My two boys darted up the wooded path pretending to be Indiana Jones, running through the Amazon rain forest.
"We're supposed to take 14 paces and then look for a tree with two trunks," the 8-year-old said with excitement, consulting a creased computer printout in his hand.
The 6-year-old spotted it first and plunged through the undergrowth. He thrust his arm into a pile of damp leaf litter inside a dark crevice at the base of the tree and triumphantly pulled out ... a plastic jar with a blue Jiffy lid.
Our family has discovered letterboxing, a pastime that melds hiking and navigational skills with riddles, artistry and an old-fashioned treasure hunt. Participants hide small containers containing unique, often hand-carved rubber stamps and post clues to their whereabouts on a Web site.
While letterboxing is most popular in the eastern states, more than 230 letterboxes are hidden in Minnesota with most of them in the Twin Cities. And in the wake of articles in national magazines, more families are picking up the hobby.
"Some people are all about the artistry, and some people are just into getting outdoors," says Denise Kniefel of Rosemount, who started letterboxing two years ago with her two children. Using the trail name K Frog, they've hidden six boxes and found close to 200. "For us, it's about being outside and seeing new places."
My family's first hunt introduced us to woods along an abandoned train right-of-way we had never known was there, despite it being less than a mile from Grandma's house in St. Paul.
While mosquitoes attacked, we sat on a log and opened the Jiffy jar. Wrapped inside two plastic bags were a rubber stamp of a birdhouse, a tiny notebook and a pencil.
As a finder, you are supposed to stamp your personal logbook, thus accumulating a passportlike collection. You're also supposed to bring your own personal stamp and stamp the notebook in the letterbox, a gift to those who come after you and as proof you were there.
This letterbox had been hidden a month before, and several people had already left their stamps, including a blue juggler, a bird hatching from an egg, a paw print inside a horseshoe and a purple eagle's head set inside an eye with the trail name "Eagle Eye."
We didn't have a personal stamp yet, so I guiltily sketched something that bore a slight resemblance to Indiana Jones' hat and then resealed and hid the package in the hopes purists would forgive the sins of a novice.
Letterboxing supposedly got its start in Dartmoor, an expanse of rugged wilderness in southwest England that was the setting for Sir Arthur Conan's Doyle's "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
According to the Dartmoor letterboxing Web site, a man took a long hike into the moor in 1854 and left his calling card in a glass bottle. He suggested others do the same as a mark of their achievement.
At some point, someone left a postcard for the next hiker to drop in a "letterbox," what the Brits call a mailbox. Today, there are thousands of letterboxes hidden across Dartmoor.
This eccentric British pastime traveled across the Atlantic in 1998, when Smithsonian magazine ran an article on the Dartmoor letterboxes.
It turns out a St. Paul man, Daniel Servatius, was instrumental in launching an American version of the British pastime.
Servatius and a handful of others came together online after reading about the Dartmoor letterboxes.
Unlike in England, where secrecy prevails and clues are passed by word of mouth or printed in a hard-to-acquire catalog, Servatius and the other U.S. founders wanted to make clues easily accessible. So, Servatius built a Web site on his personal server with clues that were linked to a map of the United States. From there, "it just grew like crazy," he said.
Nearly 100 letterboxes were planted during the first year. Ten years later, there are thousands of caches listed on the Letterboxing North America Web site, one of two main letterboxing sites. In 2004, a Pennsylvania letterboxer named Randy Hall published the first book on the subject, "The Letterboxers Companion."
The hunts vary in complexity and style. Some clues are straightforward, along the lines of "follow the dirt path about 50 paces and turn right at the T." Others require you to use a compass or solve anagrams, acrostics or other wordplay.
One Minnesota letterbox is written in code that begins "DBX YTDW 575 ..." Some letterbox clues are embedded in a story, such as a letterbox hidden at Battle Creek Regional Park that sends you to find a treasure hidden by a king and gives such cryptic clues as "...'tis but a wee dragon, and he will point the way to the wizards hovel." I guess you have to be on the trail to make that one out.
There are boxes at the end of 5-mile hikes and "drive-by" boxes that can be recovered in five minutes. There was even a letterbox hidden in a fake book in the library at the College of St. Catherine.
I wanted to find out a bit more about what attracted people to the hobby, so Kniefel put me in touch with fellow optometrist Rob Hegerman, who letterboxes alone and with his two sons, ages 12 and 9. He is the man behind the Eagle Eye stamp.
"For me, it's about the hunt," said Hegerman, who started letterboxing to keep busy during the months he's not hunting for the medallion during the Winter Carnival. "It's about solving the clues."
"It's a little mystery," he added. "At first, people are, like, well, that's kind of weird. Then, you tell them more, and they think it's cool.
THRILL OF THE HUNT
My sons were beginning to think it was cool, too. So we printed off some more clues and headed to Como Park. We felt the thrill of embarking on a secret mission while the rest of the world went about their mundane business of grilling and playing softball.
The clues led us to a picnic shelter and then to a plaque dedicated to a two-time mayor of St. Paul where we were directed to jot down the numbers in the years to help us solve a later clue. A few people walking out of the nearby restrooms looked at us strangely, but we tried to act nonchalant.
The clues took us along paths, over a grassy hill, past a playground, across a couple of streets and onto an obscure dirt trail. But this time we struck out. We walked back and forth five times along the section where we thought a clue should be. Either the undergrowth obscured it, or we were inattentive.
Luckily, we had brought clues to a second letterbox. This one used compass bearings to direct us toward a rock, an electrical pole, a bench and finally to a tree out in the open. We were rewarded with a lovely hand-carved stamp of an animal. I won't reveal what it was. You'll have to look for it yourself.
Many people look for letterboxes while on vacation, so on a whim, I checked the Web site for Cape Cod, where we head every summer. It turns out there is a letterbox hidden in the ball field where my sons will be at baseball camp. Several more are hidden within a few miles of where we stay.
It looks like I'll need to carve a family personal stamp after all.
FAMILY OUTINGS / THE SCOOP
What: Letterboxing, a treasure hunt with cryptic or straightforward clues that lead to a hidden rubber stamp, often hand-carved by the person who planted the letterbox.
What you need: A personal rubber stamp, inkpad, logbook, pen, compass and clues
Information: The two main Web sites for finding clues are letterbox.org and atlasquest.com. People new to letterboxing also can join the Yahoo discussion group groups.yahoo.com/group/newboxers. There is also a group specific to the Great Lakes region at groups.yahoo.com/group/LbGLK/.
The rules: Be discreet. Put the container back exactly where you found it, hidden well. Don't take anything except the imprint of the rubber stamp. Never damage the environment while you search.