Accidental Activist

The Treasure Hunt

For some reason, I have no idea why, I woke up one morning and decided it would be a great idea to put on a Treasure Hunt in my local park.

By Ben Bull
Published March 18, 2006

RTH's Accidental Activist Ben Bull is undergoing a career change. He's already had three - Shelf Salesman, Nurse and something to do with IT - and now it's time for number four. And so, in an effort to forestall the inevitable procrastination Ben has decided to take RTH readers along for the ride.

The first installment introduces us to the swashbuckling adventures of, Captain Bully, and a career planning exercise called 'The Flower'. Confused? Well I assure you - it can only get worse. Read on...

The career planner's bible, according to a job hopping friend of mine, is Richard N. Bolles', What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press). Parachute has been published in 12 languages, selling an average of 20,000 copies a month, for the past 33 years. One of the many alarming statistics trotted out by Bolles includes this: "A (recent) survey found that 45 percent of all US workers said they would change their careers if they could".

I expect the same might be true for Canadian workers. It is certainly true of me.

I'm 38 and have had, at last count, 25 jobs. From my early years as a milk lad, paper boy and garage attendant, I've put in shifts as a Chocolate maker, Turkey Farmer, shelf salesman and, more recently, a Registered Nurse. My latest excursion, as an IT Security Consultant, is the last in a long line of jobs that, well - just didn't fit.

So, how did this happen? How can I have worn so many different hats and yet not found one to fit? I suspect that I, like many of those Americans surveyed, have just drifted - taken whatever opportunity came along because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Well, not anymore. It's time for me to plan my career. As I look back on my most recent career excursion I can see that it has served its purpose - and run its course. What started out as a minimum wage assignment pulling Ethernet cables for a friend's Dad has evolved into a high profile engagement assisting IT Audit Departments and Business Executives with their Information Risk Management decisions (yeah, it doesn't make much sense to me either...).

IT has provided me with some fun times and I've made some great friends along the way, but deep down I know it's not me. As I sit in my dingy little cubicle I find myself craving the outdoor life and the freedom to come and go as I please. I mean, for crying out loud - some days I don't even see the sun!

Which brings me toThe Flower. "While such expressions as 'plugging in' and 'turning on' portray you as a machine," explains Bolles, "You are actually much more like a flower ... you flourish is some job-environments, but wither in others."

The Flower exercise is designed to help the career planner discover what he or she is supposed to be doing with their life. The first part asks readers to identify seven notable achievements, "things you did because they were fun or because they gave you a sense of adventure or accomplishment," and write them down. You must write a short story about each event, and then analyse them for 'career clues'. Each story needs to identify:

My first story takes me back to 1988, when I was living in Leeds, England. It describes a Treasure Hunt I put on in my local park. This was an amazing experience and an unforgettable day. I hope I am able to convey the sheer fun and enjoyment this experience gave to me, and my friends, and maybe glean some clues about my next career. If you have any ideas yourself - I'd love to hear them. Here then, is story #1 - petal #1 of The Flower: "Captain Bully's Treasure Hunt".

For some reason, I have no idea why, I woke up one morning and decided it would be a great idea to put on a Treasure Hunt in my local park, Temple Newsam, in Leeds. The whole idea of sending people scurrying around in all directions looking for scraps of paper and other useless clues, filled me with immense excitement.

So I set out to do it. First I mapped out the broad themes and the general idea. I created a rudimentary map, turning the Park into an island by using its main features as important island landmarks. Temple Newsam House - a supposedly haunted 15th century Manor House that was the birthplace of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary Queen of Scots - became simply, Cap'n Bully's Lodge. All other manner of places and names were renamed to protect the innocent and create a world within a world that would and bring my Treasure Island fantasy to life.

Next I created the characters. I knew my caper would need volunteers and that, in keeping with the Treasure Island theme, island characters called simply Sean and Alex would not suffice. So instead I invented "Ship's Cook Al" and "Spider Sean - Master of the Riggin'.'' And of course there was me, "Cap'n Bully," the most dastardly, cowardly, unpirately Captain you could ever not wish to meet.

Finally I sketched out the clues. I brainstormed at first, jotting down anything that came to mind, and then read them through a little more carefully, whittling down the large list of mostly crap into something a bit more manageable.

I was determined that the game would be fun. But I also wanted it to be smooth. I thought through the complicated logistics of the game and quickly ran into some interesting challenges:

I started to address these questions one by one and as I did so, the game started to take shape. It was at this point, when I had my Treasure Hunt Draft 1 mapped out, that I decided to seek some advice. My friend Sean was no more qualified at running a Treasure Hunt than I, but he did have the important quality of criticising everything. I knew he would poke holes in my plan, and that was fine by me.

Sean and I walked around the park one afternoon, discussing my clue ideas and tackling the remaining logistical considerations head-on.

How would we advertise? We wouldn't. We'd keep this game among family and friends and use them as Guinea pigs until the next one came along. How many teams? We quickly decided that people would probably prefer to be in teams of two to four, and that any more than six teams would be too hard for us to juggle.

We questioned every minute detail and came up with a short set of rules that we hoped would prevent any cheating and ensure that the results would be fair. I was surprised at how well Sean and I worked together. I had not consulted him for anything before, and I had never really known him to be creative but he constantly surprised me with his practical mind set and creative ideas.

At one stage, when we were discussing how to create the finale for the game, Sean just about blew my mind. I had had the idea of asking contestants to collect either puzzle pieces or words as they went along the course, but I was not sure how to bring all this together in the end. I knew the game should climax somewhere within the imposing courtyard of the 18th century house. There was a paving stone maze chiseled into the arena, and I knew this had to be incorporated somehow - but how?

Sean stood in the center of the amphitheatre for a short while, considering my predicament. After a few minutes he announced that he'd got it and told me to look up. I looked up to see a 15th Century inscription etched onto the walls of the House. The words ran right around the interior walls of the house, and, because of the zig-zag nature of the design - a Bay window here, a small crevasse there - it was not possible to read the entire transcript without moving around in the maze.

Sean's inspired suggestion was that we would pick a spot in the maze, from where you could see only a snippet of the entire 15th century motto. We would then hand out these words throughout the course of the game, and send the contestants back to the maze for the finale. The contestants, armed with an incomplete phrase, would then be asked to find a spot in the maze where only these words could be seen.

We knew from extensive trial and error that the words we picked could only be seen in a single spot in the courtyard. We would put a little 'X' on that spot, and then send the contestants around the maze ("Take five paces left…six paces backwards") until they reached the treasure!

It was sheer genius. Whereas at first I was a little excited about the Treasure Hunt, this final 'twist' put me into a spin. I knew we had something really cool in the works. If only we could pull it off...

With the remaining details ironed out I went back to base and set about fine tuning my little masterpiece, ready for the big day. I set a date for two weeks hence - just enough time to keep me busy and get people committed - and got to work. My brother, a budding cartoonist, and created all the artwork for the clues, the invitations and the instructions.

He also taught me a neat little trick he learned from a kids TV show called Blue Peter:

  1. Firstly, pour warm tea over a piece of paper
  2. Next, place the paper on a low heat in the oven (sounds safe…)
  3. Finally, remove the paper from the oven before your house catches fire and - Hey Presto! A 1,000 year old piece of parchment!

I added to the aging effect by singeing the edges and crumpling the paper up and before long - I had myself a set of authentic Pirate clues, maps and Treasure Hunt instructions! Cool.

Next, volunteers were forcefully selected. My friend Al was kitted out as a ships cook, and Sean was enlisted as the dastardly pirate course steward. As I did not have the funds for authentic pirate gear, I opted for the good ole fancy dress standby - The Salvation Army. Frilly scarves, skin tight pantaloons and garish waistcoats were tastefully selected, ensuring that, if we failed to look exactly like pirates we would at least look ridiculous.

After this I moved on to the invitations. These were duly distributed - at family gatherings, football games and drinking sessions all over town - and we were on our way. As game time approached I found myself having to turn people away. Friends of friends had gotten wind of 'Captain Bully's Amazing Treasure Hunt' and pleaded to be allowed to join in. It seemed that having fun simply for the sake of having fun was a very popular pastime. I resolved to try it more often.

I settled for six teams and 24 people. That would be more than enough to handle. I was still pretty much running the thing by myself and I wanted to have a good time too. As the date approached I asked myself again and again: what have I forgotten? What can go wrong? Eventually I was sure I had the perfect plan.

Game day arrived and I was psyched. I had expected to be a bag of nerves but instead I felt supremely confident that all the careful planning, thinking and re-thinking was going to pay off. It was going to be a success.

The weather was great that morning as I set off early to plant my clues and put the final pieces together. As game time approached I rounded up the teams and went over the rules. It was very simple - don't steal another team's clues; if you have any questions look for someone in a stripy shirt (the stewards uniform I had bought for Sean who did indeed look ridiculous); and most of all - have fun!

I started the teams out on a scavenger hunt - a mini-quest to collect bits and pieces of crap (funny shaped objects, treasure ship 'wreckage' and so on) - so that I could split everyone up, and afterwards sent them into the local museum with a questionnaire to complete ("You will need the info for your game"). One of my objectives had been to ensure that all the participants spent some time getting to know this remarkable Leeds Park. I was very proud of my local heritage and wanted everyone else to discover it too.

As the game got underway the first attempts at rule breaking began. One team came back with 3 inch twigs, instead of 3 foot branches. They had changed the " to a ' in order to make the task easier. I decided to let it go. One of the clues was sitting in a bottle in the middle of the Park fountain. I knew they would need a branch to reach it - or else get wet in the process. In the end the joke would be on them.

As the trail progressed I had my first of only a few regrets. I had no way of really tracking the progress of the race from my base. I wasn't so much concerned about keeping on top of screw ups - I just wanted to be more a part of what was going on, to get a flavour for the event. I also regretted not bringing a camera. The imaginative costumes alone - especially poor Als ridiculous Salvation Army Ships Cook get up - would have made for priceless mementoes.

At about the half way point the race hit its first major snag. One of the clues was pinned to the ear of a sheep on the Parks 'Home Farm'. One of the sheep had the word 'Temple' printed on its ears and I thought this would be a very imaginative way to provide the next clue destination - the abandoned 18th Temple just up the hill.

Poor old Ships Cook Al had sent word down, via a Steward, to ask why no-one had yet been to visit him. He was stationed behind the bushes next to the Temple, ready to pounce as soon as the first set of Treasure Hunters appeared and sang the magic 'Ships Cook Chant'

"Where is everybody?" he wanted to know 'People are giving me funny looks' They were all at the farm trying to read the sheep's ears. Unfortunately Bessie, or whatever she was called, had decided to go off and graze in a far corner where she could not be seen. I had to think quickly and come up with another clue. I sent about two teams on their way with an improvised little ditty, after which Bessie came trotting back and the game was on again.

After about an hour all the reports coming back from 'the field' were all good. In fact they were downright hilarious. Al had been subjected to a range of gentle ribbing and borderline torture for attempting to pass himself off as a 'Ghostly Cook' emerging mysteriously from the bushes.

"Why are you hopping?" one team had asked. "I don't see any peg-leg."

"I got stiff from crouching," replied Al, grumpily.

"You look more like a male prostitute," teased someone else, at which point Al had apparently threatened to go home if people didn't leave him alone.

Evidently more than one Ship's Cook Chant was interrupted when a Treasure Hunter spotted a strange garishly dressed figure hiding in the bushes and asked, "Al! What the #&%@ are you doing in there?"

There was even more embarrassment as my sister and her friends found themselves standing by the Lake Bridge, perched on one leg, with a finger stuck in their ear, chanting the "Pirate Chant." It wasn't enough for them to feel stupid; I had, ahem, inadvertently picked a spot with a high volume of foot traffic to make the occasion even more memorable. By the time the Ghost of Captain Bully emerged from behind the bridge they were suitably humiliated and keen to progress to the next stage of the competition.

Then of course there was the fountain. Whether it was a lack of imagination of just plain laziness it appeared that most teams had opted for simply throwing someone in – usually without their consent - so they could wade across it and get their clue. As the game wound its way to a close I was amazed at how few complications there had been. My over-enthusiastic football friends Brendan and Dez had somehow collected a couple of clues from other teams without actually going to collect them, and wondered if this was okay.

As the dramatic Courtyard maze finale played itself out - with three teams simultaneously vying to find the right spot to read the words - Conor and his brother Finbarr decided to shortcut the process. My final maze instructions, "take five more paces and jump," was taken to mean that the last clue must be hidden inside the long wall that traversed the courtyard (they were right).

As the two hour race ran into the final seconds a remarkable four teams out of the six found themselves with a chance of digging for treasure. This was amazing. I had planned six separate routes, one for each team, and had taken great care to ensure the distances were comparable, but I had never expected a finale like this!

It was better than television. I sat on the edge of the courtyard with Dastardly Pirate Sean and Ships Cook Al, and watched as first place Conor and Finbar studied their final clue in excruciating detail. They were an intelligent twosome. It was surely only a matter of time before they ... went the wrong way!

Next up was Joc and Nick, carefully studying the map and slowly plotting their way through the Park undergrowth towards the Captains swag. Brendan and Dez were now nowhere to be seen, but then suddenly out of nowhere a team with of my Sister's friends came running toward me, looking for the last clue.

"I only made three," I told them. "I didn't think it would be this close."

I quickly chalked out the last clue on the courtyard wall, and watched them scurry off toward Joc and Nick. This was gonna be close!

The climax came as Joc and Nick, closely followed by my sister's friends and poor Conor and Finbar, uncovered the loot and held it up with whoops of delight. A final push by Conor and Finbar, realizing their unfortunate mistake, had resulted in a near decapitation as Finbar ran neck first into a wire connecting two bushes not ten yards away from the treasure.

It took me several days to persuade him that the "booby trap" was definitely not deliberate.

It may have been only a generous selection of leftover chocolates, purchased at half price courtesy of my Mum's employee discount from the Nestle's chocolate factory in Castleford, but for the looks on Joc and Nick's faces they were worth their weight in gold.

As the treasure was examined and the teams came shuffling quietly back, I wondered if it had all been worth it. One by one the teams exchanged handshakes and congratulations. Many of these were directed towards me and my 'island crew' and all in all I felt we had done a pretty good job. I got as much delight eavesdropping on the stories of watery clues and Gay Pirates as if I had been there myself.

Several years later I bumped into an old football friend who had not been able to attend the game. We started to catch up and began talking about people we both knew, many of whom I had not seen in some time. When it came around to Nick, a bloke I didn't know too well and used to see only once a week at football, my friend told me, "Yeah, he mentions you from time to time."

"He does?" I asked surprised, "Why?"

"Something about a Treasure Hunt?" replied my friend, "He says it's the most fun he ever had."

I knew then that it was worth it.

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.


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By (anonymous) | Posted March 25, 2009 at 01:24:14

spam comment deleted by editor

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By Sarahew88 (anonymous) | Posted September 07, 2009 at 08:38:57

I am impressed, and enthused to try this one day.


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