This past June 2, around 7 p.m., a mysterious video was posted on YouTube.
An expressionless man in a shadowy room stares at the camera for about 30 seconds, holding pieces of paper with a few lines of text. There’s no sound except for some static and random beeps.
On July 3, just after midnight, another video appeared: Disjointed bursts of radio transmissions accompanied an image of what looks like a map.
On July 17, at 6 p.m., a third video was posted with a view of an eerie forest, distorted music and a cryptic poem.
Tally ho, Watson! The game is afoot! A new pandemic pastime has arisen!
These videos are a series of fiendishly cunning conundrums and treasure hunts created by Moriarty — not Sherlock Holmes’ archenemy Professor Moriarty, but a Cottage Grove insurance agent named Pat Moriarty.
Thanks to COVID-19, Moriarty has had to shelve his usual hobbies of playing in a rock cover band called Triple Dog Dare and competing in an adult Wiffle ball league that he started.
Instead, he’s creating puzzle and treasure hunt videos to keep himself occupied while giving others a way to get out and have some fun.
“I like number stuff. I like stuff that makes you think,” said Moriarty, 45. “I kind of like doing stuff that brings people together.”
After setting up a YouTube channel called JustTruck (youtube.com/user/WTFbandMN), Moriarty spread the word of his puzzle challenge on Facebook, Twitter and on a Reddit discussion area devoted to puzzles. So far he’s been getting about 300 to 500 views per puzzle video.
Solving his puzzles requires noticing audio as well as visual clues. Knowing some math, science or trivia doesn’t hurt. You might have to crack a code, work an anagram, call a secret phone number or find a hidden computer file.
Moriarty designed the puzzles so that they relate to each other to tell a story. He’s also alternating between puzzles that can be solved from your armchair and ones that require going out to find an object hidden in the real world. His latest puzzle video was put online on Aug. 8.
“These are actually very clever puzzles,” said Phil Calvert, an electrical engineer from Detroit who was the only person to solve Moriarty’s third puzzle, worth a $50 prize.
Calvert, a puzzle fan, has done everything from escape rooms to the MIT Mystery Hunt held annually on the university’s campus.
“I’m an engineer. I love solving problems,” he said. “A lot of people call it the ‘aha moment.’ It’s almost addicting.”
Tim and Melissa Holperin of Bloomington figured out there were map coordinates embedded in Moriarty’s second video. That led them to a treasure chest with some (plastic) gems in a Twin Cities park.
“We’re land surveyors and we deal with coordinates all the time with our job,” Tim said. “Just the act of going out and finding something is fun.”
A treasure subculture
Moriarty is far from the only person in the area getting people to search for a hidden object.
Every year, dozens of treasure hunts are held statewide, typically in conjunction with local festivals.
The CoolerCrew.com website keeps track of more than 100 hunts in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. They include the Northfield Defeat of Jesse James Horse Shoe Hunt, the Roseville Rosefest Golden Rose Medallion Hunt and the Hopkins Raspberry Festival Hunt for the Golden Raspberry.
There are also several independent events put on by freelance clue writers catering to an enthusiastic subculture of local treasure hunters.
“I do know that Minnesota has a very unique treasure hunting culture,” said Ed Brodie, an avid treasure hunter from West St. Paul who also organizes an independent competition, the Hunt for the Hoard in Maplewood.
Most of these hunts were probably inspired by the St. Paul Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt, a search for a hidden medallion run every year since 1952 in conjunction with the St. Paul Winter Carnival.
Treasure hunts sponsored by local festivals typically use a format similar to the Pioneer Press hunt: A series of poems are released over several days with clues revealing where a medallion is hidden in a local park. The finder of the medallion usually gets some cash or a prize package.
With a $10,000 prize and a nearly 70-year history, the Pioneer Press competition is considered the state’s most prestigious treasure hunt.
“That’s our Super Bowl,” said Steven Sanftner, a treasure hunt fanatic from Falcon Heights who estimates he’s found or helped find at least 50 medallions from community treasure hunts.
Among fellow treasure hunters, Sanftner is known by the nickname “Coldest” because of his willingness to stay outside in the most frigid conditions to hunt for the Pioneer Press medallion.
“St. Paul is kind of the core sacred hunting ground,” said Sanftner, who organizes his own hunt, the Coldest’s Lost Treasure hunt in Ramsey County and helps write clues for other local hunts.
David Allison is credited with starting the first independent hunt, called the Allison Wonderland Mock Hunt, back in 2000.
Allison, of Spring Lake Park, waited a month after the Pioneer Press hunt ended to begin his event because there were limits on cellphone plans back then and hunters needed their monthly minutes to be renewed.
In it for the rush
Treasure hunt organizers say the impact of their hunts on local parks is minimal, similar to geocaching. They make sure hunters know to stay off private property, landscaped areas or golf courses. This year, the hunts also urged proper social distancing.
The Coldest’s Lost Treasure hunt medallion was sanitized and handled with gloves before being hidden. (The actual medallion was tucked in a face mask inside a Sudafed box placed in St. Paul’s Newell Park.)
In hunts run by Allison and other local “mock hunt” organizers, hunters typically pay a $10 fee to register. The money goes into the pot. If a registered hunter finds the medallion, they win the entire pot. Nonregistered hunters are awarded a smaller pot.
The prize money in the independent hunts usually amounts to a few hundred dollars. One recent completed hunt, the Great Twin Cities Treasure Hunt, offered a $1,000 prize.
It’s not much compared with some of the big hunts like the Forrest Fenn chest of gold worth an estimated $2 million supposedly buried in the Rocky Mountains or the gold, silver and diamonds being buried this summer in Michigan by a guy who inherited a jewelry shop.
On the other hand, there aren’t $60 pay-to-play registration fees or concerns that the hunts are publicity schemes designed to sell books.
Allison and other local organizers say they’re not hosting hunts to make money. In fact, they typically sweeten the treasure pot with their own cash.
“It’s fun,” said Allison, who has also designed interactive murder mysteries and escape rooms. “You’re creating all this happiness.”
Hunters say the money isn’t the main reward, either. It’s the thrill of solving a mystery and discovering hidden treasure.
“It’s a mixed feeling of fulfillment, excitement, adrenaline,” Sanftner said. “Once you do it, you want to do it again.”