November 16, 2018
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How some families are treasure hunting in Maine’s woods and beyond

The chorus of crickets grew louder as the sun sank behind the trees, casting the fall foliage in a soft golden light. It was nearly time to leave Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland, open to visitors from dawn to dusk. There was just enough time to find one more letterbox.

“Continue down the trail to the beaver pond on your left,” read the clue for finding the letterbox.

The trail, a sandy ribbon running beside the pond, was lined with tree stumps gnawed to points, a telltale sign of beavers at work. And there it was, tucked in the forest, a wooden cubby secured to a stump. Weathered by the seasons, the box blended in with trees surrounding it. You likely wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking.

“Hundreds if not thousands are hidden in Maine,” said Julianne Taylor, education coordinator for Great Pond Mountain Conservation Trust and Downeast Audubon.

Over the past few months, Taylor has made it her mission to resurrect letterboxing in the 4,700-acre Wildlands. Letterboxing — an activity that combines exploration, artwork, creative writing and community building — is a worldwide treasure hunt in which people search for containers called “letterboxes” using written clues, often in the form of riddles or poems.

Each letterbox contains a logbook and a stamp, which is usually hand-carved and reflects something about the location. And each letterboxing participant — or “letterboxer” — carries a logbook and personal stamp, which often reflects the letterboxer’s “trail name,” a nickname used while playing the game.

“Some people carve some incredible stamps,” said Taylor, who carved many of the nature-themed stamps for the eight letterboxes hidden throughout the Wildlands.

“I love to take out my logbook every so often and flip through it,” Taylor said. “Certain stamps bring up certain memories of places I’ve been and the people I went with. It’s a good way to remember the outdoor experiences I’ve had.”

A hidden community

“On a warm afternoon,

Big, basking boulders

From the bowels of the pit,

Once buried, now baked.”

— Curious Corvid, Waldoboro, Maine

The poem was written in cursive on Oct. 11, 2013, in the logbook of the sixth letterbox hidden in the Wildlands, and beside the poem is the stamp of a bluejay, a fitting emblem for the letterboxer “Curious Corvid.”

Letterboxing is an opportunity for people to share writing and art, and to connect through shared experiences of walking the same trails and following the same clues.

Most letterbox clues can be found online, on letterboxing websites such as atlasquest.com. And in some places, including Great Pond Mountain Wildlands, a hard copy of clues are offered in the form of brochures at trailhead kiosks.

To get more people involved in the activity, Taylor hosted a letterboxing and geocaching workshop on Sept. 30 in the Wildlands. About a dozen people of all ages attended.

Geocaching and letterboxing are similar games but with important differences. Geocaches are found using GPS coordinates and devices, while letterboxes are found with written clues. Geocaches do not contain stamps, so they aren’t as limited in size; as a result, many geocaches are tiny and well hidden.

“Then there are [geocache-letterbox] hybrids,” Taylor said, laughing. “It can get really crazy, let me tell you.”

A two-part game

Laurie Walton of Glenburn, who attended the recent Wildlands event, reached a major milestone a few weeks ago. She found her 300th letterbox. Using her personal, hand-carved stamp of a dreamcatcher, Walton — known in the letterboxing community as “On the Corner” — left her mark for the 300th time in a letterbox logbook.

“They’re all over the country, but I’ve just been looking in Maine,” Walton said.

Walton was introduced to letterboxing by chance in 2003 when her daughter Stephani, who at the time was 18 years old, was searching online for a place to go hiking for the day. The word “letterbox” kept coming up in the search, so Stephani asked her mom about it.

“I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and after she went to go hiking, I kept searching online about letterboxing,” Walton said.

The first letterbox Walton found was at Thomas Hill Standpipe in Bangor. That letterbox has since been “retired,” meaning it no longer exists.

In letterboxing, the game is continually being created and updated by the community. Anyone can create and add a letterbox to the mix. For some letterboxers, it’s the creation and stewardship of these hidden boxes that is half the fun. But letterboxes take a bit on maintenance. Stamps are pilfered, often by people who don’t understand the game. Logbooks fill up. And sometimes boxes aren’t put back exactly where they belong.

Over the years, Walton has created and planted 16 letterboxes throughout the Bangor area. Her letterbox locations include the Bangor Public Library, Brewer Public Library, Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Alton and the Bangor City Forest. And in agreement with the game’s code of conduct, she asked permission before placing any of these boxes.

“[Letterboxing] has taken me to places we’d never been before and might not have even known about,” Walton said.

A quilter and nature lover, Walton handcarved the stamps for each of her 16 letterboxes, and she creates custom logbooks for them as well, made out of fabric and index cards. She tries to make her letterboxes fairly easy to find, with straight-forward clues. For her, the game is about sharing local art and exploring new places, not tricky hiding spots. She wants people to stumble on her letterboxes and wonder what they are.

“Try it,” Walton said. “Go out in the woods and take a walk.”

 


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