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Winter medallion hunt brings out the most dedicated
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Medallion hunter David Allison is one of the main people profiled in the new documentary, "No Time for Cold Feet," about the St. Paul Winter Carnival medallion hunt. (Photo by Maureen Farley, courtesy of Not Another Hollywood Film)
By the end of this week, Minnesota's capital city may have more nightlife in its parks than in its bars and restaurants. The St. Paul Winter Carnival's Treasure Hunt is underway, and that means seekers of a little round token worth up to $10,000 are beginning to scour the city's parks. Hunters are guided by clues published each morning in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

St. Paul, Minn. — The most dedicated medallion hunters wait up for the newspaper's earliest edition to put the fresh clue to use long before sunrise. This subculture of rabid medallion seekers has been captured in a documentary movie.

David Allison is one of the principal medallion seekers followed by two New York City filmmakers in the documentary, "No Time For Cold Feet." The movie's footage was taped during the last four Winter Carnivals, and as Allison left a weekend screening, he said it does capture the intensity of the treasure hunt.

But for Allison, nothing beats that moment six winters ago in Conway Park, during his first real hunt for the medallion. He still gets a twinkle in his eye as he remembers the scene late that night, when word came that the new clue had narrowed the medallion's location to the park's hockey rinks.

"People had kind of been scattered all over the park -- there were probably 1,000 or 2,000 people in the park," Allison recalls. "When those (clues) came out -- you started hearing the cell phones ringing here and there -- then all of a sudden you had people from all over the park go "whoosh!" right onto the hockey rinks. Then everybody was digging shoulder to shoulder trying to dig up these hockey rinks. It was a very intense moment."

The treasure hunt clues are issued at about 11:30 each night by the Pioneer Press, which is in its 53rd year of running the event. Just before each Winter Carnival the medallion is hidden on public land in Ramsey County -- usually a St. Paul park.

As the carnival wears on, the clues become more specific. If the 12th and final clue is necessary, it practically directs readers to the hiding place. But the newspaper provides no specifics about who determines the hiding place, how the medallion is concealed, how and by whom the clues are written. Spokeswoman Pat Effenberger deflects all inquiries with a stock answer.

"All aspects of the Pioneer Press treasure hunt are what many hunters call the best-kept secret in St. Paul," says Effenberger.

As soon as the medallion is found, though, prize money is awarded, all clues are explained, and the successful hunter joins an elite group that's held in great esteem by many of his or her fellow hunters.

In between showings of the movie, Jackie Garry, who co-produced "No Time For Cold Feet," said treasure hunters consistently report they find more motivation in the thrill of the find than in the financial reward.

"I think that they have a sense of accomplishment. Especially people like, for example, Cathi Hogan, who found it in 2001," says Garry. "She'd been looking all her life. And to finally find something like that has got to be an amazing feeling, after looking for 30-something years."

Garry is a Rochester native who was familiar with the hunt for the medallion, but had never seen it up close until beginning work on the documentary with co-producer Trent Tooley.

Garry says she was touched when she saw the friendships that had developed among people whose only contact came during the annual medallion hunt, when they helped each other decipher clues and search through snow. She was also surprised by the commitment and resourcefulness some hunters showed.

"Some of them create their own unique digging tools. Like a guy who creates something with a great big wooden dowel and a piano wire and a mirror on the end of it -- just crazy digging tools that they're up all night creating," says Garry.

You might expect treasure hunting to be a solitary activity, but, like much of the Winter Carnival, it becomes an excuse for some cold weather comaradarie. Many diehard hunters form groups, or "crews," that get together in person or on line to strategize, search, and socialize.

David Allison is part of the Cooler Crew, and is known online by his handle Allison Wonderland. He says there's a unique dynamic within a crew.

"It's a very interesting paradox, almost, between the competition and the cooperation," says Allison. "Everybody's obviously competing against each other, because only one or two people are going to find and split up the treasure -- we're not going to split it 500 ways. But at the same time, we all realize we are in this together. So we kind of do share information."

"We might not share our very best theory," Allison says. "We might go run out and check it out first and if we don't find it say 'Here's what I'm thinking. What do you think about that?' And it benefits everybody to some degree."

Allison says the communing with fellow medallion hunters also provides an impetus to venture out into the parks in the middle of winter, something folks might not be otherwise inclined to do.

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