Letterboxing: Outdoor Inquiry Perfected

It’s crisp fall day and I’ve dragged my reluctant 10-year old and his neighbor friend away from their computer screens. “What’s a Colorado Spruce?” is the first thing my son says after a prolonged silence in the car ride to Green Lake. He asks this to no one in particular, wondering aloud as he reads clues and we make our way through the parking lot and to the lake. A runner lacing up his shoes overhears us, moving his eyes up to join our search. "Well, I can always tell it’s a Colorado Spruce because they have beautiful symmetry and their needles are as sharp as little knives,” he instructs us. My son and his friend are intrigued. Their adventure is bringing them into contact with helpful strangers, as curious as they are.

We are on a letterboxing journey. Part-orienteering and treasure hunting, letterboxing is one of the best outdoor inquiry adventures around. Letterboxing’s primary tools are more literary than scientific, however. Our equipment requires clues (printed off from a website; often poetic), a pen, ink pad and rubber stamps (our stamps were purchased, but serious letterboxers hand-carve their own). I now keep these items in the car for spontaneous letterboxing adventures using my iPhone for the clues.

My son and our neighbor read the clue again:

At the Eastside of the parking lot is a paved path flanked by two large Colorado Spruce trees (your back will be to the tennis courts on the opposite side of the parking lot).”

I allow the two of them to bicker back and forth about the correct direction of “Eastside” and allow them to guess what “flanked” means. They read and re-read the clues, interpreting them differently each time; retracing steps and running to and from various spots. At this point, they are completely absorbed and determined to find this box. I try to disappear, but scared by the prospect of encountering a spider, they assign me the chore of unearthing the letterbox with a stick.

Inside is a notebook nesting the Letterbox’s own rubber stamp. We stamp our papers (serious letterboxers have their own notebooks) and place our personal stamps inside the letterbox notebook with brief explanations the terrain and how it's changed over time. The last visitor entered her stamp over two years ago, and this fact thrills these 10-year olds who realize it hasn’t been touched since they lost their last tooth.

To get involved in your own outdoor inquiry adventure (or to plant your own letterbox), check out this site: http://www.letterboxing.org.