Nor were they botanists, Bigfoot enthusiasts or fervent believers in gnomes.
Instead, they likely were participants in a national hunt for a dozen tokens hidden by Michael Stadther, the author of the fantasy book "A Treasure's Trove." The book's story line contains clues that lead to real-life locations of the tokens, which are redeemable for very real-life jewels worth a collective $1 million.
The hunt began last fall and was expected to take as long as two years to complete, given the complexity of the clues. A map to one token, for example, was hidden within an illustration in the book. Hidden on the border of the illustration's facing page, Morse code spelled out the location.
Tricky stuff, but thanks to several well-organized online communities devoted to discussions of the book and solving its clues, the last of the original 12 tokens was found last week, says the moderator of one of the biggest hunt sites.
"Without Tweleve I think this would've taken a lot longer," said Kristin Seiger, the 23-year-old Newton, N.J., woman who was one of two to find the so-called Grasshopper token inside a dogwood tree in upstate New York's James Baird State Park. The token can be traded for the grasshopper jewel, a $54,000 item made in a 19th century shop in Russia.
"It was a cooperative learning space--everyone shared ideas and tried to help out however they could," Seiger said. "No idea was never discounted or called stupid."
According to Chris Landauer, who moderates Tweleve, two men found the 12th token, known as The Beetle, in a tree in South Dakota's Badlands last weekend. And while Stadther and his company said they need a few days to vet the find before they will formally confirm it's the 12th token, Tweleve has posted pictures, both of the token itself and its hiding place in a tree.
After a successful career making banking software, Stadther decided it was time for a change several years ago. He was impressed by the British treasure hunt "Masquerade," and modeled "A Treasure's Trove" hunt on it. He put up his own money to pay for the jewels, most of which were handcrafted by master jeweler Robert Underhill. Stadther, in fact, found three of them on his travels around the world.
"A Treasure's Trove" revolves around a hero's search for a series of creatures, including a bumblebee, a grasshopper, an ant and others, who have been turned into small crystals by a fantasy book bad guy. The premise for the hunt that goes with the book is simple: Find a token, redeem it with Stadther for one of the jewels.
The combination of real life and fantasy has clicked. Stadther said he has sold about 600,000 copies of the book so far.
While Stadther put up a site for the book and the hunt and says he thought some people who use the Internet would discuss the search, he wasn't expecting the rush of people who began to coordinate their efforts on the various third-party online communities.
"I expected Internet activity, and I expected clue sharing," said Stadther. "If I had been a clue solver, I probably would have tried to find two or three more jewels before posting my solution."
But Stadther didn't realize his readers would so enjoy being a part of this ad hoc treasure hunt community.
"It almost seems like for the lookers and the finders, the trovers, it was...as much fun being in the finding community as it was trying to solve the clues," he said.
Fred Pacolitch, who found the Grasshopper token along with Seiger, agreed, saying it became common for people who had never even met in real life to begin working together via sites like Tweleve.
According to Landauer, more than 100 partners who had never met teamed up to search for tokens in locations across the United States. All told, at least 18,000 people used Tweleve.org and 12 Gems.com for the hunt.
"I think we might have been the first team to organize," Pacolitch said, "but after that it was all partnering. It was people from one side of the country partnering with someone from the other side. It was kind of neat."
Of ladders and salad tongs
As clues were solved and posted online, efforts to land the tokens got downright creative.
In New Mexico's Santa Rosa Lake State Park, earnest knot hole inspectors drew the attention of a park ranger, Landauer said. "The knot hole...was too high off the ground for people to reach in. When the ranger found out that there was a treasure inside the tree, he called his wife. She brought his truck and an extended grabber to the park. He roped off the tree and allowed his wife to use the truck bed as a ladder."
Dan Ford, from Dallas, who was a co-finder of the Ant token, said he was initially unable to reach inside the small hole of a tree in Moab, Utah, where the token was hidden. So his friend, Atlanta's Chris Seacord, returned to the park a few days later and pulled it out with a pair of salad tongs.
After starting the hunt with 12 tokens, Stadther extended the game by adding a 13th, called Pook, in April. Pook was also a character in the book based on his favorite dog, Stadther said. The 13th token has yet to be found. But even though the others have all been located, the finders likely won't get their rewards until January 2008. That's because Stadther has plans to tour with the jewels until then.
Landauer thinks Stadther should pay up sooner, especially since the author has another book--and a new treasure hunt--in the works that is slated to be published next year.
"I think it's a little in bad taste for Stadther to launch his next hunt before he's paid out on the last," Landauer said.
Stadther responded only by saying that he's received a long list of requests to show the jewels and that he plans to honor them. "If that interest drops off," he said, "it wouldn't make sense not to award them."
Regardless, Landauer relishes the momentum he and the moderators of the other sites created. He said that members will likely move on to Stadther's next book, and may even begin coordinating to help solve real-life criminal cases.
"In a way, the Web community was like a massive intellectual computer with a heart...Since the vast majority of the people leave this hunt with only memories and not tokens," he said, "the lasting reward was the experience and the future hunts and friendships to explore."