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Hidden treasure lures families to Afton State Park near Hastings

How do you help families discover a hidden treasure of a park on the banks of the St. Croix River?

The answer, if you ask the staff at Afton State Park, is to hide your own treasure within the park and send people on a hunt around the hiking trails to find it.

That's the main idea behind Afton State Park's geocaching program, which was launched this year along with other Minnesota state parks to mark the state's sesquicentennial celebrations.

Afton has been designated a demo park, which means that all employees know the location of the caches, and have been trained in the use of the handheld GPS (global positioning system) devices, which participants can borrow from the park to navigate their way around the trails in search of a series of six hidden caches, the last one stuffed full of the trinkets and treasures characteristic of a geocache.

"It promotes the parks more and people get to see more of the park,"

said Afton State Park manager Gene Groebner, explaining the success of the program since it started in May.

"A lot of people have been saying it's their first trip to a state park and they say they are planning to come back and see more of what they have seen (while geocaching), so that's worked out good for us.

"One of our marketing strategies is to get kids and younger people involved in the park, because we are losing those generations.

"Just yesterday, there was a young mother with her four kids doing the geocaching, and they enjoyed it as much as she did."

The sesquicentennial geocaching has proved such a success that the Minnesota state parks are looking to extend what was originally a year-long program for the duration of the 150th anniversary indefinitely.

It will require some re-thinking, as a mutually beneficial partnership with Best Buy (which provided the GPS units to the demo

parks) ends on Dec. 31, but Groebner is confident the program will continue in some form, saying Afton just returned its feedback documents on the subject to the DNR, firmly in favor of continuing the program.

"The course here is for someone who likes a little bit of a challenge, something to look for while they are out for a hike,"

Groebner said.

"It's not just a hike in the woods -- you can still enjoy everything you see on a hike, and there's the added challenge and somewhat of an incentive."

And it doesn't just stop at the geocaching.

Groebner said once the park staff started learning about geocaching, in preparation for the program's introduction in the spring, they discovered another activity, known as letterboxing, was already taking place around the wooded trails of Afton State Park.

It meant a swift learning curve for the state park staff, who were new to both pursuits.

"No one seemed to know anything about it, so we were all starting from scratch," Groebner said.

Once they started looking into it, the park staff discovered 13 "letterboxes" hidden around Afton State Park by fans of the activity.

Similar to geocaches, each letterbox contains trinkets and messages left by previous visitors, but is located through a clue describing its location, rather than by coordinates.

Some of the clues, which are found on an official letterboxing Web site, tell long tales, weaving clues to the box's location into the story, while others are distinctly more prosaic, telling seekers to look behind a specific tree or under a certain rock.

Now, the state parks have implemented an application process for anyone wishing to hide a letterbox or geocache within the park boundaries. This fall, Groebner also hopes to open up an orienteering course at Afton, an activity which has been planned by the assistant park manager Rachel Hintzman in conjunction with a local Eagle Scout with a passion for the sport.

For more details, go to the Web sites at www.geocaching.com; www.letterboxing.org; and www.mnoc.org (Minnesota Orienteering Club).

An introductory class in geocaching featuring the use of handheld GPS (global positioning system) devices is scheduled for all ages beginning at 10 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 14, at Afton State Park.

Reservations are required. For details, call (651) 436-5391. Afton State Park is located at the eastern end of 70th Street, in Denmark Township.

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