For the past few summers, my aunt has organized “Grandkids Camp” at her sister’s farm near Salem, Oregon. The property is huge and old, so there’s room to camp out and the kids have lots of adventures. As the camp has grown (there are only three kids, but it’s the highlight of their year, so it’s gotten longer and more involved), my aunt’s gotten other family members to contribute in their areas of expertise.
Last year my cousin (who’s a movie director) and I created a short film with the kids. This year Joel couldn’t make it but suggested he contribute some video footage remotely. He suggested something along the lines of a National Treasure type hunt, with video clues.
Working with that concept, I came up with a storyline and organized an elaborate treasure hunt. Since the kids do a treasure hunt every camp, we had a fake hunt organized to fool them into thinking they’d already found their treasure (the fake hunt’s prize were chocolate “gold” coins). This helped them believe that the hunt I created was the real thing because they’d already done the hunt!
Since my goal was to make this believable, I had to come up with a plausible story as to why gold would be buried on the farm. I created a fake pirate who wasn’t from the Caribbean, but a river pirate on the Mississippi. I had him escaping to the Northwest with his gold where he died under mysterious circumstances. I had his body being found by an oddly-naked soldier, James Knickerbottom.
My aunt’s sister and her husband planted seeds early after the kids’ arrival that “Knickerbottom,” the guy they’d bought the farm from, kept calling wanting to dig more holes on the property looking for treasure. This was a key clue in making the treasure hunt believable. I purposely picked a funny name that the kids would remember and it worked to perfection!
Next, we had the kids start looking for clues. They weren’t too enthusiastic at first, thinking that the treasure hunt had been done and this wasn’t an official activity, but I pretended to be curious about this “real” treasure. The first clue we found was in the old barn: river pirate Mississippi Joe’s wanted poster:
Once we found that, I pretended to search for more information about this guy on the internet and discovered a website about Mississippi Joe. (This is a fake site I created just for this game!)
On the site was a short documentary video about Joe, which my cousin had created from my script:
It’s really awesome and makes the pirate seem like a genuine historical figure. It worked unbelievably well, particularly when the kids noticed a shot in the video of the same wanted poster they had in their hands! They were absolutely convinced that the ancient and damaged document in their hands was a priceless historical artifact.
I’d also created some fake newspaper clippings which were used in the video. These were included on the website and gave the kids something to read and explore:
To create these, I wrote the text, designed them as old-fashioned newspaper articles, and printed out low-resolution copies. Then soaked them in tea and baked them in an oven at 200 degrees. They really look old!
Next, the kids investigated the old milk house where they found James Knickerbottom’s diary. Supposedly Jame’s son Eli had found it in 1902 but his mom had burned it, worried her son would become as obsessed with hunting for the gold as her demented husband. I actually created an entire 48-page diary, printed it out, and sewed it into a little booklet (I had to learn how to operate my sewing machine). I then aged and burned it. It came out awesome:
There were lots of clues in the diary to keep the kids interested, but the real secret was the scrap of paper hidden in the pocket at the back of the diary:
Once the kids noticed and found that, they were on their way! This led them to the actual treasure map, hidden in the cellar of the original old farmhouse:
Finding the treasure itself was an adventure, for Mississippi Joe, who’d been dying, didn’t have time to did a big hole. He buried the treasure in a small hole at the base of a large tree. Of course, the kids couldn’t find this tree: that was 100 years ago and the tree had been cut down. All that was left now was a big stump. But the kids dug around the stump and discovered the gold coins hidden inside a moss-covered ceramic vase plugged with a cork. It looked amazingly real and was fully believable… until one of the boys noticed one of the coins had a 1964 date stamped on it!
The kids had a terrific time, though they were slightly disappointed that the whole thing wasn’t really real. They were fooled until the very end, however. I’m sure they’ll remember this experience for the rest of their lives!