Jun 23, 2016 12:09PM
By J. Chambless
Sheba’s artistry – her Into the Woods series stamps.
you enjoy puzzles, adventure, and treasure hunting, you might want to
give letterboxing a try.
You follow clues to the location of a small box, most often hidden in an outdoor location. Some clues are straightforward, while others take expert puzzle-solving skills. Most clues give directions using landmarks, however others use compass coordinates. Some of the more difficult “Puzzle” boxes even require research just to figure out the clues.
There are letterboxes for all levels of interest. Each box contains a handcrafted rubber stamp and a logbook. The design of the stamp often has a relationship to the clues or the hiding place. For instance, a letterbox titled Dr. Seuss could contain a stamp carved with the image of a Lorax.
In reality, the letterbox titles and clues are usually much more complex, and the artistry shown in many of the stamps is amazing. Letterboxing is quietly addicting, evidenced by the more than 90,000 letterboxes hidden in North America. It’s a good bet there is a letterbox hidden a short walk or drive from your home.
Ready to start letterboxing? The first step is to check out Letterboxing North America (www.letterboxing.org) or Atlas Quest (www.atlasquest.com). These are the two main letterbox registries. Both websites contain everything you need to know about the game, and it is recommended you acquaint yourself with the do’s and don’ts before heading out on your first hunt. The sites are free to use, but you will need to register and give yourself a trail name. Type in your city and state, and you’ll see a list of boxes waiting to be found. Let the hunt begin!
This hobby does not require any specialized or expensive equipment, but to get started you’ll need a personal “signature” stamp, an inkpad, and a logbook. A hand-carved stamp is highly recommended and will be appreciated by fellow letterboxers, but store-bought stamps are also used.
Diane Podolski teaches printmaking at the Delaware Art Museum, and taught a stamp-making workshop last winter that included an introduction to letterboxing. Podolski discovered letterboxing when someone approached her booth at an art show asking if she was a "boxer."
Podolski was unfamiliar with the hobby and asked her to explain.
“I wonder if there is anything hidden in this park?’ she asked the woman. They looked up the location and discovered there were, in fact, hidden boxes. “The next morning, before I opened my booth, I searched and found a box! It was so much fun -- a treasure hunt!
“I pretty much enjoy the whole letterboxing process,” she added, “ but since I am an outdoors person, I enjoy any activity that involves walking outdoors, especially in the woods. I guess the biggest thrill is the find itself.”
Once you’ve discovered the hidden box, a measure of stealth is recommended. Casually remove it from its hiding spot, keeping an eye out for curious onlookers. Try to move away from the immediate area before opening the box. Secrecy is a big part of the game!
Inside the letterbox, you will find a stamp and a journal. Using the unique stamp from the box you mark your personal logbook, and in return, you imprint the letterbox journal with your signature stamp. It is considered polite to leave a comment and date in the letterbox journal along with your stamp.
Part of the fun is looking through the found logbook to see who has been there before you, and the dates of the finds. Some of these boxes have been active for several years and their journals will have many interesting stamps. When you are finished, securely pack up the box and re-hide it in the same spot. It’s extremely important to leave the area undisturbed to avoid attracting attention to the hiding place. Many of the boxes are hidden in very public locations and you need to retrieve and replace them without drawing attention to yourself.
Considered the world’s slowest-growing hobby, letterboxing is almost an underground pastime because it does not get a lot of exposure. Interestingly, the participants seem to like it that way.
A letterboxer with the trail name Psychiker explained, “In general, letterboxers have strongly mixed feelings about publicity. To the extent that it brings in good new boxers, publicity is good. To the extent that publicity draws attention from people who want to seek and destroy or remove letterboxes (yes, that happens) publicity is bad.”
Boxes include “muggle cards” which are an explanation of what a letterbox is, and a request for it to be re-hidden if accidentally found.
Sheba is a very active letterboxer from Hockessin. One of her boxes is hidden on the grounds of Hagley Museum and was found by a staff member. “I received an email from a Hagley librarian,” she said, “and I figured it was not going to be good news.”
Surprisingly, the librarian explained she not only re-hid the box, but made necessary repairs to keep the contents dry. She was a good sport who could appreciate the fun of this intriguing game.
Letterboxing had its start in England in 1854, when James Perrot left his calling card in a bottle on a moor in Dartmoor, Devon. He included a note requesting that finders also leave their calling cards in the bottle. Others found this amusing and followed his example by hiding their own bottles, and the hobby took off.
In the U.S., letterboxing originated in the Northeast. Around 1989, the Valley Quest program was created to encourage people to enjoy the heritage and natural beauty of Vermont and New Hampshire. They adopted the quaint game of letterboxing, substituting rubber stamps for calling cards.
That same year, Smithsonian Magazine published an article on letterboxing and the hobby spread throughout the country.
Many boxes are planted in state parks to make them accessible to the public. Depending on the letterbox you choose, your hunt can be a relaxing walk or a rugged hike over difficult terrain. Safety is paramount, so be sure to match your hike to your experience level, and before you set out, let friends know where you’ll be hunting.
Letterboxing provides exercise for your body and your brain. Sheba recalled one of her more exciting hunts on Waterfall Walk at Ricketts Glen Park. “I had to traverse a narrow descent with a sheer drop on one side,” she said. But the letterbox, once found, was worth the effort, with the bonuses of a great hike and beautiful vistas.
While one of the appeals of letterboxing is the hunt, hiding boxes can be just as much fun. Enthusiasts enjoy finding a location, creating the stamp and clues, then planting the box. Psychiker said, “Once you get into it, you discover that there are boxes everywhere and the world becomes a different place. You start looking at places in terms of where you would hide a box.”
Sheba has planted about 50 boxes and prefers to do themed letterboxes. She created a four box series called “Into the Woods” that is based on the Stephen Sondheim musical. The boxes are all hidden in the area of the Brandywine Creek State Park.
Sheba is admired among letterboxers for her intricate, hand-carved stamps. “For me,” she said, “the stamp encapsulates the experience. I appreciate the artistry.”
For Sheba, letterboxing is all about the moment when you’ve correctly deciphered the clues and have found the hidden treasure.
“Good clues give you the Ah Ha! moment,” she said. Often boxes have been hidden in a location long enough that landmarks or terrain shift.
“Pirates didn’t go back and alter their treasure maps,” Sheba explained, “so sometimes you have to really work and take into account that something might have changed or moved.”
On both registry websites, finders can note if a box was found or if an attempt failed. Atlas Quest is more user-friendly and allows finders to comments on boxes. Box owners can be alerted if their letterbox needs attention or certain clues no longer apply.
Planters and finders both benefit from the feedback. Each letterbox has stats that tell you approximate hiking distance and degree of difficulty, as well as other pertinent info. You can also see when it was last found or if the box has gone missing. Boxes are sitting out in nature, so you have to contend with animal and human interference as well as changing landscapes.
On a recent weekend, Sheba hiked out to check her Into the Woods series of boxes. Letterbox owners need to periodically check their boxes to make sure they haven’t been damaged, relocated or removed. In one of her boxes, Sheba found a “hitchhiker,” which is a mini–letterbox that has been left inside a regular letterbox. It contains a small stamp and journal, and travels by moving from box to box.
Looking at this hitchhiker journal she could see that it originated in Virginia, then migrated north, visiting letterboxes in Roanoke, W.Va., and Gettysburg, Pa. It made a few more stops before showing up in her box in Delaware. Sheba removed the little wandering box, and after marking the logbook, she will place it in another letterbox at a different location so it can continue its journey.
The letterbox community is close-knit, and gatherings are held so the boxers can meet in person. There are annual convention-type gatherings and small local get-togethers where fellow boxers can exchange stamps and participate in special hunts.
Letterboxing brings together a diverse group of people through a shared love of puzzles and treasure hunting. There are many boxes hidden in the Wilmington area, and also throughout the state. Letterboxes in our area can be found in Valley Garden Park, Ashland Nature Center, Rockford Park, and Tweeds Park in Hockessin. You can easily make a day of letterboxing; and many boxes are out there just waiting to be discovered.
Sheba has found more than 1,300 letterboxes, and when asked which is her favorite, she smiled and said, “the next one."