Saturday, September 3rd – There was no guarantee I was going to be able to participate in the Great US Treasure Hunt this year. I was excited when Milwaukee was on the list of cities hosting the hunt this year, but on the day of the hunt my wife and I had a commitment to be hosting family at our cabin in northern Wisconsin- nearly three hours north of Milwaukee.
Friday evening, one day before the hunt, my puzzle-solving accomplices were also not locked in. My dad, who I initially imagined would be in Milwaukee with me, bought tickets to a movie for midday. Christina planned to take our guests out to brunch. Most of my remote colleagues didn’t even have this hunt on their radars and I needed to send out the word soon. Most responses were tentative at best.
In spite of all of the obstacles, a few of us locked in and I decided to get up bright and early to head down to Milwaukee to partcipate in the hunt. I arrived at about 10:15, 45 minutes before the hunt launch time.
The hunt was centered around Milwaukee’s North Point Lighthouse with a 50 mile radius. That’s a pretty big area that could even technically reach Illinois or most of the way to Madison. With me as the only team member in the area, I opted to start my day camped in the park at Pettit National Ice Center, an ice skating rink about fifeen minutes west of Milwaukee’s downtown. As long as the final location would be anything other than downtown Milwaukee, this position would be ideal for getting around the area faster than the competition.
I grabbed a snack at a nearby coffee shop and got back to the ice rink about fifteen minutes before game time. My team members, a group of rock star puzzle solvers out of Cincinnati, all signed on, and we waited patiently for the clues to come through. A few of us dug through what we could find about previous rounds of this hunt to better understand how the clues would work, but with only a few minutes, we didn’t get very far. Shortly after 11AM, the hunt went live and we received an email with the clues.
Right off the bat, I honed in on a cryptogram- a short, three-lined message I had high hopes for. I ran the cryptogram through a few simple cipher breakers like Caesar shift and Atbash with no luck. I also tried an automated substitution cipher solver with no luck.
In retrospect, I think I could have done better with the cipher at this point. This hunt is designed to be accessible to experienced solvers and newcomers alike, so a substitution cipher makes all the sense in the world, compared to something like a Vigenere or a Playfair cipher. I would have liked to look at this again to try cracking it manually by assuming one of the four letter words would be “PARK,” which seems like a solid assumption based on where treasures are usually hidden.
One of my other team members had started on one of the other clues, a dropquote puzzle, and was making good progress. Pretty soon we had a message. “Somewhere north of Wind Lake, South of Willow Spring, East of Waukesha, and west of Wauwatosa is a park with a valued coin hidden under a playscape step.”
This was a huge clue. I was already parked toward the middle of this confluence, so if we could just pick the right park, we’d have a great shot at the win. One of my team members suggested that the park’s name would likely begin with the letter W based on how the locations in the clue all started with W.
I told Google Maps to draw out a route from each location to the next, to give me an idea of our operating area.
I drew crosshairs on the map connecting north to south, east to west, and zoomed in on the center. Wray Park was right there- a park with a W! Looking at the satellite image, I saw a quiet park with a playground, only thirteen minutes from my location. I told the group I would head there, and everyone continued to solve clues while I drove to the location.
When I arrived, I was hopeful. There were a few cars in the lot- maybe an observer from the hunt? There was a single slide with an obvious set of steps to examine. I jumped back on voice with my team while I searched.
No luck. While searching, a member of my team solved one of the other clues- a word search with the unused letters revealing a cryptic message – “RILLSTEPSWARDVALUEDECLINE.” Not a tremendous help- we speculated that maybe it’s supposed to sound like something when you say it out loud, but the best we could make out was that “value decline” could sound like “valued coin.”
One of my teammates burst in with a revelation. “Wirth Park!” It made all the sense- good location toward the center of our search area, starts with a W, and all the references to “valued” could clue the homonym of Wirth, “worth.” I jumped in the car and headed to Wirth Park, only 11 minutes away.
While about halfway there, I got a call from a teammate. “We solved the cipher!” he said. “Wirth Park Slide, Bottom Step, Brook Field.” I was headed to the right place.
My teammates talked me through the best place to park based on their satellite views of the area. As I was about two minutes away, one of my team members disappointedly revealed that someone had found the treasure already. Moments later, I pulled into the parking lot.
I immediately saw Jeff, the hunt’s organizer, and a few others gathered in a picnic area, and I headed up to them. Third place! We were hoping to win, but this wasn’t bad for our first foray into this kind of thing, and we got a puzzle book as our reward. Congratulations to the winners!
We were behind by about 20 minutes, so it was found while I was searching in Wray Park. Had we picked Wirth Park instead of Wray, we would have had a shot at it!
Hindsight is 20/20, but I also noticed one funny detail about how close our near miss was. When I traced out our search area earlier, it draws a pretty clear circle around the town of Brookfield.
If you go to Google and search “playground Brookfield WI” the first search result is Wirth Park! Had we gone this route instead of zooming in on the map, we likely would have picked the correct park first! It’s really exciting to be that close to a realistic shot at the prize.
I stayed for a little while and chatted with Jeff and the others about the hunt and learned about some of the other teams. A few more solvers showed up and I even got to hear about some of the coolest Geocaches in the area.
My team needed to come up with a name. We’ve done online puzzle hunts before but we usually pick a team name based on the specific hunt, so we had nothing prepared. After a bit of deliberation, our finalists were Chincinnati (Chicago + Cincinnati) / Chincy and Mild, Mild, Midwest, and we went with the latter. After a few more minutes chatting with the group, I hit the road for my long drive back north.
I really want to express my appreciation to the Great US Treasure Hunt team for this hunt. There’s something wonderful about a fast-paced hunt that’s so accessible that both experienced solvers and casual enthusiasts can enjoy, and there’s nothing like the adrenaline rush when you’re headed toward a hidden treasure and get stuck behind a car going ten under the speed limit.
I wish Christina and my dad were there with me, and when I told Christina the stories, she’s open to consider traveling to do this hunt at more locations next year. I’m in! This was the most fun I’ve had in a while and I can’t wait to see what the Great US Treasure Hunt team puts out next.