On Saturday, April 9, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 75 teams comprising 288 students and faculty participated in “The First Annual WWU Great Puzzle Hunt.”
The “Periodic Table Dancers,” “No MBA Left Behind” and many other teams dashed around Western’s campus, eagerly solving puzzles covering a variety of subject areas.
The first place student team was The Fellowship, followed by Puddlemere United and then The Puzzle Pirates. Winning teams received Amazon gift cards.
This is the first time associate math professor Millie Johnson has organized an event of this size and scope, but she didn’t do it alone. A huge outpouring of interest and support from students, puzzle aficionados and an anonymous donor has helped to make the Puzzle Hunt happen.
“I didn’t have any idea it was going to grow into what it’s grown into,” Johnson said.
Groups of puzzle hunters were seen pouring over checkered puzzle sheets in little clusters dotted around campus on Saturday afternoon. As the hunt wound down around 3 p.m., the line for the event’s free pizza stretched halfway across Red Square, while teams soaked in the sun and listened to the KUGS-FM DJ.
Of the two faculty teams, The Church of Put It Backism came in first, followed by the Woodring College Enthusiasts (of Puzzles).
“It was very fun, very well done,” Elle Ojala of The Puzzle Pirates said. “We had a really great time.”
Ojala’s teammate Grace Baker said it was really easy to work together to solve the puzzles.
“It wasn’t really what I was expecting, but it was really, really cool,” Ojala said.
Johnson first began to seriously consider the idea for a puzzle hunt in January 2015 when she saw an article in The Bellingham Herald about a competition looking for events to bring more people to Bellingham, she said.
“I wanted it to be an event where people would be like Ski to Sea, running around, but instead of doing physical things they’d be doing academic ideas,” Johnson said.
Disappointed by the eventual winner, a fish festival, Johnson spoke to the reporter at The Herald who had written the initial story. Johnson said the reporter encouraged her to make the idea a reality. Saturday’s hunt acted as a test to see if the puzzle hunt could become a permanent event.
Johnson said she was encouraged by Saturday’s results.
Johnson said she started meeting with graduate student Kyle Rader in June 2015 to begin planning the event. Originally only enlisted to build the website, Rader ended up building the entire online system for running the hunt.
As well as being able to direct a large number of teams to different locations around the hunt, the system allows participants to access the puzzles through scanning Quick Response codes with their smartphones, Rader said.
Rader said the idea to use Quick Response codes was inspired by a recent trip to China and seeing how prevalent the use of Quick Response codes are on everyone’s phones there.
The app also features a running leaderboard so teams can compare their progress, he said.
To design the puzzles Johnson turned to two students, juniors Zoe Pollard and Jeff Katen. Both are puzzle fans.
“I definitely like solving a lot of puzzles online, like a hobby,” Katen said. In the past, Johnson has sponsored them as a team in puzzle hunts, including one in Seattle.
In creating the puzzles they looked at a lot of examples and drew from the ones they thought were the most interesting and fun, Pollard said.
“It’s really cool to see it all coming together like, ‘Wow! I’m actually part of a project,’” Katen said.
The puzzles were divided up into four general subject areas, each generally related to their location on campus. For example, the one next to the Performing Arts Center was music themed. “We really wanted it be multidisciplinary,” Pollard said.
In addition, they created a metapuzzle that required the answers from all the other puzzles to be solved.
Johnson said the process has not been without setbacks. She said they had a budget of $3,500 and they spent all of it.
“I had to pay for stuff I never would have heard of before,” Johnson said. “Having police notified, having sprinklers turned off in grassy areas where the puzzles are, just things that I didn’t think of.”
Johnson said it was important to her that the event be free of charge this year. Money to run the event was provided by donations from various university departments. Woods Coffee also donated free coffee and Johnson received an anonymous prize donation.
Johnson said they were only planning on having prizes for students since they weren’t planning on involving faculty, but then she received an anonymous donation which was slipped under her door consisting of coupons for Mallard Ice Cream.
Once the competition was open Johnson said she was blown away by the response. Johnson only expected 150 to 200 participants and 288 ended up attending.
There was also a surprise prize for best team name that was won by Haydn in Plain Sight. “We had no idea people would be so clever with the team names,” Rader said.
Next year Johnson said she is thinking about adding more divisions for people who aren’t Western students or faculty.
“I’ll be somewhere on the same planet, so I’ll be involved,” Rader said, with Pollard and Katen echoing his sentiments. The community who made the event possible are ready to make it happen again.”