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STEPPING OUT: Petaluma Treasure Hunt hits milestone

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Five years ago, in December of 2012, Bruce Cohn decided that his fellow Petalumans needed to get out and explore their town more often, preferably with their eyes open and their heads up.

“I’d been hiking and biking all over Petaluma, which is just a beautiful town, one of the most beautiful in the world, I think,” explains Cohn, speaking by phone. “And I saw a lot of people sitting around, even walking around, while looking down at their cellphones. They live in Petaluma, but they aren’t looking around at Petaluma. That gave me an idea of how to get more people outside, and looking up from their devices.”

That idea was the Petaluma Holiday Treasure Hunt, which just turned five years old.

Ironically, since it was people’s addiction to those “devices” that largely inspired Cohn, the city-wide Treasure Hunt he eventually devised delivers its clues through an online Facebook page.

Call it fighting the internet with the internet.

“To start out, I hid my business card somewhere in town, then took a really wide picture of it, a picture of the card surrounded by whatever benches or bushes or fences there were all around it,” Cohn explains. On the Facebook page he created, he posted a closely cropped version of that photo, with a promise that whoever identified the location and found the card, then contacted him, would win $25. Every day, Cohn revealed a little more of the photo,. Eventually, one of the Facebook viewers made a calculated guess, ventured out into the wilds of Petaluma, and found the card. “That first winner, she’s still playing, all these years later,” Cohn says. “She’s probably won more time than anyone else. She’s really into it.”

“Really into it” also describes Cohn’s commitment to the unique, somewhat eccentric activity he created. Having started the hunt at Christmas, and hoping to keep the treasure hunt from becoming routine, he decided to stick to the holiday theme, linking each new treasure hunt to a different holiday — Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving — spreading them out throughout the year.

“And in December, we do a new hunt every weekend throughout the whole month,” Cohn says, “just for fun.”

Cohn admits it took a while for the page to catch on, with new folks discovering the Treasure Hunt mainly through word-of-mouth. He knew that the more people who “liked” the Holiday Treasure Hunt page — if you’ve been on Facebook, you’ll know what that means — the more folks were out there playing.

“It took forever just to get to fifty likes,” Cohn recalls.

Gradually, as more people started playing, certain details of the game evolved, while Cohn tinkered with the concept. The prize amounts have grown, for one thing. This last December, every weekend saw two separate hunts, one with a $25 prize, and one with a $100 prize. To make sure that plenty of different folks have an opportunity to win, the rules have been adjusted so that only one member of a family can claim a prize during a specific hunt, and must post a selfie of themselves having found the Winner Card, then call Cohn to make arrangements to pick up the prize.

“The selfies are great,” says Cohn. “If you look at the faces of these kids after they’ve found the prize, the smiles on those faces, it’s just the best thing in the world. That, for me, is what it’s all about.”

That, and getting people out into the world.

Cohn says he’s lost count of how many people have told him that the first time they visited some particular local park was because the treasure hunt sent them there.

“To play the Treasure Hunt, you have to get out and look around,” he says. “And when you do, you end up discovering something new every time, and as a result, you end up enjoying the city more.”

Cohn, a retired real estate appraiser, moved to Arizona in May of 2017, after living in Petaluma for 13 years. With its founder now hundreds of miles away, the local operation of the hunt has been taken over by Petaluma mom Shannon Bondoc, who hides the Winner Cards and takes the pictures. Prizes are picked up at downtown’s Fruit in Motion, and though Cohn says he’s retired and on social security, he still continues to provide the prize money out of his own pocket.

“I’m nowhere near rich,” he says, “but I still send the money up there every time, because I love Petaluma, and I love the people of Petaluma. I didn’t want the thing to die, so I put it out there, and Shannon said she’d be happy to pick it up and keep it going.”

Bondoc, who moved to Petaluma three years ago and discovered the Treasure Hunt soon after, says she learned her way around her new town, in part, by playing the Treasure Hunt with her daughter, who was then 2.

“It was a struggle, playing a game like this in a new town,” she admits, “but then, when Bruce said he was moving out of the area, I decided that in volunteering to go out and hide the treasures, it would help me get out and learn about Petaluma even better. And it has. I have definitely found places I never would have explored, if it weren’t for the fact that I was looking for new hiding spots.”

Like those who play the game with their families, Bondoc says that the Treasure Hunt has given here something fun to do with her daughter that involves being outdoors.

“She helps me choose hiding places,” Bondoc says. “Some of them have turned out to be really easy, because she thinks they’re hard, and some that I think are easy, turn out to be really difficult.”

A few weeks ago, just before Christmas — in the midst of the game’s busiest Christmas season ever — the Petaluma Holiday Treasure Hunt reached a milestone its founder never dreamed possible.

“We got a thousand likes,” Cohn says. “That means a thousand people in Petaluma are playing, or at least thinking about playing. That’s a thousand people who are probably now getting out and wandering Petaluma who might not have done it much before.”

To celebrate, Cohn has decided to have a special treasure hunt this weekend, with a grand prize of $250. Bondoc will be hiding the treasure card soon, and the first photo will go up on the Facebook page on Friday night at 7 p.m.

“It’s my way of saying thank you to all the people who’ve made this thing such a success,” says Cohn, reached by cellphone on the morning of New Year’s Eve. “To tell you the truth,” he adds with a laugh, “I’m at the Tropicana Casino playing Keno right now, and I’ve already won the $250 I’m going to send up there.”

To play along, visit the Petaluma Holiday Treasure Hunt on Facebook. The first clue for the special $250 treasure hunt will be posted on Friday, Jan. 12 at 7 p.m., with additional photos posted at 7 p.m. every night until the treasure is found.

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)