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The fun is in the hunt for area letterboxing enthusiasts
|Messenger photo by Lori Smith
Canal Winchester residents Chris and Kurt Pollock, who have been involved in letterboxing for the last several years, demonstrate how to make a record of their finding at Pickerington Ponds into a log book. Letterboxing is a “treasure hunt” style outdoor activity, and letterboxers hide small weatherproof boxes in publicly accessible places and post clues to finding the box online. Letterboxes are located in hundreds of locations all around central Ohio – everywhere from the Jeffrey Mansion in Bexley to the Thurber House downtown, to the Ohio-Erie Canal Locks in Southeast Columbus, Schiller Park in German Village and Greenlawn Cemetery in Franklinton.
Chances are you probably have been right next to one, and never even knew it was there.
Those enamored with the letterboxing hobby hide their small, weatherproof boxes in publicly accessible places – and then post clues to finding the box online. Letterboxes are all around us — in parks, cemeteries, libraries, restaurants, parking garages. There is even one rumored to be hiding in the Eiffel Tower. It is estimated there are about 20,000 letterboxes hidden in North America alone.
“We’ve found them stuck to bridges with magnets,” laughed Canal Winchester resident Kurt Pollock, who has become an avid letterboxing enthusiast along with his wife, Chris. “They make pouches out of canvas, and they’ll be hanging from a tree. Or they will put them in medicine bottles covered with camouflage duct tape.”
Since discovering letterboxing a few years ago, the Pollocks are among the estimated 45,000 United States residents who have become addicted to this intriguing “treasure hunt” style outdoor activity.
A letterbox, which is the British term for mail box, usually contains a log book, a rubber stamp that is often hand-carved, and possibly an ink pad. Those who find the box make an imprint of the letterbox’s stamp on their personal log book, and then leave an imprint of their personal stamp on the letterbox’s log book.
Letterboxing is not to be confused with geocaching, a similar outdoor activity in which participants use a Global Positioning System to find containers holding a log book and items for trading, usually toys or trinkets of little value.
“Geocaching is probably for the younger generation, since almost everybody has a cell phone with GPS,” Mr. Pollock said. “They go to that spot and they start looking around – sometimes they have to really dig around, tearing up brush or turning over trash cans. Our clues take you right to the spot so there is little disturbance to nature.”
According to the Web site www.letterboxing.org, letterboxing is said to have started in England in 1854 when a Dartmoor National Park guide, James Perrott of Chagford, left a bottle by Cranmere Pool with his calling card in it as an invitation to those who found their bottle to add theirs. Eventually visitors began leaving a self-addressed post card or note in the jar, hoping for them to be returned by mail by the next visitor. This practice ended in time, however, and the current custom of using rubber stamps and visitor’s log books came into use.
Mrs. Pollock, however, said she heard letterboxing in the United States had its origin in the Underground Railroad, when runaway slaves would hide notes about their destinations in cryptic means such as “look under your favorite tree” or “go to this place and look for a suspicious pile of rocks.”
“That was their way of passing along their messages to their family,” she explained. “They didn’t want just anybody to get their messages.”
Since first reading about the hobby in a power company newsletter, the Pollocks have found more than 1,600 letterboxes and have planted 16 of their own.
“It’s become a passion,” Mrs. Pollock admitted, noting that letterboxing has led them to experiences and people they never would have encountered otherwise. They recalled finding one letterbox that was based on a series of compass points in a Grove City cemetery. It was February and the weather was freezing – and they had to find nine boxes to make the imprint of a quilt in their book.
“And some of the places are spooky,” she said, recalling finding a letterbox in the Camp Chase cemetery on the west side. It told the story of a white rose appearing on the grave of a Civil War soldier every day, supposedly left by his true love. “It just gave me the shivers.”
Other hazards letterboxers encounter are poison ivy, snakes and spiders, Mr. Pollock added. It is advised to poke letterboxes with a stick before pulling them out to avoid any “hitchhikers” that might have attached themselves to the box, he noted.
Even though a lot of people enjoy letterboxing, it is not something heard about very often. Most letterboxers are traditionally quiet about their hobby, the Pollocks agreed.
“You try to explain this to some people and they look at you like you have three heads,” Mr. Pollock laughed.
However, Mrs. Pollock thinks that the underground nature of letterboxing is intentional.
“Some people don’t want it get any bigger. They are afraid if it gets too big, then vandals, or ‘muggles,’ as letterboxers refer to them, will take the letterboxes and destroy them,” she said.
The online network of letterboxers has turned into a personal community, with social events held periodically letting people put a face to the “trail name” they see on the log books.
“We call it a community because the people are just awesome,” Mrs. Pollock said. “They are all about hiking, it’s all about nature.”
Although the Pollocks have found most of the letterboxes hidden in the central Ohio area, they are now branching out to the surrounding counties — and even other states — in search of their passion.
“There’s nothing like going to a place you have never been, finding a treasure at the end of the hike and knowing that you did it,” Mrs. Pollock said. “My goal is to get one letterbox from every state.”
For more information on letterboxing in Central Ohio:
• Visit www.letterboxing.org or www.atlasquest.com.
• Read “The Letterboxers Companion” by Randy Hall.
• Join the “Letterboxing Ohio” group on Facebook.
To get started in letterboxing, you will need:
• A trail name, which is your letterboxing identity.
• A rubber stamp, which should mean something personal to you or your family and is either hand-carved or commercially made.
• A pencil or pen, to add your trail name and date next to your personal stamp imprint that you’ve made in the log book. You may also want to add a personal comment about your experience finding the letterbox.
• A sketch book to use as your personal log book, where you stamp imprints using the stamps in the letterboxes you find. It is best to use acid-free medium- to heavy-weight paper.
• An ink pad, and the easiest type to use is a raised foam pad.
• Although many letterbox clues don’t require it, you might consider purchasing a simple baseplate compass.
To find clues for letterboxes near you, visit www.letterboxing.org or www.atlasquest.com. Remember to respect the environment, and respect the contents of each letterbox, as well as consider your personal safety. Once you’ve finished “stamping up,” be sure to seal any plastic bags and the letterbox container carefully and replace it completely hidden from view, with contents protected from the elements.
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