Amateur letterboxer Claire Stevens picks her way through a muddy trail, nose buried in a computer printout.
Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Claire Stevens, 10, reads directions for finding a hidden letterbox along a trail in Seneca Creek State Park recently.
"You'll see a large oak tree growing over some 'lit-chen' covered rocks," the Germantown resident reads with the determination of a 10-year-old.
"Lichen," her mother Donna Stevens patiently corrects her. Claire turns her attention to a nearby oak tree and declares that this must be the tree.
Closer examination of a hollow beneath the tree in Seneca Creek State Park reveals a letterbox: a small plastic box housing a plastic baggie with a hand-carved stamp and a small sketchbook inside.
A mix between treasure hunting, rubber stamping and orienteering, letterboxing began in England in the 19th century and has grown in popularity recently in the Washington, D.C. area.
To go letterboxing, a person should have a blank journal and a rubber stamp, preferably hand-carved. Letterboxers follow treasure map-style clues from the Letterboxing North America Web site to the place where a letterbox is hidden, which is usually in a park or other natural area. The letterbox itself is usually a plastic container containing a journal and a rubber stamp inside. People who find the letterbox stamp their stamp into the letterbox's journal and the letterbox's stamp into their journal.
"It's just so much fun to open a box and see what you get," said Donna, known as "Tempus Fugit" to letterboxers.
Donna began letterboxing last summer when she read an article about the hobby and thought it would be a good way to get her children out of the house, she said. Since then, she has found 176 boxes. Her daughter, whose letterboxing handle is "Clair de Lune," is right behind her with 170, including the one under the lichen-covered oak tree in the Gaithersburg park.
Letterboxes have been planted in parks all over the county; Black Hill Regional Park, Rock Creek Regional Park, Black Rock Mill and Lake Frank are just a few locations harboring letterboxes.
Donna's husband Chuck, or "Dead Duck Chuck," began letterboxing with the rest of the family in January and is quickly catching up with 146 boxes.
"I like the challenge of finding some of the hard ones, like treasure," said Chuck, who also enjoys the outdoors aspect of letterboxing.
The family goes letterboxing as often as twice a week if possible. The couple estimates that they've found between 30 and 34 letterboxes in the Montgomery County area, or "all of them," Chuck quipped.
"It's addictive," said Donna, who has even planted seven of her own boxes.
Letterboxes can range in difficulty from a "drive-by" letterbox so named because a person can often find the box within 50 yards of parking their car to a "mystery box," where the clues are purposefully vague, giving a starting place such as "Central Maryland."
Much of the challenge lies in deciphering the clues and hiking to the location. Letterboxers may need to use a compass for certain boxes, but few other outdoors skills are required.
"I like the adventure about it, just finding the boxes," Claire Stevens said.
The Stevenses aren't the only ones who enjoy letterboxing in Montgomery County.
"A lot of people do letterboxing in Montgomery County, but they don't necessarily live there," said Cheryl Jennings, who is known as "Squirrel" in the letterboxing world. Jennings got started letterboxing while living in Wheaton, before moving to West Virginia last summer.
Karin Borrelli, also known as "Psychomommy," said she enjoys letterboxing in the county from time to time as well. "Montgomery County has a fantastic selection of boxes," said Borrelli, a Mount Airy resident who enjoys letterboxing with her 13-year-old daughter, Allison Borrelli, or "Princess Turtle."
While many letterboxing attempts are relatively uneventful, Borrelli once got stuck in the mud at the Howard Duckett Watershed in Howard County and had to be pulled out by firefighters.
"Never did go back to search for that box," said Borrelli. "Bad karma, that area."
Another local letterboxer, Coleen Foley, or "Firefly," appreciates the artistic side of letterboxing.
"It's like a little treasure hunt. And at the end of the hunt, I get a little piece of artwork that someone has worked hard to create," said Foley, who has found more than 200 letterboxes, including approximately 16 in Montgomery County.
Shelley Shearer, an avid letterboxer from Woodbridge, Va., is compiling a book about letterboxing. The book will feature how-to information as well as tales from the trails.
"I enjoyed the stories, I think other people would enjoy them as well," said Shearer, who especially enjoys the "scavenger hunt feel" of letterboxing.
Because so many letterboxes are hidden in natural areas, it is exceedingly important to respect the environment and leave it the way it was found, along with obeying any local rules. For example, letterboxing is prohibited in national parks. Good letterboxers will be informed before they plant anything.
Dave Powell, the assistant manager at Seneca Creek State Park, suggests that letterboxers call parks to let them know they are placing a letterbox.
"The activity is basically a good activity, but we'd like to know where [the letterbox] is so we make sure it's not in a place there's hazards," said Powell.
Aspiring letterboxers need look no further than their local craft store to get started. Materials for journals and stamps are relatively easy to find, and a helpful tutorial for amateur letterboxers is on the letterboxing group's Web site.
Despite the hurried excitement to find a letterbox, Jennings hopes that beginners will not just rush from box to box, but will rather enjoy the journey.
"Read the historical or nature plaques. Bring binoculars, a camera, field guides or a picnic lunch," Donna said. "Most of all, enjoy the hike."