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Everybody loves a good hunt.

It's why we cheered so dutifully for Frodo Baggins in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. It's why every self-respecting San Francisco Giants fan pulled for Barry Zito to reclaim his mojo on the pitching mound. It's probably why so many kids enjoy Easter egg hunts (those eggs aren't about to find themselves).

Our love affair with epic searches also explains the latest craze in environmental education here in Sonoma County.

The craze revolves around "quests," orchestrated journeys that lead visitors through the wilderness to identify particular flora and fauna, answer riddles, learn local culture and — eventually — reach a treasure chest at the end of the line.

According to Kristina Stanton, park program assistant for the county's Environmental Discovery Center at Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa, the usually free activities are like day-long, family-friendly scavenger hunts, only participants are encouraged to take nothing but knowledge from the nature they explore.

"In a traditional scavenger hunt, it's all about finding stuff, taking it and bringing it back," she says. "With a quest, it's more about finding stuff out, learning about it in the wild, taking notes and moving on."

Currently, Sonoma County is home to three such quests: one at Spring Lake, another at Ragle Ranch Regional Park in Sebastopol, and a third at Westminster Woods, a private camp near Occidental. A fourth quest, spearheaded by LandPaths, a nonprofit based in Santa Rosa, is under development for the Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve.

Beth Sabo, LandPaths' assistant education director, says her group's quest should be ready for the public to experience sometime before the end of the summer.

Here's how the quests usually work:

First, participants check in by signing their names on a list at a kiosk near the trailhead. Next, they take a map with a number of interactive cues that lead participants on a particular path through the forest.

Some of these cues are riddles in the form of poems. Others are multiple-choice questions with answers to circle. Still others lead to experiments in the wild — the Ragle Ranch quest, for instance, asks participants to drop a leaf in a stream and count how many "Atascaderos" it takes to reach the other side.

The final cue on each quest map leads participants to a "treasure box" hidden in the woods. Most of the time, this box contains a guestbook, an ink-pad and a stamp. Often, your map has a blank box into which participants are encouraged to press their stamp.

Stanton, from Spring Lake, says this is the reward for completing each quest.

"The stamp is the ultimate goal," she says, noting that some people collect quest stamps the way others collect geocaching prizes. "After an hour or so of exploring, this stamp brings with it real satisfaction, the sense that you've accomplished something truly extraordinary."

Though quests are relatively new to Northern California, they've existed in their current iteration since the 1990s and began in southern Vermont. Most aficionados credit a man named David Sobel with creating the first U.S. quest; he developed it after a trip to England where he experienced "letterboxing," an activity during which hikers leave letters for each other at boxes throughout the countryside.

Sobel's first quest took participants on a search for environmental clues through the Upper Valley area of New Hampshire and Vermont. Fittingly, it was called "Valley Quest." It still exists today.

Since then, however, more than 200 other quests have been plotted in the same general area, and a nonprofit organization Vital Communities oversees most of them. Laura Dintino, who serves as the group's Valley Quest manager, says the group publishes books in which participants keep their stamps.

She adds that more than 5,000 people participated last year alone.

"In spring and summer, our quests are one of the most popular things to do around here," she says.

Up in Healdsburg, LandPaths is working on the county's newest quest, a hunt through the Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve. Last month<NO1> (In March)<NO><NO1><NO>, the organization hung up fliers looking for community members to help create the route. Next, the group will solicit input from community members to build a map.

Eventually, when the quest opens later this summer, Sabo and her colleagues hope to make their map available for download on the LandPaths website, offering participants the chance to investigate clues before they even reach the park.

"Our hope is that the experience will inspire participants to seek out other quests, or even create new quests for other parks in other places," she says. "If the quest gets people excited about being out in nature and learning about the wonderful history we have here in Sonoma County, we've done our job."

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