The Eagle Medallion Hunt begins Thursday, but someone already knows where that 2-inch plastic disc is hidden.
The Clue Master works in secret, choosing a location, placing the disc and crafting eight four-line stanzas that hunters will read and dissect in their attempt to find the medallion and win $1,000.
We can't reveal the Clue Master's identity, for obvious reasons. We wouldn't want the person followed, questioned, harassed or threatened by overzealous medallion hunters hungry for cash.
But we thought it would be fun to give you an inside peek — albeit a shadowy, mysterious one — at the clue-writing process and what goes into creating one of the Wichita River Festival's longest-running and most beloved traditions. Here's our conversation with the Eagle Medallion Hunt clue writer.
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How long have you been writing the clues?
I'm only the second person who has ever written the clues. ... I started in 2009, when the Eagle Medallion Hunt returned after a several-year absence. (The Eagle canceled the event after the 2000 hunt, when overzealous medallion seekers damaged property and wildlife habitats at Swanson Park.)
Did you get any advice from the previous clue writer?
No, we never talked about it. I went back and dug through the Eagle archives and wrote down every clue ever given, what day it was found, what the prize was. I was really impressed with some of the places the previous person hid it. But we have never discussed it.
What's your basic process?
The first thing is finding the location. Once you've done that, it's working backwards from there. It's not easy, but when you know where it is, writing the clues is a heck of a lot easier. Then I write a first draft of the clues, spend a few days obsessing about it, rewrite them. I tweak them sometimes right up to the day before they're published.
Is there a trick to writing good clues?
I've learned a lot of things to do and not to do. I try to make them obscure but not twisted beyond recognition. We want someone to find the medallion, but not on the first or second day. ... The clues are in verse, which is hard. I like things to rhyme — or to rhyme as best they can — and to have the same number of syllables per line. I actually think in verse for a few days after I've written the clues. It's really unfortunate. (Laughter.)
Sometimes I really have to contort language, but that's the fun, trying to force it. I like mixing in pop culture references and classical references and math and geometry and whatever else is striking my fancy. I really like to get in Wichita history if at all possible.
So you do a lot of research.
Yes. Once I have the location, I find out what the land used to be used for, the history of things around it. If it's in a park, what the history of the name of that park is. Actually, that's part of the fun of it, getting to learn new things about Wichita and its history.
When do you hide the medallion?
There's a common accusation that we don't hide it until further into the hunt, and that is definitely not true. It's always hidden before the hunt begins, but that varies. I've hidden it anywhere from the day before to a week before.
Are there any precautions you take when hiding it?
Yes. The process of hiding the medallion in some cases has taken up to several hours — to make sure nobody is watching, nobody is following, nobody is looking. I will drive all over town. I will walk parts of town. I don't want anyone seeing. We like to preserve the integrity of the hunt.
I have twice hidden it in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. One time I went out to do it in the middle of a storm, and there was somebody else sitting in that park in their car, so I waited and I got absolutely drenched. But I had towels in the car. I was ready.
What have you learned about the Wichita area?
There's a lot of poison ivy out there. And ticks.
So this is your 10th year choosing a location and writing clues. Does it get more difficult?
It does. I don't want to repeat locations, but that doesn't mean I never will. There are so many places you can hide it, so you don't want to repeat yourself. But on the other hand, you don't want people to say, "Well, it was hidden in Sim Park, so it won't be there this year." Because as soon as people think that, that's where we need to hide it.
There are a lot of considerations for finding the right location, but I can't tell you what they are, because that would make it easier for people to narrow down. It will be on public land in Sedgwick County. You don't have to destroy anything, and in fact you can get disqualified if you do.
Looking back, is there a clue that you're particularly fond of?
My all-time favorite clue was the second part of Day Seven in 2012:
Before seven is gone, this one now is benign.
Famous brothers did claim it from victory's sign.
That year's medallion was hidden in Air Capital Memorial Park, which for years displayed a decommissioned B-47 bomber. "Before seven" can also be read as "B-47," and "benign" hints about it being decommissioned. The plane is now at McConnell Air Force Base, which is named after the McConnell brothers, and it was mounted atop a concrete "V" — victory's sign. I was pretty proud of that one.
What's your life like after the hunt begins? Do you think about it?
I'm always wondering. During the first couple days, I'm dreading that call from the editor saying somebody's brought it in. Day five or six is good, but if it hasn't been found by then, it causes me a lot of stress. If someone hasn't found it by the sixth day, I start getting worried and wondering if I need to simplify the last couple days' worth of clues.
Has that happened?
Yes. Last year I rewrote the last clue to make it more explicit.
What's the earliest the medallion has ever been found?
One year it was found before the hunt began. They put it between two pieces of wood and stuck it in the slats of a park bench, and when somebody sat on the bench and the slats separated, the wood blocks fell out and the medallion fell on the ground.
Do you check on the medallion during the hunt?
One rumor we hear every year is that somebody goes out and checks the medallion every single day. That is not true. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don't. Most years we just trust that the person who's going to find it is going to find it. But there are exceptions: Last year's was near a ditch, and we had a couple of really good rains during that period, so I did go out and check to see if it was still there.
What goes through your mind when the medallion is found?
Relief usually. The people who win it seem to be really awesome people who love the hunt and love Wichita, and that makes me happy. I remember the family last year treated it as a family activity. Their kids who were grown came back to participate in the hunt all week. And there are people who do it for fun and give away their winnings to charity, and that's so cool.
Do you have any advice or an overall message to this year's medallion hunters?
Respect your surroundings, and have fun. Because that's what it should be, it should be fun.