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A summer's worth of quests in just one week

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Maybe I'll get it right this time. Maybe it won't hurt as much as last year — it couldn't, could it?

Docile bugs, less bloodshed, lower temperatures and a more well-rounded diet, that's what I'm hoping for as I once again take on the Maryland Park Service's Park Quest adventure beginning Wednesday.

Park Quest, now in its fourth year, is a family adventure in which teams tackle challenges at up to 24 selected state parks. Participants hike, paddle and pedal their way to solving quests that include map and compass reading, geocaching, puzzle-solving and word scrambles. Once they complete a Quest, their passport is stamped. Teams qualify to compete in the finale Sept. 24 by completing 10 Park Quests this summer.

In my quest to collect workman's comp, massive amounts of mileage reimbursement and the sympathy of friends, I will compress a summer's worth of Quests, all 24 parks, from Western Maryland to the Atlantic Ocean, into seven days. Park Quest 24/7.

The Park Quest motto is "Where a Family Becomes a Team."

I'm going solo.

Why?

Why not.

In the first place, an outdoors writer should know all state parks, and I am several picnic tables short of a pavilion.

The Preakness is over, the Orioles have a long season and the Ravens will soon be working out at a playground near you. I won't be missing much.

June can't possibly be as hot as last July, when I swear even the rocks were sweating.

And here's the most comforting thought: I won't really be alone. In a showing that would make Jack Bauer proud, 1,000 families — the maximum — signed up in just a hair over 24 hours.

"It was crazy, crazy," said Barbara Knisely, the chief of customer relations for the state park service and my patron saint last year. "They were registering as fast as I could post them. I couldn't even answer the phone."

The team names are great: Raiders of the Lost Park, Sock Puppets Gone Wild, Whining Weavers, The Griswalds, The Killer Squirrels, Are We There Yet?

As of Friday, three weeks into the contest, one team from last year, Clan McCormick, had finished 19 of 24 parks. My fellow Questers on two challenges last year, Team Bay Bougheys, have notched three already without me.

Ranger Matt Ritter, who's running the show this year, says at least 120 teams have completed one Quest. But nowhere are my friends, The Pits of Despair. Inconceivable!

The PQ Facebook page is full of journal entries, tips, snapshots and shout-outs for gems found along the way that aren't really part of the Quest but have added value to the adventure.

"People have taken ownership of the event and their parks," Ritter said. "The Facebook page makes it more welcoming to families that haven't participated before."

Park rangers are keeping a careful watch for Questers, answering questions and making adjustments as they get feedback (take pity on me, gang).

For example, so many families raved about the ice cream at South Mountain Creamery last year that the park service asked — and the owners agreed — to be a part of one Quest this year.

"The staff has such buy-in. They get to spotlight the hidden gems in their parks, the trails and landmarks," Ritter said. "They look forward to Park Quest as much as the families do."

Seven of the 24 parks are new this year. Out are Swallow Falls (a favorite and my starting point last year), Merkle, Calvert Cliffs, Wye, Tuckahoe and the saints — St.Mary's and St. Clement's (another fave). In are the Western Maryland Rail Trail, Fair Hill, Smallwood, Cedarville, Greenwell, Sassafras and Martinak.

The returning 17 have new Quests, foiling my thought of cribbing from last year's worksheets.

Park Quest 24/7 will be west to east. There's something about standing in the Atlantic Ocean that says "finished." If last year is any indication, the tripometer will tick off about 1,500 miles. Last year, I hit every county but Kent. This year, unless the disembodied voice of my GPS recalculates my route, it looks like I'll check off all 23 counties plus Baltimore.

Here's the breakdown:

Day 1 (Wednesday): Herrington Manor, Deep Creek Lake, New Germany, Rocky Gap

Day 2: Western Maryland Rail Trail, Fort Frederick, Cunningham Falls, South Mountain

Day 3: Smallwood, Cedarville, Greenwell

Day 4: Seneca Creek, Soldiers Delight, Gunpowder Falls, Patapsco Valley

Day 5: Susquehanna, Fair Hill, Elk Neck

Day 6: Sassafras, Martinak, Sandy Point

Day 7: Janes Island, Pocomoke, Assateague

The Outdoors Girl blog on The Baltimore Sun's website will carry a real-time, park-by-park account.

Why am I doing it?

Because it feels so good when I stop.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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