The SS Islander…


November 2020
by dal


The SS Islander Treasure Hunt

In 1996 Crayton Fenn (Forrest’s nephew and Skippy’s son) and his then business partner, Bob Mester were planning a trip to find the gold laden bow of the SS Islander off the southern tip of Douglas Island in Alaska. The search team consisted of five folks. I was lucky to be one of them.

But let’s start at the beginning-


The S.S. Islander

In August of 1901 the Islander was making its last run for the year between the entrance to the Yukon Gold fields at Skagway and points south down to Canada and the mainland USA.


Skagway Alaska

At the beginning of the 20th century the Yukon Gold rush was in its prime and Skagway was the portal from which all gold prospectors started toward the goldfields.


Prospectors heading to the Yukon Gold Fields during the “rush”.

By mid August many of the men wanted to take their findings and head to a secure bank and good hotel. No one wanted to spend the winter trying to stay unfrozen and fed in the Yukon. Prospectors would typically abandon their claims for the winter and head down to Victoria, Seattle or San Francisco til they could return the following spring.The inland passage along Alaska’s coast was the only exit route from Skagway and the Islander was the best of the fleet of passenger vessels plying those waters. Even though it was mid August it would not be long before the passage was thick with ice and everyone would be stuck in Alaska til spring.


Many of those boarding the islander had been successful in the goldfields and were traveling with heavy bags and suitcases weighed down with freshly unearthed gold nuggets and sparkly panned dust. Additionally, the ship was transporting two shipments of gold ingots, one for the Bank of Canada in Victoria and another shipment bound for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco. Mounties were on the vessel to guard the gold and keep the peace. The atmosphere on board was said to be celebratory and joyful…but that mood would not last for very long.


In the early dark morning of August 15th the 240ft ship was plying the deep, cold waters between Admiralty Island and Douglas Island, a few miles out of Juneau. A route it had sailed dozens of times before, under the watchful command of Captain Foote. But that particular morning an uncharted, deadly iceberg from Taku Inlet was about to silently cross the Islander’s dark path. There was no avoiding a deadly meeting. The resulting jolt was staggering, waking everyone on board. The damage severe. Their boat was taking on water and sinking fast.

Immediately after the ramming Captain Foote turned the Islander toward Douglas Island and gave the engines full forward steam in a futile attempt to get his sinking ship as close as possible to land. But the distance was too far, the breach from the ramming too large and the islander sank in a matter of minutes about a quarter of a mile off shore. Sixty or more passengers lost their lives. Some went down with the ship. Others were sucked under while trying to swim away. It was later repeated that some passengers, unwilling to leave their gold behind, jumped from the ship, suitcases in hand, never to be seen again. Gold fever does horrible things to people. 


Based on the ships manifest it was determined that millions and millions of dollars in gold went to the dark bottom along with more than 60 passengers and crew.

A small contingent of about 20 made it to shore on makeshift rafts and walked all night to Juneau to report the terrible disaster and recover from their ordeal. Everyone on board lost all their gold and belongings inside the sunken hull of the Islander.

The exact location of  the ill-fated Islander and her gold was not known. It was dark. Navigation was by the stars. Currents were strong. The crew could only guess the approximate location of where she sank.

But with millions of dollars in gold known to be inside the Islander, interest in recovery was keen. Many tried. Many failed. After a few years the shipwreck’s position on the bottom was discovered. But the depth, the swift currents, the significant tides and the lack of technology stopped every salvage attempt. The Islander rested…untouched…taunting and luring would be salvers… for over three decades before someone finally came up with a workable plan on how to salvage the Islander and get the gold.


In 1934 a house moving company out of Seattle planned on using barges, cables and Alaska’s dramatic tides to move the islander to the beach where the gold could be easily and comfortably removed. Their plan was brilliant in its simplicity.


Two barges were positioned over the top of the Islanders hull. Cables attached to powerful winches would be dragged under the shipwreck to form a cradle. They would wait for low tide and cinch the cables tight. Then, wait for high tide to lift the barges and the Islander off the seafloor. They would then make a run toward Admiralty Island. Stopping only when the Islander again grounded in shallower water. Wait for low tide…again cinch the cables tight and await high tide when they would again run toward shore…repeat, repeat, repeat…twice every day with the rhythm of the giant tides until they could set the islander flat on the beach. Execution of their plan took over two years to accomplish. Sometimes they were only able to move the Islander a few feet before grounding…sometimes hundreds of feet…

In 1936 the Islander hull finally rested on the beach of Admiralty Island….fully exposed…open for inspection and salvage…



You can see that the Islander’s bow has broken completely off in the photo

But there was a problem. The bow was missing from the hull. It had evidently fallen off when weakened by the cables while lifting…and guess where the gold had been stored…

The moving company claimed only one leather pouch of gold dust found in a restroom…gross gain $50,000. Not even enough to cover food expenses for their crew for two years.

In 1996, sixty years after the hull had been dragged to the beach, the precise location of the bow was still unknown…It was presumed to be resting on the bottom in over 350 ft of water, somewhere between Douglas and Admiralty Island…Further, the story of the Islander, it’s tragic wreck and the millions of dollars in gold had all but been forgotten. There had been wars and Statehood, earthquakes and Soviet threats…distractions from the Islander treasure. Search and salvage technology had advanced significantly. But no one had located the Islander’s bow.

That’s when Crayton and crew decided to gear up…

Crayton’s plan involved advanced side-scan sonar to search the bottom for the bow and once located, using an ROV around the bow to photograph it for our claim that would be sent to the Maritime Courts. Treasure hunting involves guts, skill, luck, research, financing and a few lawyers.


We hired a shallow draft workboat not unlike this Munson Boat out of Petersburg, AK. And moved it up to our worksite. Our gear was shipped up from Seattle.


I can’t remember how many days we were out surveying that bottom but it was more than a few. Side-scan sonar is rather tedious work. You plug along at just a few knots per hour towing gear behind you trying to keep the gear at a constant speed, direction and elevation off the bottom. These days electronics do all the computation and keep the gear in place but in ’96 it was all manually operated from a winch operator on board the boat who was informed by the side-scan operator whether to go up or down on the gear. The gear consists of a towfish that emits sound signals toward the bottom and that signal then returns to the gear and is measured, That “echo” signal is used to draw a picture of what’s on the bottom. Hard things reflect the sound differently than soft things…tall things send back a different signal than things that are short…

On board the vessel the operator is looking at the read-out from the sonar and interpreting what he sees. If you’ve ever had to look at a pregnancy sonogram and try to figure out what the heck you were looking at…it’s kinda like that…to most of us, a side-scan read-out is just a weird picture…but to an expert…it’s clear and easy to see a baby…or in our case an anchor, a cable, a fish, a shipwreck…a bow.


Side Scan Sonar image showing the bow of the Islander resting on the sea bottom.

Soon after finding the disconnected bow and anchoring over it we deployed the ROV to take pictures. 

In order to claim a found wreck you have to prove that you found it, typically with photos or video. You have to identify it, provide it’s precise location and you have to demonstrate that you are capable of salvaging it.

So after we had photos, the claim was filed in Alaska Maritime Courts and then we went home and waited…

Of course the problem with all this is that your claim is a public record…so anyone can see it. Your claim not only has photos of the wreck but also it’s precise geographic location…so anyone who wants too can now head over to your wreck.You’ve done all the work to find it but any thief or pirate not concerned about a few trespassing laws can head over there under cover of darkness and grab whatever they want…

In the case of the bow of the Islander we were not terribly concerned about pirates stealing anything because the bow was too deep to easily poach…On the other hand it’s not exactly a populated place and a lot of work can be done under cover of darkness in a remote location…We fretted. But as it turned out…piracy would not be our issue…

The courts were a much more substantial problem for us…

Soon after our claim was filed another salvage outfit challenged our claim. They purported to represent the company that insured the Islander in 1901. The insurance company had paid out…I have no idea how much…nor do I know if it was just hull insurance or if they also made good on the gold that was lost…They also claimed that they had never “abandoned” the Islander…or its bow and it was rightfully theirs. The courts upheld their claim…denied ours.

deniedIt took years to get through the legal system but eventually we lost the battle…and the Islander. I don’t even think we got a thank you for finding it.

A few years ago the folks that won finally got round to salvaging the bow…and this little snippet will explain the rest…


Well….not “all the rest”…because I cannot help but note that the Islander was supposed to be transporting some $63 million in gold that day in 1901…yet the salvage company…only reported $1million…

What happened to the rest?

Crayton’s projects were full of interesting mysteries…and interesting characters…

Treasure hunting is always an iffy financial proposition but the fun is never iffy…








Forrest Gets Mail – 25


Sometimes I just want to put my arms around someone and give them a boa hug. f

Dear Mr Fenn,
Thank you for hiding the treasure. My family and I spent 3 weeks together laughing , exploring, taking pictures and looking for a treasure… well I want you to know that we found it… ok so maybe it’s not gold and precious stones in a brass box.

Because of you sir we have memories none of us will forget. You see when we returned home, happier that we have been in a long time,  mom and dad were out for dinner when a drunk driver hit them we lost dad, he has gone home to be with Jesus, and mom is still in the hospital.

But sir because you hid a little box the last memories we have of dad is him fly fishing and watching as he ran from a buffalo that snuck up on him, we remember mom singing while cooking eggs  over a campstove, laughing, we kids were talking and none of us could remember ever seeing mom and dad so happy.

We have cried a lot in the last 3 weeks, but we are all so grateful to have been able to find the real treasure.

Forever grateful,







Side Tracked…

IMG 6116

January 2020

by dal


One of the reasons I am such a poor search partner is that I am easily distracted. I call it curiosity. Esmerelda calls it a break and my fellow travelers call it a torment.

First of all, I’ve never had a complete solution…not once. The best I can do from home is to come up with five or six clues. Once I had a blaze before I left home…but only once. It came from one of Forrest’s photos published on this very blog in an area that already interested me. It was a good mile walk from the place I could park my vehicle. But it took me five hours to get there because I am curious.

First, I found a colossal beaver lodge on the river and I could hear critters inside (young beavers?) whining and humming. I sat around and waited to see if I could spot a beaver come out. I didn’t.

Then, a few hundred feet later, I ran across a magnificent acre patch of Sulphur Indian Paintbrush. I spent the next hour crawling around on my hands and knees like a ponderous, giant bee, taking pictures…wide shots, tight shots, extreme close-ups. That was a lot of fun!

Around the next bend I ran into an elk cow and her baby out wading in the Madison. Really…they weren’t crossing it. They were just cooling their heels. Walking a bit up stream and then a bit downstream. I christened them Shirley and Christine. I watched them play in the water for half an hour or so and then I had to make a detour around them and head out toward my blaze.

But it gets worse. I found one of those big anthills with gazillions of (nonbiting) ants that I had to investigate. I watched them carry grains of sand from down at the base of their mountain up to the top and into the entrance. Meanwhile other ants were coming out of that egress carrying other grains and piling them up on the hill. Maybe they were redecorating?. So I named each ant and watched them toil away for a half hour before moving on.

I ran into a shallow pebbly area on the stream and I HAD to stop and look for cool rocks. I look for unique colors and shapes. I pick them up and investigate the sand under them for sparkly grains. I tried skipping the flat ones. I marvel at the nearly perfect round ones.

Any meadow I run into lures me like a sailor to a bar. I love those things and I can spend days photographing a single small meadow of wildflowers. I might never come this way again and the camera is my memory.

A few years ago I was exploring the The Dominguez and Escalante Expedition as a potential key to the riddle of the poem. I was driving near Dinosaur National Monument in CO heading to a place where the 1776 expedition camped close to a spring. When I got within reach an oil outfit had been trenching and laying pipe across miles of open Sage Steppe resulting in a mound of diggings along the now buried trench. Since I am wildly entertained by geology I considered this a huge bonus. I started examining that unearthed Colorado rock like it was gold….How often can you examine what’s under your feet so easily? I was looking for fossils. I ended up spending three days out there just turning over rocks.

After three glorious days I ended up with three beautiful keepers…

Eat your heart out!!!



I split up so much limestone I think I should be an honorary quarryman. The fish happened when I spent the first day splitting up flat limestone slabs. It didn’t look that good when I found her. That represents a few hours of clean-up at home. I call her Dory. Miles later the boulders were gone and I was cracking smaller rocks…the leaf…finally, there was nothing along the trench except broken crumbly pieces…the shell.

After all that I got back to looking into The Dominguez and Escalante Expedition solution.

So, to get back to my beginning thought… a side-track in nature is a hoot for me, I can stay entertained in one spot much after others have, guzzled all the beer, gone mad and left screaming at me. Those with a more focused view of life and the treasure hunt find me downright annoying to search with.

There’s more to the treasure hunt than the 42lb box.

Just sayin!








Forrest Gets Mail – 24


Hello Mr Fenn,
My oldest son and I who had a rocky relationship due to his choice of wives and her inability  to let me just be a grandparent which cut off communication, began communicating with me because of your poem .

All excited with a “mom I’m obsessed by this”  we have begun communicating regularly about your poem and clues.

In a nutshell Mr Fenn, you have reunited a mother and son.  And hopefully I’ll see my grandkids soon.
I don’t anticipate a relationship with my daughter in law which is fine. Civility for the kids is my wish and we can on that.

I really need to know if the treasure has been located.
We can find other adventures now that we both know we truly love this sort of thing.  He never had any patience as a child or young man so his intentions on this I thought would be short lived. They are not.  He is really ready to go!

Being of little means and less $$, my husband and I took in three grand daughters from our middle son who was an addict. I’m not ready to burn gas from Green Bay WI,  home of the frozen tundra to follow 9 clues to anything.

Thus looking for you to be  honest and it will go no further if the chase must continue even if found for all your fans.   I’d prefer to bark up other trees is all if it has.

You already have me my treasure with getting my son back. But he still wants to find yours. I’ll follow and lead to ends of the earth for him. Just not if the end of the road on this one is a wasted trip.

Thank you for giving of yourself in a very stressful and sad point in your life. I took care of both of my parents as they took their last breaths from lung cancer. I understand the scary part and the can’t take it with you . All we leave here with is who we love and hopefully a piece of ourselves they hold onto.
God bless,


As of this posting the treasure chest is still where I hid it. Good luck to you and your son. f








Forrest Gets Mail – 23


Johnny and Donna were fortunate enough to experience something very rare in the Rockies. I have spent a lot of time there and have never been so lucky, but maybe next time…f

Dear Mr. Fenn,

We returned today from our most recent BOTG and wanted to tell you about a very exciting discovery.  While we were in the wood yesterday morning, Donna and I encountered a fully grown wolverine!  As a wildlife biologist/research scientist, I can assure you that this was an incredible experience…something that is too rare to even consider happening by chance alone.  The Chase put us in the right spot at the right time.  We will cherish  this MARVEL GAZE forever.  Donna found a newspaper article from last year that details the discovery of wolverines in the Wind River Range for the 1st time in over a century.  There is also a short video in the article.  Here’s the link;

We anticipated being able to go straight to the spot that we’ve had an eye on since last summer to search for Indulgence.  Unfortunately, foot travel became too dangerous and we were forced to turn back after only getting 1/3 of the way across the raging flow.  We are planning to return as soon as conditions improve.


Johnny & Donna








Forrest Gets Mail – 22


This email came in today and I am posting it here with permission from the writer. How do you help someone who says they don’t need help, when you know they do? f


Dear Forrest,

I want to thank you for just being you. I am a single mom of 5 kids and I raised all my kids the hard way pay check to pay check. I never had money to send my kids to the activities that kids do baseball soccer football cheerleading that kind of stuff that you got to pay a lot of money for. So anyway I instead found ways to to keep my kids entertained. And that was bottle digging and the dig is easy but doing the research of a town to find where a privy to dig up the privy to find a bottles doing the history was the thrill for me and it taught my kids a lot of stuff about Maps and history of the town they lived in. I took them in the woods to teach them to mushroom hunt for morels. We all went camping fishing in our little town. I would maybe have 5 bucks for gas and we would go drive around Missouri and look for creeks to walk in to look for arrowheads or get fish put them in our homemade fish tank, And so this is how you help me my kids all grew up they are all out on their own all 5 and they are all doing good with life. No drugs no serious drinking you know they’re just normal kids all five. I don’t know how I got so lucky cuz some moms out there are dealing with having to raise their grandbaby cuz the kids are on drugs, sad. Well after all kids left I was alone I spent my whole life taking care of my kids and when the last one left I felt so alone. I was like making plans to just weather away and die because I had no kids to take care of anymore. And then you came along and your story. Well I am still a little too poor to afford your book but one day I will be able to and I’ll get to read your book I’m excited about that one day. Well I got to see a lot of it. Your book off of you tube…And your treasure hunt got me back into looking up history learning about the Indians and the brown trout how beautiful Yellowstone is I don’t get to see it in person but I do get to see it through other people’s cameras the GoPros whatever they use to film stuff. It got me out of feeling sorry for myself and getting back to living. And what you said about you can shut one door and open other, So once again I am living and that is why I felt the need to write you and thank you. I do love the Thrill of the chase I didn’t get to read your book but just the thrill of the chase of looking up history in finding something that’s never been found. I do know about your poem that you have no x letter in your poem and. X marks the spot..That is really neat. Your kewl. Take care and thanks for being you.









Forrest Gets Mail – 21

canada map vector

A dear friend sent me an email today to announce the birth of a grandchild. She sounded like she had just won the lotto.
Here is part of that email. Maybe there will be a rush of treasure hunters across our northern border. What do you think? f

Forrest, guess what…here in Canada someone heard your poem/treasure story and they formed a company that hid 3 treasures in 3 cities and wrote a poem for each city/treasure. One in Vancouver, British Columbia, one in Edmonton, Alberta and one in Calgary, Alberta. Each treasure chest is worth approximately $100,000. They had several writers/poets who wrote the clues for each of the three poems. They are selling the poems for each city, $25 each or $45 each with bonus clues. They were hoping that the sales for the poems would offset the initial treasures combined total of $300,000 in gold and silver Canadian coins. The poems were released on June 1, 2019. As of June 2 the Edmonton treasure had been discovered.

I’d say they might should have just asked for your poem/clue writing abilities in order to elude their treasures searchers a touch longer. At least it got people out of there house for a day, perhaps the other two cities will be slightly more challenging but I believe neither will outlast yours!!

Have a wonderful day,