Treasure Hunt with Puzzles: The Big Hunt

To prepare a good treasure hunt, first look for good hiding places. Then decide what order you want the hunters to range over the territory. Give yourself a lot of time for preparation. In a small space like a backyard or a house, you might lead them back and forth across a space several times. In a bigger space, make the trail more linear.

Write your clues, number them sequentially, and write up an outline for yourself that links them to each other. Some clues might lead to small treasures to keep up morale. In the big hunt I made a diagram for myself, numbered all the clues, and put together a bag with all the treasures and boxes and bags full of juice boxes and cookies.

Visual unity for the clues comes in handy. So, write them all on blue paper, or roll them up and tie them with a string, or put them in envelopes of a particular type marked with numbers or secret symbols. This helps the hunters to know they’ve found something significant. Plus it’s stylish and adds to the atmosphere of a hunt.

It’s a good idea to print out a cheat sheet of all the clues and carry it with you if you’re hovering nearby… as we were.

We had kayaking and rowing lessons with all the kids before the hunt started. I told them that at some point in the hunt, they would need to get into the boats.

Here’s the map of our immediate area:

And here’s the clues!

Clue 1 – the pirate flag at the bow

Through wind and spray
I tell my name.
The Jolly Roger
Starts the game.

There are several places on the boat with pirate flags, including the welcome mat, a hanging sign on deck, and the flag at the bow. Only Moomin knew what “Jolly Roger” meant. I figured that would be the case and that it would lend him authority from the start of the hunt. But while he was looking under the mat, Oblomovka’s daughter found the clue on the flag — which, since she was the youngest of the bunch, helped give her ideas some respect.

Clue 2 (leads to phoenix point in the pile of rocks)

Get the point? You’ll need to roam
Much further from our watery home.
You don’t need to tie a knot
To walk across the parking lot.
Past palm trees tall and towards some trailers
That just might be homes for sailors.
At Phoenix Point we can look out
O’er Redwood Creek, Smith Slough, and other routes
From there you can see the diving coots
And the Marine Science Institute.
Someone there piled up some rocks
Half burned, like muddy, dirty blocks.
Inside that pile, you’ll find a box!

This clue had both the end goal directly described with names (Phoenix Point) and a gradual progression, to assure the hunters they were on the right trail. I used this technique several times, and it was often confusing. It’s a way of thinking, and not everyone has been exposed to it – like doing British style crosswords – it has its own internal puzzle-logic. Our crew of 10 year olds and one 7 year old tended to fix on the first thing mentioned in the clue and assume it was the goal. Over the course of the hunt, they began to catch on and would argue a lot about the importance of reading and listening to the entire clue before running off to pursue a concept of the FIRST THING MENTIONED.
All of the hovering adults (me included) had a hard time with non-interference. In other words – we often intervened or hinted.

When the kids got to the point, the cookie tin I’d hidden in a pile or rocks had been taken! I drove across the parking lot to catch up with them after some time had passed. Some people may have almost cried in rage and frustration. It probably didn’t help that I pointed out someone else may have had an exciting time finding an unexpected treasure. I was able to recite some crucial bits of the next clue. (This is why I warn you all to carry an extra copy of all the clues.)

Clue 3 (leads to bulletin board by laundry room)

A dragon has a golden hoard,
A phoenix a bed of ash.
I’m just letters and a board,
And I wish I had some cash.

I’ll be honest, I’ll be blunt —
I’m close by to The Waterfront.
Passers-by are carrying soap.
That should help to give you hope!

Stick pins me me and I won’t mind.
Come here to sell or here to find.
I tell of cars and things afloat.
So, would you like to buy a boat?

Only Moomin would really be able to figure this one out. The Waterfront is the name of the harbor’s restaurant. Near it, there’s a little building with showers and the laundry room, and outside that, a bulletin board. Moomin did get the part about the soap, so led everyone to the right area. But it was his friend Andrew who first spotted the big corkboard.

Clue 4 (leads to the cat shelter)

Though the world is helter skelter,
For homeless wanderers, here there’s shelter.
A kind heart comes and keeps me well
Each morning at the breakfast bell.

For rodent’s bane and fish’s foe,
This roof protects our eyes that glow.
Here in the rain near the egret’s cry
Our wandering feet and fur stays dry.

Moomin liked this one for “rodent’s bane”. It was funny to watch the kids all slowly realize this was about cats. Every morning (or nearly) at 7am, a kind lady who used to live aboard at the marina comes to put out cat food for the strays in a shelter she built from a plastic tub and some bricks. This was quite near the laundry room bulletin board and I thought it improved morale for there to be two clue solutions in a row, quickly solved.

Clue 5 (leads to the boat painted like the Italian flag that’s on land at the entrance to the harbor)

You’ve looked around. You might have seen
me guard the way with red and green.
Arrivederci! I always say,
And Welcome to the U.S.A.!
Out of my element, high and dry,
I greet and welcome passers-by.
My heart is rusty, and what the heck,
In some ways I’m a broken wreck.
But cheerful still, sleek like a seal,
Come aboard and take the wheel!

Even though for weeks beforehand I pointed out the “Welcome” sign at the harbor entrance, and the way everything in the harbor is painted in the colors of the Italian flag, nobody got the idea. “Out of my element” finally clued someone in. The next paper was taped to the underside of a shelf you could only see if you got inside the boat. I think at this clue, someone hinted to the kids that it was at the harbor entrance. That backfired, because they thought first of the entrance to the harbor by water and if we hadn’t intervened they’d have all gotten into boats!!

clue 6 (leads to the footpath by the condos)

Here you have some paper sacks
Take them with you! And bring them back.

Turn your faces towards the setting sun
which sinks into the sea when day is done.

When you reach the Public Shore
You will see just what’s in store.

Though some might think that you would fall,
Feel free to walk upon the wall.

Then read of snails, mice, and clams
Continue in on the dry land.

Find some trash to bring it back —
Your reward will be a snack.

You will see the bridge of birds
If you’ve followed all these words.

Learn about the salt marsh plains
And the history of the bay.

Play a while, and if you’re brave
You might look up — in a cave!

This clue was pretty complicated. They figured out to face west from the “setting sun” line. I had primed Moomin some days before with a look at the “Public Shore” sign. None of the kids was comfortable going this far afield without adults, walking down a quiet street with a sidewalk but leaving the harbor itself. (Sadly – having “free range kids” is not just a matter of opening the door and shooing them out – this bunch is so cautious you have to bribe them to wander with plenty of reassurance that it’s okay.)

Down the little trail along the marsh between the water and some apartments, there were a couple of signs with information about birds and the salt marsh harvest mouse. At a tiny playground – some rocks in a sand pit – the kids finally found a very tiny cave (suitable for 3 year olds) and duct taped to the roof of it, the next envelope.

Minnie, Vim, and Moomin’s 3 year old cousin Mr. Pants were at the sand pit already in place. It was too hard for Mr. Pants to keep up with the running pack of 10 year olds, so I thought it might work to place him near the end of the hunt.

Clue 7 (leads to the bulkheads and a little place to hide things at the end of the big field with the pylons in it)

X Marks the Spot

Lead your feet back down the stairs
Cross the street, pass homes of Bairs.

You’ll pass a second ship across the way,
Behind a fence and hedge where children play.

A pace is two steps, that’s how Romans measure,
And how pirates do when they hide treasure.

Find the pole with anchor’s sign,
This is where you draw the line.

Start from here and face the dawn
100 paces across the gopher’s lawn.

The grasses wave at pylons over head
That lead the way to water’s edge.

100 paces, then a little more,
Will lead you to the pirate’s store.

At TP-2, a ledge, beware!
You are near the pirate’s lair!

Another overly complicated clue that in retrospect could have been more clear. They went in the right direction — across the street to the field next to the other condominium complex. But the second ship, in another tiny playground, distracted them and was beyond the pole with the anchor sign that I meant them to measure paces from. My mistake! They instead fixated on the anchor painted onto the playground’s ship-shaped structure. They eventually faced the dawn and paced 100 times and realized the entire thing just meant “go to the end of the field to the water’s edge.” I didn’t follow, so I don’t know what happened. “TP-2” was painted onto some concrete blocks near the bulkhead. Just under the bulkhead is a very tiny kid-sized path and a good place to store a paper grocery bag full of cookies and juice boxes. (It was a hot day and by this time they were tired in the sun.)

clue 9, next to last clue points to floating bottle with a message in it, tied under the abandoned pier at the end of G dock


Every Good Boy Does Fine
And at the end of Good, what will you find?


Before a person gets into a boat,
They really should make sure that they can float.

In Hurricane, Daisy, and in No Brakes
And some on foot, you’ll raise the stakes.

Raise anchor too; untie the ropes,
And paddle out to raise your hopes.

Escape! Pass in a Frenzy by the Galaxy,
Go further on to see what you can see.

Beware of Contagious Kootenai,
As you keep searching low and high.

Jane-O rests on triple foot
Providing caves for grebe and coot.

The Killer Duck comes into sight.
You’re Feeling Good. And now turn right!

You have gone around the bend.
The last clue’s near, then our quest’s end.

The pillars of a pirate hall
Stand and brave the seagull’s call.

You’ll need some skill and also luck.
I’m bobbing in the water like a duck!

Okay here is where they get in boats and go paddling off. It was an exciting part but it caused some trouble. I thought this clue was going to be very clear in telling the hunters exactly where to be and where to look and where to stop. But it wasn’t!

The funny capitalized words in the rhyme are all the names of boats , in order as you leave the harbor. The Feeling Good is the last boat on the right and has its name painted very large all over it. JUST past it…. seriously a very hard right turn 3 times… is the tiny abandoned pier with huge pillars that I was calling the Pirate’s Hall. I thought they would notice this and turn sharply enough, but they paddled out of the harbor and whooshed past it, continuing up the creek along with the tidal current and pushed by the wind. They didn’t get further away than about 10 yards before like 10 adults were yelling at them to come back immediately. We had let Oblomovka’s daughter get into a kayak by herself (she had been practicing) but it was stressful to have her even a couple of yards out of reach and my mom and I were yelling at her to come back which ended up (so bad and embarrassing) in me yelling at my mom. Sigh. All was well. The stressed out grown ups just flustered the kids and made them self conscious – and if you have ever watched boats or been in one you will know it seems very obvious what another person should do with oars or sail – frustratingly so. In fact there is not anything bad that could have even happened since the water is like 2 feet deep there (it was middle tide over an enormous mud flat in a marsh), they all had life jackets on, all the parents were 10 feet away watching, and at worst if pushed upstream by the tide (at 1.5 miles per hour) a kid would have drifted slowly upstream (but before hitting the not-very-far shore would have been rescued and towed back by one of us). Anyway, they all paddled back and Jong (her other dad) got in the kayak and did the rest of her paddling for her to improve her spirits. The other problem was that only one boat could really go effectively into the Pirate’s Hall area. So everyone who didn’t get the clue in the floating bottle was a bit sulky and stressed out. In retrospect, I would have done this differently so that they were told never to leave the inner harbor, and hidden the clue right at the end of the dock (having warned/gotten permission from the people in the boats moored there.)

The other problem that caused hurt feelings and screaming was the next clue, the last one, which was in code and included a pen for decoding.

Clue 10. LAST CLUE leads to presents (look in chain locker)

12 – 15 – 15 – 11 9 – 14 20 – 8 – 5

3 – 8 – 1 – 9 – 14 12 – 15 – 3 – 11 – 5 – 18

So while everyone was boating themselves back to the houseboat (which it wasn’t clear they should do, but I just told them to), H., the oldest kid, did the decoding very quickly in the rowboat as another kid rowed and all the other kids screamed at him to stop it because they should decode it together. Moomin was super mad. I should have predicted this and had some way for the clue to be on several cards with several pens.

Despite tiny moments of surliness, resentment, competition, and foot-dragging, all the kids were good sports and got it into their heads that they all had good ideas, all should listen to each other, and that when one person “got” the clue before the others, appreciation and congratulations are in order rather than jealousy.

In the chain locker in the bow at the head of Moomin’s bed, all the presents were hidden in bags. I put in the party favors here too.

It was successful and memorable!

I ran a very difficult hunt at my house for grownups a few years ago while I was obsessed with making complicated geocaches. The only clue I remember from it was a paper hidden in a book of Greek Drama that said simply, “Oh, Hero’s boyfriend!” and the answer of course was “Leander” with the next clue hidden in some oleander bushes. I wish I had all the clues – they were good. Someday i’d like to do the MIT hunt (which I talked with mako about) and make up very complicated multi-stage clues with more math and elliptical thinking.

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