Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Letterboxing: Hiking With a Purpose

There are over a hundred letterboxes hidden along the trails in Shelton, with about forty scattered just along the Rec Path. People tend to think letterboxing is a child's game because it sounds a bit like a scavenger hunt, in the same way that golf might sound like a child's game because kids like to hit balls ;).

Put aside the misconceptions: Letterboxing was born in Dartmoor, England many decades ago by outdoorsmen who traded secret clues in smokey taverns. It was about demonstrating your navigational skills through difficult terrain. One outdoorsman would hide a container deep in the moors with his calling card and challenge others to find it. Eventually, small logbooks were placed in these hidden containers so the victorious could sign their names and prove they were there, and also see who else had been there, perhaps a good friend. And then people started placing rubber stamps in the containers so visitors could stamp their personal logbooks as if they were passports. Each rubber stamp needed to be absolutely unique, which lead to the folk art aspect of letterboxing that really sets it apart from the much more recent trail game of geocaching (geocaches MUST be founds with a gps unit, while letterboxes MUST have a rubber stamp).

This is not to say that letterboxing isn't enjoyed by families, but I've noted that many of the most avid boxers are retired, single, or have older children they can leave at home.  Letterboxers generally enjoy hiking, appreciate folk art, are self-directed problem solvers, and have a certain level of tenacity and tolerance for bug bites and other hazards of the trail. There is also a social aspect to letterboxing, with myriad events where boxers meet each other. Retired couples in particular find a pastime that is inexpensive, involves traveling, socializing, using their brains, and getting exercise.

Letterboxes contain a stamp (usually hand-carved) and a logbook.

"Find the path that symbolically links the edge of downtown Shelton with the edge of Huntington Center and if you are headed toward the Center come face to face with P#4609 about half way (we don't want to favor either side, do we?). Look left to a big red oak at the corner and check it's base."

If a letterboxer finds the "06484 Letterbox" using the above clues, he or she would open up the tupperware to see a hand-carved stamp and a small logbook inside. The letterboxer would have brought an ink pad, a signature stamp, and a personal logbook. An inked impression of the signature stamp goes in the letterbox logbook, while an impression of the letterbox stamp goes in the personal logbook. Everything is then resealed, and the letterbox is carefully rehidden in the same location where it was found so that no passerby can see it. Stealth is an important part of this very secretive game.  

Signature stamp
Sometimes clues are simple directions. And sometimes the clues are more like hints, and you have figure things out on your own. (What is "P#4609" in the above clue?) Sometimes you can't find the letterbox you're looking for, but you will certainly find adventure.  The search for letterboxes will bring you to new places and new people. If you go looking for a letterbox and see the stamp at right in the logbook, you'll know I've been there. And then maybe I'll see you at an event, or maybe we'll run into each other on the trail, clues in hand.

More information about letterboxing and clues to local letterboxes may be found at letterboxing.org and atlasquest.com.    Two guided letterboxing hikes will be held in September by Trailhead Tessie, one for adults and one for families. See the Events section for details. 

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