Categories: Feature Story
      Date: Jul 24, 2007
     Title: A Real-Life Treasure Hunt

Letterboxing gets families out and about

By Gina Roberts-Grey

Imagine an alternative to a summer filled with video games and cries of “I’m bored.” Picture a hobby that uses secret messages to spark exploration of some of Central New York’s most scenic locations. Now imagine this activity gets your family to stretch their legs and their minds at the same time.



Imagine an alternative to a summer filled with video games and cries of “I’m bored.” Picture a hobby that uses secret messages to spark exploration of some of Central New York’s most scenic locations. Now imagine this activity gets your family to stretch their legs and their minds at the same time.

Well, it’s time to stop dreaming and starting exploring, because letterboxing is a great hobby your whole family can enjoy. 

Letterboxing combines navigational skills, rubber stamp artistry and the thrill of exploring a variety of terrains. The pastime is spreading across the country, including Central New York. Searching for a letterbox takes kids on an adventure they don’t realize can be just as educational as it is fun.

“One added benefit is that this gives everyone a fun way to release energy stored up during the school year and gets everyone’s muscles moving,” says Amy Malone of Manlius, whose family plans to expand their letterboxing travels beyond Onondaga County to track down locations in Watkins Glen and Seneca Falls this summer. 

Families find the “letterbox”—a log book inside a weatherproof box—by following clues posted online. Creative individuals (whose identities remain secret) find safe outdoor locations to hide the boxes, then post their clues on a Web site such as www.letterboxing.org. Letterboxes might be hidden along a path, near a rock or under a tree.

Letterboxing requires few supplies and, other than checking the weather forecast and possibly packing a picnic lunch, virtually no advance preparation. You don’t need a global positioning system, a map or knowledge of the terrain. (Supplies such as a rubber stamp and ink pad are optional. Finding the letterbox is more than half the fun.)

Setting out on an adventure is as easy as downloading or printing out a few clues from one of the many letterboxing Web sites, packing the kids into the car and heading over to the first clue marker.

“I like to go letterboxing because it’s a new adventure every time,” says one experienced letterboxer, 9-year-old Danny Bridge of Baldwinsville. “Each person takes a stamp and ink pad or colored pen to ‘sign’ the journal at the end of a treasure hunt.”

One advantage to letterboxing is that families with participants of different ages and abilities can do it together. “I like to take our three boys letterboxing because it’s a great way to show all of them different parts of the area that they might not otherwise visit,” says Danny’s mom, Ann, whose oldest son is 11 and whose youngest is 6.

Getting a Clue

Clues to locate the hidden letterbox “treasures” located throughout Central New York, as well as the country, can easily be downloaded for free at www.atlasquest.com, and range from easy to expert. They usually include a brief overview of the area where the letterbox is located. Although some of the clues are in the form of riddles, most are relatively easy for kids to help decipher.

One clue listed on the site www.letterboxing.org, posted by a veteran local letterboxer named Plumbean says, “It’s planted at Joseph F. William Memorial Park in Cicero, a neat little park on the southern shore of Oneida Lake that has a beach, playground and picnic area. But please don’t attempt to get this box during beach hours over the summer, or during the Thursday-night summer concerts in the park. It would be impossible to be stealthy!”

“I always keep a few clues in the car in case we stumble upon the chance to have a spontaneous letterboxing adventure,” says Malone, who also keeps a letterboxing backpack in her car at all times. “It helps that most clues include driving directions, and occasionally, have information on navigating the terrain.”

“Not letting others around you know what you’re doing adds to the excitement,” says Ann Bridge, emphasizing the secrecy that die-hard letterboxers strive for. “The kids love the idea of slipping through the woods and not letting anyone know what they’re actually looking for.”

Clues range in difficulty from easy to challenging. Some are very straightforward while others are cleverly phrased, like this one leading to a letterbox near Westcott Street in Syracuse, called “No Such Letterbox”: “The U.S. Department of Categorical Denial (USDCD), which does not exist, emphatically asserts that there is No Such Letterbox in the following location.” Following are detailed directions for finding the nonexistent letterbox while avoiding “medieval warriors locked in mortal combat.”

Letterboxes are typically tucked in areas that do not require digging, traveling off typical paths and trails, or entering dangerous or private locations. Many are found in places such as under the bough of a distinctive tree located in Beaver Lake, a location Bridge, his brothers and a friend “stamped in” last year.

Arriving at the Spot

After you’ve decoded the clues and arrived at the letterbox’s location, your family’s creativity can direct the style of your stamp and signature. Some families opt for using the same color ink, while others choose themed stamps. “After we sign them, we take pictures of the places we’ve found the letterboxes for our scrapbook,” says Danny Bridge.

Once the log book is stamped and signed, you simply reseal it in the waterproof container, replace it in its location and continue on the quest to the next letterbox.

With more than 150 letterbox locations throughout Onondaga County and hundreds in Central New York, your family can chart its own course of fun based on the ages of your children and your family’s interests. Some letterboxes are scattered at popular locations such as Beaver Lake in Baldwinsville, Clark Reservation State Park in Jamesville, Highland Forest in Fabius and Veterans Memorial Park at Gillie Lake. 

Supplies

Before setting out, consider bringing the following, since any good adventure can be enhanced with some gear.

• Hiking boots or comfortable shoes
• Pen or marker
• Rubber stamp and ink pad
• Sketchbook (with white, unlined pages)
• Sunscreen and insect repellent
• Bottled water to keep everyone hydrated
• Birdseed to feed the feathered friends
• Snacks for your hungry letterboxers, and a bag to store trash in until you reach a waste receptacle