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Think inside the box

Part scenic hike, part clue-filled mystery, letterboxing is collecting fans

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / July 10, 2010

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ANDOVER — The clues weren’t hard to puzzle out. Locate the southbound trail entrance to the Charles Ward Reservation. Follow the boardwalk toward the bog, noting two trail-marker numbers that are out of sequence. Double back, adding up the marker numbers to determine how many strides to go past the north trail fork. Stop, face eastward.

Hidden behind a log was a small waterproof case — Letterbox No. 78269, celebrating National Trails Day 2008 — left there by hobbyists who call themselves the Merry Pranksters. Inside were a hand-carved rubber stamp, logbook, and notecard explaining more about letterboxing, “an intriguing pastime combining artistic ability with delightful ‘treasure hunts’ in beautiful, scenic places,’’ as the card described it.

Peter Colombo, the trail guide on this particular expedition, used two other descriptives: sport and hobby. “Sport because of the hiking involved,’’ said Colombo, a Wakefield optician and Andover resident whose trail name is Prankster Pete. “And hobby being the stamp carving, clue making, and collecting part.’’

However one categorizes it, letterboxing — a low-cost, low-tech, eco-friendly activity with a large Web presence — has caught on big time, attracting everyone from empty-nesters and hiking enthusiasts to urban treasure hunters and families seeking to inject a little more adventure into their walks in the woods. It’s the antithesis of another sort of treasure hunting called geocaching, which is a high-tech version in which participants use GPS devices to locate hidden items. In geocaching, latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates lead a player to the hidden cache. With letterboxing, the player must decipher clues in order to find the general area where the prized object has been secreted away.

According to www.atlasquest.com, a popular letterboxing website, some 100,000 letterboxes are stashed somewhere around the globe — with 23,000 Atlas Quest members hunting for them, high and low. Letterboxing North America (www.letterboxing.org), another website, claims more than 44,400 members. Letterboxing events are ubiquitous, too, one being held today at Harold Parker State Forest in North Andover. Organizers promise plenty of clever clues and event-appropriate letterboxes for the gathering, which so far has logged 144 registrants.

“It does get a little obsessive,’’ admitted Yvonne DeBor of Bellingham, who in two years of hunting has collected nearly 500 stamps. DeBor, who plans to attend the North Andover event, has lost 80 pounds since taking up letterboxing. “It’s literally transformed my life.’’

How exactly does one go about letterboxing? Hobbyists recommend a basic starter’s kit consisting of a blank logbook, rubber stamp (store bought or hand-carved), ink pad, and pen. A compass is also recommended, since clues will often indicate a specific direction for hunters to follow. Pack bug spray, too, letterboxers say, especially in New England at this time of year. Trail nicknames are popular though optional, identifying a letterboxer the way a CB-radio handle does a trucker.

Boxes can be found in city parks, state conservation lands, or other places to which the public has ready access. In urban environs, they might be tucked away in cemeteries, playgrounds, or even hollowed-out library books (with librarians’ permission, of course). Off-limits, according to letterboxing etiquette, are private property, national parks, and other locations where box-hunting could be construed as trespassing.

Across North America there are an estimated 50,000 letterboxes hidden away. Clues to their whereabouts are listed on websites, published in catalogs, or passed along by word of mouth. Locations are listed by region, state, city, and town, providing letterboxers (or simply “boxers’’) with the chance to explore new territories while building their collections. Clues vary widely in creativity and difficulty. Some would not baffle your average third-grader; others might stump a CIA operative. Boxes may be linked by theme or by a series of clues that lead boxers from one to another to another until the whole set is collected.

When a letterbox is located, its contents — a logbook and customized stamp, typically — are removed. The box’s signature stamp is imprinted in the visitor’s logbook, making a permanent record of the find. The boxer then stamps his or her own insignia into the logbook, sometimes adding a personal note as well. The process takes only a few minutes, after which the box is restored to its hiding place and all traces of the visit erased as much as possible. Secrecy is prized, littering and vandalism strongly disapproved of.

Letterboxing traces its origins to 19th-century England, when hikers in and around the Dartmoor area began leaving letters or postcards (hence the name) for other hikers to find, collect, and sometimes forward to one another by mail. This quaint if obscure pastime was featured in a 1998 Smithsonian magazine article that caught the attention of US hikers and hobbyists. Letterboxes now come in several varieties, including traditional, so-called mystery boxes (vague clues, hard to find), hitchhikers (carried from one location to another), and postals (sent by mail to a select group of people).

Boxers tend to speak about their hobby in evangelical terms.

“I call it going out walking with a purpose,’’ said Larry Dysart, a retired software engineer living in North Reading. Dysart and his wife, Mary Lou, heard about letterboxing two years ago from their daughter, who lives in Minnesota and thought it might be a fun pastime for the couple to enjoy with their young grandchildren. The Dysarts have since collected more than 430 stamps, the majority found within a 10-mile radius of their house.

“One nice thing for retirees like us, it keeps you physically active and is more fun than going to the gym,’’ said Mary Lou Dysart. “Plus, it gets you to places you wouldn’t normally go, even in your own backyard. And you have to use your brain.’’

Brandie Simms of Berwick, Maine, has been boxing for four years, often accompanied by her three children, now aged 16, 12, and 9. Simms has also taken Scout troops on many a boxing expedition en route piling up some impressive statistics: 1,100 stamps collected; more than 200 boxes created and hidden. On a recent weekend, she joined 60 fellow enthusiasts in Connecticut for two days of hiking, boxing, and recalling great finds — and great times. Said Simms, “It’s free, it’s healthy, it takes you outdoors, and you even learn some history of the places you go.’’ The artistry of stamp-carving makes letterboxing all that much cooler, she added.

Colombo, a gifted stamp carver and well-known figure in the local letterboxing community, has personally collected 1,200 stamps and created 250 more, one for a letterbox he hid at the top of a ski slope.

“I’m not the type of person who goes on vacation and sits on the beach,’’ Colombo said. “I’d rather go off and find a nice trail to hike instead.’’ Using lyrics and imagery from his all-time favorite band to compose clues and make stamps was only natural, he added, since “the Grateful Dead mentality of peace, love, and harmony with nature was easy to impart to letterboxing.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.