Two young questers search for clues in the woods of Vermont.
Image Courtesy of Greta Marchesi/Vital Communities.

Along the Waterways of the Upper Valley
By Eric D. Lehman

You walk into a dark grove of trees, chanting the rhymes of a poem. You note the bundles of five needles and long cones that mark these as white pines. And then it is on to the next clue, and the next. You pass an old, rusted car, a white quartz outcrop, and a fourteen-acre pond. You are on the trail of mystery now, and soon you see the sugar maple that marks the destination. In a large hole left by a broken branch, you find the treasure you have been seeking. You open the box, pull out the stamp, and proudly mark your passport. Another quest complete.

Letterboxing has become a popular 21st century way of getting kids and adults outdoors. But in the upper Connecticut River Valley, Vital Communities has taken these quests to an epic level, supporting over 170 different trails with clues, treasure boxes, and stamps. From the treasure hunt at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park in Woodstock, Vermont, described above, to a quest along the Old King’s Highway in Lebanon, New Hampshire, these expeditions cover the length and breadth of the watershed. Some focus on history, some on nature. “Getting outside, a little intellectual stimulation, learning about history of the area, getting together with our family,” says Peter Guest of Fairlee, Vermont, when asked why he loves the program. “We’ve had a lot of fun in our family.”

A quester signs the HPR River Quest logbook while enjoying a snack in Hanover, New Hampshire.
Image Courtesy of Sandy Gmur/Vital Communities

You might follow trees, or rocks, or architectural elements, depending on the rural or urban landscape you travel. Many of the individual trails follow waterways, like the HPR River Quest in Hanover, New Hampshire, which actually takes you by watercraft from Wilson’s Landing to Kendall Riverfront Park on the Connecticut River itself. “Valley Quests are treasure hunts that tell you something about the area,” says Sandy Gmur, the Valley Quest Coordinator at Vital Communities. “It’s a wonderful way to get to know the Upper Valley.”

The organization also sponsors an annual “Super Quest” that allows participants to submit a passport of five or more stamps for a chance to win a prize. The 2018 Aquatic Super Quest focused on the “subbasins” of the upper river valley, and everyone who participated came away with a deeper knowledge of how these mini-watersheds connect and work independently, from their floodplains to their wetlands, from the water table below to the headwaters above. Everyone who completed it was awarded a commemorative Aquatic Adventure patch and was entered into a grand prize drawing.

Inspired by a 200-year-old letterboxing tradition, the Valley Quest Program was developed in White River Junction, Vermont, in the early 1990s. Originally based on following maps, compass readings, and rhyming riddles in search of hidden boxes, staff and volunteers at Vital Communities developed it into a unique form of place-based education that integrates the diverse disciplines of art, writing, reading, mathematics, science, social studies, and technology to connect children and adults to their communities. Teachers are even offered curriculum-based quests focusing on subjects like the colonial era or watershed resources. “The quests are an incredible resource for place-based education experiences, providing an outdoor classroom where learning can be supplemented,” says Gmur proudly. “To get our kids outside in this way into their communities is unique and fun.”

One quester’s personal log with dozens of quest stamps.
Image Courtesy of Sarah Plechter/Vital Communities

Vital Communities does more than just these questing adventures for the people of the upper valley, engaging people, organizations, and communities to create equitable solutions for the region. They foster leadership, connect people to networks of local farms, and promote local energy efficiency through workshops, classroom visits, and events. But it is no secret that their efforts to create the Valley Quests have been most popular with children and adults alike. Tracy Dustin-Eichler of Hartford, Vermont, calls it “a great opportunity to explore parts of the upper valley we might not otherwise explore.” Her son, Isaac Dustin-Eichler, loves both exploring nature and “the different personalities of the different towns, and their different beauty.”

During the recent pandemic, over 1,500 people continued to enjoy the trails and clues, but the sponsored Super Quest took a break. In Summer 2021 it is back, focusing on “Climate Connections,” including the adaptations to and effects of environmental change in the Upper Valley region. For those of us who have been sick, or just sick of the restrictions of the pandemic, it will be a great opportunity to get out of the house, to learn about our regional watershed, and to let our curiosity breathe again.

For more information email and visit their website at

Map Copyright Vital Communities.
Subscribe Today