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On the hunt

Letterboxing trend encourages participants to follow clues posted online

By Anne Straub

A recent Saturday found me, my children and a couple of their friends deciphering clues and following directions to a pirate’s treasure along a wooded Malabar path. Instead of arguing, they counted the number of steps we’d taken since passing a stand of trees. Rather than fight over a remote control, they took turns checking the map. No one even carried a Gameboy.

The welcome change of pace was thanks to letterboxing, a loosely organized trend that encourages participants to follow clues posted online to find previously hidden caches, known as letterboxes, in parks and preserves.

The practice is widespread in England, and is catching on throughout the United States.  Here’s how it works: Someone hides a waterproof box in an accessible location, often a publicly owned nature preserve. The box usually contains a notebook, rubber stamp and ink pad. The person who hid the box compiles clues to its location and, in the modern version of the pastime, posts them on the Internet, at www.letterboxing.org.

Once the clues are posted, people interested in looking for letterboxes can access them online. I liked the pirate theme of the Malabar letterbox, and stayed true to the instructions to read all clues in a pirate voice – much to the intense embarrassment of my children.

Necessary supplies are few. We carried a backpack with a notebook and a stamp. I hadn’t thought to bring a pencil to leave a message in the letterbox notebook, but our letterbox owner did the thinking for us. There was a pencil in the box, so we could sign our names and leave a message for future hunters.

We kept things simple, but you can get more elaborate, if you like. Some people carve their own stamp to give it a personal touch. If your kids are older, you can look for letterboxes with clues that involve solving riddles, or using a compass.

Overcast skies and damp from a recent storm added to the atmosphere of adventure that day in Malabar Scrub Sanctuary, as we set off to find our first letterbox. We followed paths indicated by animal signs, as dicated by the pirate’s directions. The kids’ favorite part: Finding the X, made with large twigs, which marked a spot where we needed to start looking for the tree that hid the letterbox.

We found the box hidden in a tree, and opened it to find a notebook and stamp. We used the letterbox stamp to mark our notebook, as a sort of trophy or record of our find. Then we used our stamp to mark the notebook in the letterbox. We noticed the previous entry was made just the day before – other Brevard County residents obviously are enjoying this hobby already.

After completing the stamping, we placed the letterbox contents back into its waterproof bag and hid it from view for the next participants to find.

The following week, we visited Turkey Creek Sanctuary in Palm Bay and found one of the letterboxes there, titled Gobble Gobble. The stamp turned out to be – of course – a turkey.

The stamp was the handiwork of Beth Shively, a chemist for the Air Force who started letterboxing after a friend introduced her to the hobby just over a year ago. The Melbourne resident also carved a stamp of a gravestone to use for a letterbox she hid in a cemetery. For that one, she composed a poem that contains the clues to the letterbox. “I like a bit of a challenge,” she said.

Shively, 46, has taken her parents with her to hunt for letterboxes on the West Coast of Florida, where they live. “It’s something the whole family can do,” she said.

Like many letterboxers, Shively enjoys the treasure hunt aspect of the activity. She also echoes another benefit that letterboxers extol: the motivation to see part of the outdoors they might not visit otherwise.

Steve Yates has made that aspect of letterboxing something of a mission. Yates, 52, a resident of Sugarland, Texas, enjoys letterboxing with his two children, ages 13 and 11. During a trip to Disney World, the family took a day to visit Brevard and planted a letterbox.

“It takes me to some places that I never would have known about or gone to if not for letterboxing,” Yates said of the hobby. He recounted a family trip to Colorado, where a letterbox clue led him, his wife and two children on a five-mile walk to a waterfall. “It was a beautiful hike,” he said.

On the flip side, letterboxing also is a way for him to share a special place with others. For example, one of his Florida letterboxes leads people to the Senator, Florida’s largest cypress tree, located near Longwood. “I get a lot of emails from people thanking me for sending them there,” said Yates. He enjoys the way letterboxing allows people to appreciate nature without harming the environment.

Palm Bay resident Autumn Garrod has been letterboxing for about a year. She and her husband have planted a few letterboxes, and found many locally and on road trips. “I like the fact that you have to follow the clues perfectly to get it, and I really love seeing the creative stamps other people make. I just love the whole treasure hunting aspect and seeing places I never knew existed,” she said.

Join the hunt

Visit www.letterboxing.org for an introduction to the outdoor activity. For a list of letterboxes hidden in Brevard County, click on “Search for Boxes” and enter the name of the county or city where you want to participate.

Letterboxing vs. geocaching

A more high-tech offshoot of letterboxing, geocaching requires the use of a global positioning system unit. Participants enter the location of the geocache into their GPS unit, and start the hunt. Once found, geocaches usually include some sort of prize – often dollar-store items – and people are encouraged to trade: Take a prize, and leave something else. For more information, see www.geocaching.com.