Chilly Contest = Hot Promo

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By: Emily Vaughan

The thermometer may have read minus 13 degrees on the night of Jan. 30, but with the wind chill, St. Paul, Minn., treasure hunters had to brave minus 40 degree weather on the final night of the 2008 Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt.

“Air and river sounds all lead to Mounds,” the eleventh clue began, and many daring Midwesterners followed it to St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Regional Park. Shortly after midnight, one brother/sister team struck gold. After more than a week of late night hunting, they found it: a medallion wrapped in plastic under a fallen tree that they redeemed at the paper for the grand prize: $10,000.

For a 57th year the Pioneer Press sponsored its citywide treasure chase, held in conjunction with the St. Paul Winter Carnival. The event was first held in 1952, when Ridder Publications Inc. was still around and Dan Ridder was the paper’s publisher. As a promotional stunt, the St. Paul paper hid a small treasure chest and printed clues as to its whereabouts for 12 days or until it was discovered.

These days, MediaNews Group owns the Pioneer Press ? and treasure hunters now search for a medallion, not a chest. But the spirit of (and enthusiasm for) the competition hasn’t changed. “People line up outside the building to get the paper off the presses,” says Editor Thom Fladung. “We have people who set aside their vacation for it.”

The paper’s association with the Winter Carnival allows it to share the cost of the prize money, but even the $5,000 it shells out is a hefty sum. Still, the Press gets returns on its investment. Twin Cities radio and TV stations, as well as the rival Star Tribune, cover the hunt. Fladung says that during the medallion search, circulation gets a boost and Web traffic for the paper’s site, twincities.com, doubles.

Hunt veteran John Barrett, 47, who first took part in the event in 1969, says even he knows the Press moves a lot of single copies during the duration: “I know all of us get the St. Paul paper, but we all stand in line to get it at 11:30 [p.m.]”

Treasure hunters can access the clues online at the same time the paper comes out (around 11 p.m.), and then discuss them in online forums. Avid hunters started more than 1,500 threads on the Press’ discussion boards this year during the 11 days of the contest, contemplating clues, sabotaging competitors, and debating possibilities. Groups form on- and offline, and perennial searchers bond over their united goal.

The Pioneer Press’ original message boards, called “water coolers,” led to the formation of separate online sites and groups of treasure hunters. One group, the Cooler Crew, boasts 50 to 100 members and celebrated its 10th anniversary in January. Members get together for pre- and post-hunt parties, and share insights and information online on the days in between. For members, the hunt is largely about the camaraderie. “It gets you out into the park and meeting other people,” says Barrett. “It’s the craziness of it. It’s 10 below and two in the morning, and there are 40 other people out in the park with you.”

Even though people from near and far come to search (this year’s winners hailed from Wisconsin), hunters still consider it a hometown tradition sponsored by a hometown paper ? one that gets all of St. Paul together talking about their city and its history. “When you think Pioneer Press, you think St. Paul and community,” says Brad TeGantvoort, 42, alias “Cluemaster” on the Cooler Crew online chats and a treasure hunter since 1980. “Of course it covers Twin Cities news and national news, but it’s really about St. Paul.”

The paper’s contest even inspired a movie. In 2005, filmmakers Trent Tooley and Jackie Garry released a documentary, No Time for Cold Feet, about the annual event with footage from the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 hunts.

Treasure hunter Barrett plans to show his wife the film so she can understand what the experience is really like. “It’s like 1,200 to 2,200 people with rakes, shovels, implements of destruction, rushing toward what they think is the final location,” he says. “It’s kind of like villagers rushing the castle.”

Seems like a lot of hoopla for a medallion the size of a hockey puck. But the treasure hunt is a Pioneer Press ? and a St. Paul ? tradition. “We hope it makes readers feel like we’re still connected to St. Paul,” Fladung adds. “Our connection to St. Paul runs very deep. There aren’t many papers out there with 57-year traditions.”

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