Letterboxing: The ultimate hide-and-seek challenge
When Diana Newton Wood was looking for something to entertain two rambunctious little boys over an April school vacation, she thought she found the perfect activity in letterboxing, a type of treasure hunt that got them all out hiking in the woods.
Instead she discovered letterboxing was the perfect match for herself, providing not only exercise, but also a mental challenge that employs the problem-solving skills she uses as an anesthesiologist, but without the life-or-death pressures.
While her sons still enjoy the activity, it’s Wood who has become a passionate letterboxer.
Letterboxing is the ultimate hide-and-seek game in which someone hides a small box containing a hand-crafted stamp and posts clues for a searcher to discover where it is hidden. The outdoor activity combines map-and-compass skills, puzzle-solving and art.
"I have two sons at home, 11 and 8, and in April 2006 they were off for school vacation week and I had to figure out something to do with them. I had seen in a Sudbury Valley Trustees newsletter that they had planted 10 letterboxes on their properties and you had to find five of them to get a prize," said Wood, who also has an older son, 25.
"We went over to Round Hill to find our first letterbox. The boys immediately liked it, but not as much as I did. This is one of those things that once you get involved can become an addiction."
In the past year Wood has made more than 800 treks, following clues that have taken her from roadside hidey-holes to the tops of mountains to discover the small boxes hidden in places that only a good tracker with a keen eye will find.
"Letterboxes are hidden above ground, usually in a tree stump or a rock wall, somewhere it’s not going to disturb the environment," said Wood. "You develop an eye for finding it, and an idea of what the clue-writer might mean. It’s sort of like doing crossword puzzles."
Letterboxing is different from another popular activity called geo-caching where a treasure hunter uses GPS to find a box of trinkets left by previous seekers. In letterboxing each participant carves his own distinctive stamp.
"The box is a little waterproof container and it has a stamp and a log," said Wood. "You put that stamp in your book and your stamp in theirs."
Some participants have stamps from hundreds of letterboxes hidden all over the U.S. and abroad. There are close to 40,000 letterboxes hidden in the U.S. and Canada, more than double what it was just a year-and-a-half ago, which is an indication of the popularity of the hobby.
Secrecy is paramount and "spoilers," those who reveal the location of a box or the design of a stamp, are routinely chastised by fellow seekers on Internet letterboxing sites where clues are posted.
"People want to keep the location of boxes secret so people can have the thrill of the hunt," said Wood. "The thing that makes the most fun quest is when you’ve tried really hard to find it and you finally do. I was looking for one in the Hammond Park Woods and I went five times before I found it."
Wood lives in a 300-year-old farmhouse that abuts the headquarters of the Sudbury Valley Trustees (SVT), where she has become the steward of letterboxes hidden on the property.
One of the SVT letterboxes that Wood created is off a trail near the SVT headquarters. The clue for that letterbox reads: "By the twisty tree take 12 steps toward the Winter Brook. Look in a log."
SVT started a letterbox hunt in 2001 with a box hidden on the Gray Reservation in Sudbury. Today there are 14 letterboxes on SVT reservations with a yearly challenge to the public to try to find them all. Anyone who completes the challenge will receive a special patch and a complimentary six-month SVT trial membership which can be given to a non-member friend if they are already members. Two people have met the 2007 challenge so far.
Modern-day letterboxing traces its roots to Dartmoor, England, in 1854, when a guide left a container by a lake where visitors could leave calling cards. Hikers began leaving postcards and letters in the box and the next hiker to come along would mail them, hence the name ‘letterboxing."
Wood has letterboxed in three states, and often plans her route home from Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston so that she can do a letterbox search on the way.
"I’ve discovered conservation areas I never knew about even though I’ve lived here for years," said Wood, who was born in the Sudbury home she now shares with her family, and was raised in Weston.
Wood carries a letterboxing backpack which contains a rescue kit with a whistle and mirror and protective ponchos, but for short trips she carries her cell phone, camera, bug spray and a compass. Wood often hikes with her sons, her Jack Russell named Winni, or a friend whose trail name is Old Hounder. Letterboxers often adopt trail names and keep blogs about their searches.
"What’s good about letterboxing is that it’s a multi-generational activity and it gets people out into the woods, often on SVT properties which they have so generously preserved," said Wood. "I met one mother who has one preteen and one teenage daughter who letterbox together. The mother said, ‘Letterboxing has given me something fun to do with my children at what can be a difficult age.’"
Wood also has a "Letterboxing Buddy" from Kentucky whose stuffed bear named Piwi Reese comes along on some hikes so that her buddy can pick up some new stamps. There are a number of variations on letterboxing with names like "hitchhikers" and "cooties" that involve creative ways of passing around stamps from person to person to maximize travel to letterboxes. There are even letterboxes called "drive-bys," hidden close to a road, that are accessible to handicapped letterboxers.
"Letterboxing has a lot going for it – exercise, creativity and fun," said Wood. "It’s treasure hunting. Everyone can get something out of it and there is something in it for everyone."
- Sudbury Town Crier