On the other side of the door, a famished raptor awaited my entrance.

A park ranger placed a metal baking pan in my sweaty hands. On it, four dead rodents were arranged in a perfect line: Toll mouse cookies.

Dinner was served. And in return I got an unexpected behind the scenes look at operations at the Cunningham Falls State Park aviary.

That's just one of the memories from Park Quest 24/7, my seven-day marathon to visit 24 state parks and complete the challenges devised by the staff of the Maryland Park Service.

There was the chance encounter with a bride in white, a head-long plunge into the woods on a bicycle, absentmindedly picking ticks off a total stranger, an arm-waving cemetery scramble to keep a swarm of horse flies at bay and reaching back to high school biology class (corpuscular or crepuscular?) to complete a word puzzle.

More than 1,450 miles after stepping from a cabin at Herrington Manor State Park in Garrett County, I stepped into the Atlantic Ocean at Assateague State Park. In between dawn on June 1 and early evening on June 7 were 22 other state parks, each different and each one with a test requiring the engagement of muscle and mind.

Park Quest, now in its fourth year, has become a Maryland summer staple. The philosophical underpinnings are simple: It's one thing to tell parents to take their kids outside, but if you don't help them with activities the great outdoors is likely to be a one and done.

The Quests require families to pedal, paddle and hike, to work as a team to find hidden clues and solve puzzles.

The event has grown from six parks and a couple hundred families to 24 parks and 1,000 teams that registered for every slot in just one day this spring.

As of noon Friday, 239 teams had completed at least one Quest. Clan McCormick finished all two dozen between May 7 and the end of the month. Two other families, Wagner's Warriors and Search N Destroyers, have completed 10 to qualify for September's Park Quest Rendezvous, where teams will compete for prizes.

Not surprisingly, the most-visited parks have been the ones closest to Baltimore: Patapsco Valley, Soldiers Delight, Gunpowder Falls. But a fair number of Questers have been showing up at South Mountain, Cedarville and Elk Neck, too. The action will pick up with the school year at an end.

For me, it's hard to play favorites. Both paddling Quests — Deep Creek and Janes Island — were a blast. South Mountain had blooming fields of mountain laurel for the eyes and South Mountain Creamery ice cream for the tummy. Ranger Joe Vogelpohl's audio tour of Soldiers Delight was innovative and fun. The Fair Hill hike soaked up the 24/7 tension like a pine-scented sponge. The ocean breezes at Assateague were a balm at week's end.

Even the one clunker (Greenwell), where the Park Quest box went missing and a marker was down ended up being funny. I made up my own challenge on the river trail, and guess what? I aced it.

Like life, Questing requires adjustments.

Bride Denise Gielas Wilson took a quick break from her pre-wedding photo session at the Jerusalem Mills area Gunpowder Falls State Park to pose with me. Seasonal Ranger Amanda Carbaugh slowed her pace on the Western Maryland Rail Trail to wait for me to recover from the leafy embrace of off-road kudzu. A Quester at Fair Hill kept chatting as I began picking ticks off his shirt. No one flinched when I hollered out in triumph, "Crepuscular!"

The best line of the week came from Lt. Col. Chris Bushman, the No. 2 at the Maryland Park Service. As I struggled to complete the Soldiers Delight mining challenge of sorting rocks from ore by the light of a flickering electric candle, I called to Bushman to lend a hand.

"I prefer to curse the darkness," came the voice from beyond the dim glow. Still cracks me up.

My only regret is not buying patches at each park. They would look good framed above my desk. There's always next year.

For those of you who got closed out of this year's event, take heart. The Park Service is OK with you printing out the Quest challenges and completing them on your own time and dime. And the Carroll County Department of Recreation and Parks is having its own adventure, Park Pursuit, next month in which participants must visit six of 18 parks, answer the questions and take a team picture. Registration for the free program closes June 30.

I'd be blowing smoke if I told you PQ 24/7 was a walk in the park. Compressing a summer's worth of action into 168 hours is a fool's journey.

The line forms behind me.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com