Canyon down” in the poem? I just kept coming up with more and more possibilities!
On August 20, the day before the eclipse, I arrived in the Grand Tetons. Making my way toward Yellowstone and my hotel, I passed by a place with exceptional beauty on the Snake River named Oxbow Bend, and decided that it would be the perfect place to view the eclipse from. There was a small parking lot there, enough to hold about 20 cars, so I didn’t know if I could actually get a spot there the next morning, but I was determined.
Looking at a map of Yellowstone that night, everything suddenly clicked in my mind. Because it is “too far to walk” between the first two clues, you are driving. Therefore, the first two clues refer to “towns” rather than geographical features. You are driving the road from Madison Junction (where warm waters halt) to Canyon Village, and then taking it south (down).
From there, you “put in” below the Mud Volcano (Mr Fenn said to “show the poem to a child.” If you ask a child to name some things that are brown, “mud” is a likely response). This leads you to LeHardy Rapids (he also said that “you have to use your imagination” that hearty is the opposite of meek). You definitely can’t paddle up a rapids! My confidence was growing.
On Eclipse Morning, I got into my car at 1:30 AM to beat the traffic, and headed toward Oxbow Bend. I was the only car on the road! It was amazing to zip through the park, going the speed limit the entire way, which is unheard of if you’ve ever experienced Yellowstone traffic. I saw deer and a fox, and the steam coming off of Sulphur Cauldron in the 32-degree weather was awesome. Plus, my drive took my past Canyon, past the Mud Volcano, past LeHardy Rapids. Would I actually see the eclipse and find the treasure on the same day?
I arrived at my desired parking spot at 4:45 AM, with three or four other vehicles getting there before me. I got out of my car to view the night sky. At high elevation, miles from any city lights, you can literally see every single star in the sky, and it is breathtaking. Because of the cold, I retreated to my car, gazing out the window at Orion, waiting for sunup. In the dark, I was hoping that my location was as spectacular as I had remembered from the day before. Well, the sun did eventually come up and my memory had served me correctly. This was where I would be viewing the eclipse from!
By 6:00, the parking lot was full. There were about 40 people gathered there, and we all got to know each other a little bit as the hours passed. During this time, I was able to take photos of the mountains to the west, chat with people, and watch the pelicans in the river. A park ranger showed up because a mother grizzly with two cubs had been spotted in the area, and he was there to monitor the situation.
At 10:17, the moon made first contact with the sun. We all donned our eclipse glasses and looked toward the sun in the east. A few moments later, someone shouted “Look! Bears!” We all turned around to the west just in time to see the three bears emerge from the water on the far bank of the river. I reached down for my camera, and in that brief instant they had all disappeared into the woods. It was as if the wise mother bear knew that if she waited until exactly 10:17, she would be able to lead her cubs across the road and into the river unnoticed!
The eclipse itself was amazing, and well worth waiting 38 years for. We were rewarded with almost two minutes of totality from our location, and words can’t explain what a truly incredible experience it was. The ranger was familiar with the bears’ habits, and knew where they were most likely to emerge from the forest, although he couldn’t predict when. I thought about waiting around after the eclipse with my binoculars to get a better look at them, but I had a treasure to find!
I hopped into the car and headed toward LeHardy Rapids. I parked, walked down to the river, and began searching for the blaze. Unfortunately, the road went right alongside the river. I could hear a constant flow of traffic whizzing by, and it became apparent that the location was not remote enough for Mr Fenn to lie down for eternity with the chest. Also, the only blaze I could see was a long, thin stretch of white rocks in the middle of the river, which was in plain sight of anybody nearby. My map showed that there was a stream feeding into the opposite side of the river named Thistle Creek, but I couldn’t locate it visually, and couldn’t tell from my map exactly where it was.
I spent the next few days exploring the Firehole and Madison River areas as well as the rest of Yellowstone. I saw elk, moose, deer, bison, and a coyote, and I enjoyed the nightlife in Gardiner. All in all, it was a pretty great trip. Plus, I got to see the total eclipse, and fulfilled a promise that I had made to myself when I was ten years old!
After returning home, I spent some time researching some of the places I had looked into in Yellowstone, including Thistle Creek. I had always been intrigued by Mr Fenn’s comment that if you don’t know where to begin the search, you might as well stay home and play Canasta. As others have pointed out, “canasta” is the Spanish word for “basket.” Imagine my intrigue when I learned that American star-thistle is also known as basket-flower! How ingenious, I thought, of him to give a clue to the end point of the search while making it sound like a clue to the beginning point!
I then looked into LeHardy Rapids, and found that while most maps label everything north of Fishing Bridge as the Yellowstone River, most geologists actually consider LeHardy to be the official boundary between the lake and the river. So if you are traveling south toward the rapids and Thistle Creek, the end of the river is definitely drawing nigh. Mr Fenn has said that a knowledge of geography would be helpful.
I then found a few other things that made Thistle Creek seem like a logical solve:
In “The Thrill of the Chase”, page 91, Mr Fenn states that “The sound of the rushing water was stronger than the noise of the idling engine.” Well, if I was on the far side of the rapids, the sound would drown out the noise of the traffic from west side of the river.
TTOTC also mentions Miss Ford. I’d have to ford the river to get to the creek.
in TTOTC, page 111, the words “DO NOT TOUCH” are capitalized and in bright red type. Because of its sharp spines, thistle is a plant that you DO NOT want to TOUCH.
While Mr Fenn has stated that rappelling down cliffs, as well as other activities that an 80-year-old couldn’t do while carrying the chest, would not be necessary, he also said “It is always a good idea to wear a personal flotation device when you enter fast moving water.” I found it curious that instead of telling searchers not to enter fast moving water, he instead offered safety advice for doing so. Hmm . . .
I decided that I had to go back to Yellowstone and search Thistle Creek. Late summer would be when the water flow was the slowest, so I returned in mid-September. I would drive to Cody, Wyoming on Tuesday, retrieve the chest on Wednesday, and drive back to Denver on Thursday. I captured a screenshot from Google Earth of the location of Thistle Creek and saved it to my phone.
I bought some wading pants online, and went to my local fishing outfitter to acquire wading boots. The clerk offered advice about the three brands of boots they carried, and I avoided telling her that I wouldn’t be using them for fishing! As it turned out, they only had my size in one of the brands, so those were the ones I bought.
I came home, ate lunch, and figured that I should try on the boots with my wading pants to make sure everything fit. Well, what happened next blew my mind. For the first time, I noticed that the photo on the box of wading shoes was taken from the exact same place where I had watched the eclipse! Definitely, definitely a good omen.
I arrived back at LeHardy Rapids, consulted my Google Earth map, and with my binoculars was able to find where Thistle Creek emptied into the river. I put on my wading gear and started across the river. Well, I made it about 12 feet. The river bottom was rocky and slick, and I didn’t have a flotation device. I simply didn’t feel safe. Instead of the 50-yard trek across the river, I would have to take the back way in, hiking 3-plus miles across land through bear country.
I drove to Fishing Bridge and started north along the Howard Eaton Trail.
The trail started along the northernmost part of Yellowstone Lake, then veered into the remnants of a forest fire. The next generation of trees was about three feet high. In 20 years, hikers here will be traveling through a dense pine forest at this point.
It took about an hour to reach LeHardy Rapids. From the overlook, I could see a dozen people on the boardwalk across the river to the west, but I had the entire east side of the river to myself. I continued the hike to Thistle Creek, and then departed the trail to follow the creek down to the Yellowstone River, searching for treasure as I went. Because of downed trees and steep banks, I had to cross the creek a few times on the way down. I felt like I was brave and in the wood! Of the four million visitors to Yellowstone this year, there was a chance that I was the only one to hike down the banks of this creek.
I made my way down to the river, and at the point where the two met I was looking high and low for either a blaze or a treasure chest. I wondered if the people on the other side of the river were looking at me, wondering why this crazy person was poking around the waters. I slowly returned up the creek, searching under rocks and logs along the way, making sure to stop and survey my surroundings every few feet to see if I could discern a blaze. In all, I spent an hour exploring the stream. This is the view of Thistle Creek emptying into the Yellowstone River. As you can see, there is no paddling up this creek!
At one point, a bright orange marker on a tree appeared in view, marking the Howard Eaton Trail. Was that the Blaze? I looked quickly down, and then above, below, around, and across at this point. No such luck. Eventually, I reached the trail again. I followed the creek east for a while past the trail, but it was difficult. The creek was surrounded by hip-high tall grass, and there were football-sized “boulders” hidden underneath. I began worrying that this would be a terrible place to suffer a twisted ankle. And then I thought about bears. And then I thought about the weather forecast of a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon. Again, I just didn’t feel like I was being responsible at this point. From my location, Thistle Creek would soon split into two forks, and each would go another mile. There was no way for me explore them both in their entirety and return to the trailhead safely before dark.
I took the trail back to my vehicle at Fishing Bridge, happy. I had just spent three hours in the park and seen only three other hikers during that stretch. I experienced amazing scenery and overcame my fear of bears. I took the path down the creek that very few have taken, and I gave the search my best shot. I spent two nights enjoying the nightlife of Cody, Wyoming, chatting with both locals and tourists. On the drive home I had a great time, and great meal, at The Forks tavern in Livermore, Colorado. In summary, I didn’t locate The Treasure, but found my own treasures along the way.
My three takeaways from this adventure:
1) If you are in Gardiner, Montana and want a cheeseburger and a beer, there is no better place to go than the Two-Bit Saloon.
2) If you are driving through Yellowstone in the middle of the night, there is no better CD to listen to than Neil Young‘s “Harvest Moon”.
3) I still kinda feel like the treasure may be on the banks of Thistle Creek, but that I somehow overlooked it. For safety reasons, only explore this area if you have a companion.