Medallion Fever

St. Paul Pioneer Press - 01-23-2005


A couple's new film, shot over four years, tracks the ups and downs, joys and frostbite of diehard treasure hunters.

Trent Tooley didn't mean to get hooked. Neither did Dan Fleming, Steve Worthman or Jesse Anibas.

Whether it happened in a city park or in an online chat room, all of them have found the allure of the hunt too strong to ignore.

For Tooley, it happened while the New York-based filmmaker was trolling the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt chat rooms on the newspaper's Web site in 1997.

His wife, Jackie Garry, a native of Rochester, Minn., had written a script about the Treasure Hunt after her graduate studies in film at New York University in the early 1990s. The two shopped it around Hollywood in 1995 and '96 but found no takers. That's when Tooley turned to the hunt chat rooms.

"Everyone was posting on the boards between 1997 and 2000," Tooley said.

People were analyzing clues, discussing hunt strategy and throwing out predictions about where the medallion would be found. Tooley thought "this would make a great documentary." So the couple flew to Minnesota and began filming the 2001 hunt. They came back for 2002. And 2003. And 2004.

"This film has seen us through living in three states, getting married and having two kids," Tooley said.

When they come back this year, they're bringing a finished version of the film "No Time for Cold Feet" with them.

To say they're nervous about showing four years' worth of work to an audience that knows more about the hunt than they do is an understatement.

Hunters were initially leery of being filmed for fear of becoming a character in the next "Fargo."

" 'Fargo' haunted us," Garry said.

The filmmakers had to convince many hunters that they weren't making a spoof of the hunt before they would talk.

It is not hard to see why people would be wary, though. Diehard hunters, the ones who schedule their vacations to search for the medallion and forgo sleep and such basics as bathing, can come across as somewhat afflicted.

Take Dan Fleming, for instance. The 47-year-old has been hunting since he was a second-grader in the early 1960s. He has taken time off from work as a sales manager to hunt since 1980.

"The first week consists of lunchtime drives," Fleming said. "As much as I try to keep it out of my head, I can't. That second week, it consumes all of my thinking."

He and a number of other diehards, including his wife, call themselves the Camo Crue. They wear camouflage outfits, they don matching hats, and they can be a little intimidating when they form a line to clear a park of snow.

One hunter is "like a Redwood tree that walks," said Fleming, who, despite years of hunting, has never found the medallion.

"Have I held the medallion? Yes. Have I been standing next to the person who found it? Yes," he said.

The ultimate, according to Fleming, would be digging up the medallion with his buddies.

"It would be like winning the Super Bowl or the World Series," he said. He'd even use the prize money to make himself a bowl-worthy ring.

Fleming tries to explain the hunt's appeal: "I've met doctors, lawyers, insurance people, all walks of life even those people from Minneapolis during the hunt. Once you get into it and see what it really is, you're like, 'Holy cow!' "

Steve Worthman of St. Paul has had that "holy cow" feeling. He was so taken by his first hunt in 1989 that he ended up writing "The Treasure Hunter's Guide." The third edition is coming out this year.

"If you like puzzles, you're hooked. Then you're tempted to get in your car and put a shovel in your trunk, which is a weird feeling," Worthman said.

Worthman carries all of the clues from the past two years' hunts in his wallet because he can't bring himself to throw them away.

"When the hunt ends, I'm going back to being myself," the Toro employee said. He added, somewhat facetiously, "I want out. I want to get as far away from here as possible."

His family would probably appreciate such a move. Worthman's 8-year-old son was born at the beginning of the 1997 hunt. He referred to him as "Clue No. 2" during the interview.

"That not only meant I couldn't finish that Treasure Hunt, but he has a birthday every year during the hunt. That poor guy has never had a decent birthday party because of me," Worthman lamented.

For Jesse Anibas, a 38-year-old engineering technician and parent from White Bear Lake, the fascination with the hunt also has led to a book.

After his first hunt in 1989, he started collecting trivia about the hunt dating to its debut in 1952. He planned on posting the information on the Web site of the Cooler Crew, a loose coalition of fanatical hunters who took their name from the newspaper's original Pioneer Planet "Watercooler" chat rooms. Instead, he ended up publishing "The Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt History" this month.

"There were all of these unique, interesting stories about the hunt," Anibas said. "If you told them to people, most wouldn't think they were true."

Like his beginner's luck: During his first hunt, he ended up digging only 15 feet from where the medallion eventually was found.

"That's probably why I'm hooked," he said.

Another Cooler Crew member is Cottage Grove native Jake Ingebrigtson, now a student at St. Cloud State University.

He fits the profile of what filmmaker Tooley calls the "young, hip" element attracted to the yearly hunt: He's 25, in college and maybe knows more about the hunt than most people twice his age.

A fellow Cooler Crew member concedes that Ingebrigtson can come off as a little obnoxious during the hunt but says that if any of their group members finds the medallion, it most likely will be him.

"To be honest, I'm not (the Cooler Crew's) favorite person. I'm a little too intense for them," Ingebrigtson admitted.

For instance, "If somebody were to lay odds in Vegas (of finding the medallion), I think I've got the best odds," he said. "Me and the Camo Crue would be pretty close."

And this year's hunt pits not just Crew against Crue, but old-school against new-school hunters as well.

The old-schoolers, like Fleming, Worthman and Ingebrigtson, tend to start hunting early. They're probably talking through a clue with a digging partner, a newspaper tucked in a coat pocket.

During the first days of each hunt, there are no new-schoolers in cold parks. They're more likely in front of a warm computer checking out a hunt chat room.

David Allison of Plymouth, who goes by the hunting name "Allison Wonderland," fits nicely with the new-schoolers. He started his hunt obsession when he found the online chat rooms in 1999.

He admits he doesn't have the stamina to dig in the cold, so he hosts his own group to discuss the clues. He even handicaps area parks based on each clue.

To prepare for the 2005 hunt, he plans to test his computer connection to online dictionaries, map programs that show satellite photos of area parks and sites that decipher anagrams.

But his most important hunting tool, he says, is the ability to sort through the chaff that gets posted by other online hunters.

"If you go through the chat after the hunt, somebody always had the right location," Allison said. "The correct information is out there on the Internet, but being able to pick it out is definitely a modern treasure hunting skill."

Can he find the medallion by digging through text instead of snow?

Allison thinks so: "This is the year."