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Let the Quest planning begin

Registration began this morning for Park Quest 2011, the geo cache, history lesson, adventure challenge rolled into one, sponsored by the Maryland Park Service.

This year, the cutoff is 1,000 teams, and believe me, it won't take long to fill up. All you'll need is one adult and one kid and a team name (I'm sticking with Sacagawea). Then, complete 10 of the 24 Quests to be invited to the Finale in September, where you'll compete for prizes.

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The premise is simple. Register--it's free--and receive a passport. The passport serves as your ticket to each of the 24 parks and whatever gear is needed to complete the challenge. After a successful Quest, get the passport stamped and move on.

Teams have from May 7 to Sept. 5 to get their 10 stamps--but don't stop there. Last year, I did all 24 in seven days, the Park Quest 24/7, and will give it my best shot again in June.

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A few observations as I look at the 24 challenges:

All but three of the basic Quests can be done on foot. Deep Creek Lake and Janes Island will require paddle power to navigate the course. The Western Maryland Rail Trail's 10-mile challenge will put you on a bike. Seneca Creek is a walk, but you'll have to do it while playing nine holes of Disc Golf to answer the questions.

The above-and-beyond Super Quest at Fair Hills is accomplished on horseback, Susquehanna's version has a mountain bike component, and Patapsco Valley's Super Quest (fee based) puts participants at Terrapin Adventure, a priately operated adventure park.

Seven parks will not allow pets, so leave the ferret and llama at home.

If I had to pick a "warm-up Quest" to see how your team jells, I'd go with Sandy Point: Flat, bathrooms, sandy beach, pretty views of the Chesapeake Bay and Bay Bridge, ice cream shop at the end.

As for difficulty, 11 Quests are billed as a 2 out of 5 (most difficult) and 13 Quests are billed as a 3. Janes Island can either be a 3 or a 5, depending on the winds when you're paddling. As a Quester who went out just after a tornado warning was lifted and battled some white caps, I concur.

If the Park Quest instructions call for bug spray, for the love of Pete bring bug spray. Assateague, Janes Island and Deep Creek were all buggy last year for me. And bring a hat to ward off the deer flies.

Keep water in your day pack and some iced-down water in your vehicle for afterward.

Even though places such as South Mountain can be fairly leafy and shady, be sure to pack sunscreen.

Speaking of South Mountain, build some time in your schedule to take advantage of the deal at the end of the Quest: a buy one, get one free ice cream cone special at South Mountain Creamery. After a 2-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail, it will hit the spot.

As for me, I'll be firming up my plans with the Maryland Park Service and will be posting them here. The basic plan is to blog my way across Maryland, hitting all 24 sites in seven days.

I'm looking forward to seeing some favorite parks and learning about new ones. It will be good to see some of the kind and helpful park employees who made last year's Quest so memorable.

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And I hope to meet up with some of you on the trail, clue sheets in hand, enjoying all our state parks have to offer.

Happy Questing!

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