Sat07262014

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The fine – and local – art of treasure hunts


Photo By: Eve Hill-Agnus/Special to the Town Crier
Photo Eve Hill-Agnus/Special To The Town Crier

Invigorate a treasure hunt with a bit of mystery by using mirrors to help decipher clues written backwards.

If your family spent the summer trekking mountain ridges or navigating cosmopolitan cities, be assured that the start of the school year doesn’t have to mean an end to adventuring.

Treasure hunts require neither plane tickets nor hotel reservations, but if you orchestrate them with ingenuity and creativity, your treasure-seekers will feel all the excitement of trailblazers decoding the Rosetta stone or unsealing the tomb of Akhenaten. Along the way, you’ll reshape and rediscover your backyard, downtown or neighborhood park.

Pick your adventure type

We can all picture a pirate map where “X” marks the spot. In their most basic form, treasure hunts are adventures in which one must follow a specific path to a final destination – treasure. But no need to be resolutely goal-driven. The traveling itself can be funny or whimsical. Young children may enjoy a playful peregrination with instructions that ask them to turn exactly seven somersaults to cross a grassy stretch or dash to the next tree without taking a breath.

The “collect-and-puzzle-solve” model introduces other forms of intrigue and complexity. The treasure-seeker becomes not simply a map-reading navigator, but an active collector who must use his or her findings to solve a final puzzle. Think of this as the reverse Hansel and Gretel. The “bread crumbs” might be individual alphabet letters which, when unscrambled, spell out the final destination; or individual musical notes to be “read” in sequence on a staff. Small objects may be required to build a structure or accomplish a task in the end. For maximum scampering and competitive glee, make the treasure hunt a timed challenge.

Where to?

Will your treasure-hunters comb the house for clues, tramp around the backyard or embark on a journey through downtown or a nearby park? Consider your crowd: Are they the type to tear around outdoors or go spelunking under sofa pillows? One thing to keep in mind: Outdoor treasure hunts can be prone to tampering or interference, like when a squirrel decides to add Clue No. 7 to his secret squirrel cache.

Incorporating living people as clue-givers takes some planning but can be exciting for the adventurous. Shopkeepers often make willing partners. Perhaps treasure-seekers have to whisper “whiskers” to the woman in the yarn shop, declare they’re looking for a pair of live cockatiels in the stationery store or ask if the hairdresser happened to see Sherlock Holmes that day. And perhaps the shopkeeper then asks them to point out five red objects or recite a rhyme before he surrenders the clue with which he’s been entrusted. Such clue-givers often add their own touches of theatricality to the adventure – and make it thrillingly “real-world” for the scavengers.

Language games: Composing clues

Regardless of a hunt’s scope or setting, language becomes a playground for the creator, who must describe things in ways that both hide and obliquely reveal the targets.

En route to the place where “X” marks the spot, creative clues can entertain and delight your treasure-hunters. Street names and landmarks undergo creative transformations. Green Street may be rechristened as the lane where leprechauns live. Keep your audience in mind, sprinkling in references to geology or popular culture, or metaphors that draw on astrology or cooking.

An ambitious treasure-hunt creator with a Tolkienish flair could create a whole fictional world: If this is the street where leprechauns lived before the Seventeen-and-a-half Year War was fought over silver dust, then a little farther away may be the stand of trees where Queen Mordrigan imprisoned leprechauns, whose secret messages can still be found under certain tree roots. For those with a vivid imagination, a treasure hunt can turn real-life storybook.

Creative license is the name of the game, but exuberantly creative clues might be misconstrued. It’s important to be clear, avoiding unwanted ambiguity. Ideally, leave time for someone else to test-run your treasure hunt, especially if you are creating it for a party. A roving band of confused and frustrated third-graders searching for an acorn in the middle of the public library may not be what you had in mind. If you’re really worried, plan mid-hunt reconnaissance missions.

A final consideration: The prize

Judge what would constitute an appropriate prize, weighing the tastes of the crowd and the difficulty of the hunt. For some, that may mean simply the pride that comes after an epic code-cracking exploit; for others, candy or a trove of bubble wands after a short and silly romp. For a good friend of mine; a marriage proposal. There’s no end to the possibilities. 7

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