If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that volunteering is an important part of my life. From 2010-2012 I spent Friday mornings in a second grade classroom where I tutored individual students for 90 minutes, then served as a ‘guest teacher’ for another hour. (I have a Master’s degree in Education and a state license to teach grades K-8, so this was legit.) While the full-time classroom teacher was required to adhere to the state-created academic curriculum, as an unpaid volunteer I was allowed to deliver lessons on whatever topics I wanted – and I took full advantage of this situation. I introduced the 26 kids in Mrs. W’s class to concepts and content they would otherwise not receive until much later in their schooling, if ever. Together, the 28 of us explored subject matter like pointillism and other less-conventional art forms, American Sign Language as a valid way to communicate, yoga and breathing as an effective way to relax before a stressful event (like a test), inventions and the power of all people to create new things (even 8-year-old kids!), mass media and how to critically examine messages instead of simply blindly believing them, estimation and the idea (reality) that sometimes “close enough” really is enough… and on and on. In creating lessons, I tried to give the kids access to novel ideas that they truly might not hear about anywhere else, to help them learn how to think (instead of just memorize), and to deliver activities with a high hands-on/engagement element. My hope was that the kids would see (and begin to genuinely believe) that learning really can be both interesting and fun – and that they might begin to think for themselves somewhere along the way. Mighty aspirations, certainly. But definitely possible.
During those two years, I kept my eyes open for potential topics and activities to bring to ‘my’ kids. I collected an abundance of items, many of which never made it into the school for one reason or another. (Lack of time, overly-complicated logistics, possible parental concerns…) One item that was set to the side because of challenging logistics was letterboxing. Yet while my kids and I would not get to do this activity together, the idea of letterboxing intrigued me – and I found that I wanted to try it on my own, just to see what it was all about.
So what is it all about? Letterboxing.org explains it this way: “Letterboxing is an intriguing mix of treasure hunting, art, navigation, and exploring interesting, scenic, and sometimes remote places. Here’s the basic idea: Someone hides a waterproof box somewhere. The hider then writes directions to the box, which can be straightforward, cryptic, or any degree in between. Often the clues involve map coordinates or compass bearings from landmarks, but they don’t have to. Once the clues are written, hunters in possession of the clues attempt to find the box. When the hunter successfully deciphers the clue and finds the box, he stamps the logbook in the box with his personal stamp, and stamps his personal logbook with the box’s stamp. The box’s logbook keeps a record of all its visitors, and the hunters keep a record of all the boxes they have found, in their personal logbooks.” Talk about a multi-faceted activity! When I had the kids in mind, I loved the combination of geography/navigation + art + environmental awareness + practice with writing clear directions + practice following directions + the pure thrill of finding something hidden. There is something very primal in us humans that makes us feel quite proud (and dare I say, even fulfilled) when we successfully complete a ‘hunt’. It was this last element, the thrill of a hunt, that nudged me to want to complete this task on my own – even if I would never use it with a group of kids.
So I went to the letterboxing website and started clicking around to see if I could maybe find a box in my area that I could ‘stalk’. Imagine my surprise when a brief search turned up not one, but over a dozen boxes within a 10 mile radius of my house (and an additional 30 boxes in the total metro area). Wow. Having many options to choose from, I looked at when the most recent update to each box was made. I threw out a few boxes that hadn’t been found within the past year (I imagined that these boxes were probably not still ‘in the wild’), but was still left with a semi-extensive list. I then examined the quality of clues provided, and landed on five ‘good’ boxes to consider pursuing. To make the final selection, I called on my sweetie to look over the clues for the five boxes and to pick the one he liked the best – and that was how I/we landed on “The Brownie Bog Box.”
With a printout of the clues in hand, my sweetie and I hopped into his car on a sunny Saturday afternoon and made our way to a nearby park – where our letterboxing event began:
Hint #1: “Hike to the head of the bog.”
This was actually harder than it probably should have been. I was unclear as to what a “bog” was, exactly – so when we got to the park, I headed toward the only obvious open path that I saw. It was wet and muddy – I figured that was what a “bog” must be like, right? (I mean, the word “bog” sounds like it should be something muddy…)
After walking for 30-40 feet, though, my sweetie and I didn’t see the sign mentioned in the next clue – so we figured the head of the bog must be somewhere else. After consulting a nearby map of the park –
– we found the proper head of the bog.
Hint #2: “There is a sign with information about the bog and sensitive plants that can be found within.”
Check. (See the above picture.)
Hint #3: “From here follow the zig-zag path to the bridge that goes over the moat.”
After walking 50 feet or so, my sweetie and I saw the bridge! Exciting!
Hint #4: “Tip-toe over the bridge as not to wake the troll.”
I hope a mention of trolls was made for imagination purposes, only. My sweetie and I approached the bridge…
…and successfully crossed it, troll-free. (Whew!)
Hint #5: “At the salad fork, make a right.”
Shortly after crossing the bridge, we arrived at a small fork in the path. We went right.
Hint #6: “At the dinner fork, make a left.”
Soon, we faced a bigger, somewhat ickier fork:
Thank goodness for the plank in the middle of the path we wanted to go down; we were able to keep our feet (mostly) dry.
Hint #7: “Move past the edible cattails and over two humps.”
Continuing along the path, we approached two small bumps – we assume these are the two humps?
Hint #8: “Look for birch trees on right.”
Telling someone to find a stand of trees in a forest might be a mean trick; surprisingly, the group of birch were pretty easy to spot.
Hint #9: “Now look for one birch tree up ahead a little that is all by itself.”
Oooohhh, it’s getting so exciting!
Hint #10: “Look at the base of the tree to find the troll’s treasure.”
My sweetie and I eagerly looked down at the ring of grass around the small lone birch, and…
…came up totally empty.
We scoured the area all around the tree – and saw absolutely no waterproof container anywhere. Nothing. Zippo. Nada.
When I set out on this venture, I reasoned that my odds of actually finding a letterbox were about 50/50. So I wasn’t overly surprised/disappointed that we didn’t locate a treasure. Rather, I thought it was pretty cool that a group of strangers were here before my sweetie and I, that they made the effort to create and publish directions to a path they followed then left those instructions for anyone to find – and that my sweetie and I were able to retrace those same steps and share the experience that the group had many months ago. My sweetie and I literally traversed space and time to arrive at the exact spot that a group of people before us had traveled – and that idea (and experience) was super cool to me.
However, my sweetie was a little disappointed by our anti-climactic end. Looking at me, he asked, “Do you have instructions to another letter box? Do you want to go somewhere else and try again?” I explained to him that I was somewhat prepared to experience this outcome; and when he realized that I wasn’t too upset by not finding a box, he relaxed. My sweetie had come along with me for this adventure less because he was curious about letterboxing, and more because he wanted to support me and spend some time with me. (What a guy, right? For sure.)
Even though I didn’t get to see what ‘treasures’ the box held, I did get to explore a part of the city that I likely wouldn’t have ventured into otherwise, and I got to spend some time in nature. (It’s been too long since I last journeyed into a forest; it felt great to smell dirt and be surrounded by trees and green again.) I also got to see cool views…
…and spend quality time with my husband. These treasures made the trip a success in my book.
I do think letterboxing would be a very fun activity to do with kids (I can envision a family completing a hunt once every few weeks), or even a cool activity to do when visiting a city (talk about an interesting and unique way to see local sights). Who knows, after I finish the other items on my 101 list, I might go letter boxing again – I really enjoyed myself!
If anyone wants to stalk some treasures, just let me know…. I’m always up for an adventure.