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Winning is easy for these hunters

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Carol and Paul Valencik took the first-place prize this year in the Itty Bitty City Scavenger Hunt in Fredericksburg. RICH JOHNSON for  THE FREE-LANCE STAR

Carol and Paul Valencik took the first-place prize this year in the Itty Bitty City Scavenger Hunt in Fredericksburg. RICH JOHNSON for THE FREE-LANCE STAR

Winners in the 10th annual Itty Bitty City Scavenger Hunt this year range from first-timers to folks who’ve participated in all 10.

And this year, it was harder to win than ever, with 803 entries, about 200 more than usual.

Carol and Paul Valencik won the $400 first prize. The Spotsylvania County residents have been participating in the hunt for five or six years, Carol said.

The couple spends a lot of time in downtown Fredericksburg.

“Actually, I commented to my husband that I thought this year was fairly easy compared to previous years,” she said.

After the first day out, they had found 15 of the 20 clues.

They struggled with one that many people found challenging, No. 20, found at St. George’s Episcopal Church on Princess Anne Street. A bonus hint for that clue was posted to Facebook because of its difficulty.

“I’d have to say the most difficult one was probably the Wayside Pulpit,” Valencik said. “Looking at the background, you could tell it was wood. My husband found that one on his own one day when he was downtown walking around.”

They also had a bit of a secret weapon: daughter Jessica Hoechst, 22.

“We were heading out and she asked to go,” Valencik said. “Right away, she looked at some of the pictures and said, ‘I know what that is.’”

Like No. 12, a statue in front of the Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center, commemorating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Over the years, hunters have fallen firmly into two categories—those who are willing to help competitors, and those whose answer sheets are off limits.

Valencik said her family falls into that first category.

“We ran into friends and lots of groups of people doing it,” she said. “We didn’t really have to share this year, but in the past years, when we’ve been really stumped, we’ve shared. This year we did talk to others, asked how they were doing and what they had found. If someone was having a really hard time, we’d give a little clue to look on Princess Anne Street or down Caroline. We just really enjoy it.”

Paul Valencik is a firefighter who was working a 24-hour shift and only learned Friday morning that they won. His wife said they hadn’t yet had a chance to discuss how they might spend their winnings.

For second-place winner Amy Martin–Cole, who will collect $250, the hunt was also a family affair. She searched with husband John Cole and children Lainie, 17, and Phoeboe, 8. They’ve participated every year.

The kids will probably benefit most from the winnings, she said. Lainie is going to Germany on a yearlong foreign exchange and needs supplies, and Phoeboe wants a new video game.

“We did it as a family, but this year my husband was running a lot,” Martin–Cole said. “So he’d look around and come home and tell us he’d found another one.”

The family overlooked No. 17, an E from the sign “Antique Court of Shoppes” on Caroline Street.

“I think it was because it was right there in front of us,” Martin–Cole said. “We also had trouble with [No. 12] the statue in front of the museum. We thought that was a door knocker, so we spent a long time looking at doors.”

Martin–Cole said other people should try the hunt. “Just go and do it. It’s a ton of fun and great family time. Head downtown, grab a bite to eat at Soup & Taco or Sammy T’s. And go often. You won’t find everything on your first trip.”

Even downtown residents like them can benefit from a fresh look around.

“We know where everything is, but we don’t browse around a lot,” she said. “This lets us figure out what’s new and see things we’ve been missing.”

First-time hunters and recent retirees Shelley and Randy Bowie picked up one of the hunt’s $50 third-place prizes. Shelley said they decided to hunt to get some exercise.

“Most of the time we were out there in the middle of the day,” she said. “And that was some of the hottest days of June, but we had a lot of fun.”

The Bowies also had trouble with the Wayside Pulpit and No. 19, the Libertytown parking-area sign.

“We kept going over to Liberty Street and thinking, ‘It’s got to be on the art place,’ but we were always looking the wrong direction!”

The Bowies, who live in Stafford County, spent three or four hours on about five occasions looking for items. Her advice for first-time hunters next year: It’s easier than you think.

“We really overworked it,” she said. “Some of them are really obvious, but we were walking up and down William Street, trying to look at rooftops. We made it harder than it actually was. But we’re definitely going to participate next year.”

Bowie has a pretty good idea of how they’ll use their prize.

“We’ll probably go out to dinner,” she said, “maybe in downtown Fredericksburg!”

Six other third-place winners collected $50 each, for a total of $1,000 in cash prizes provided by the Fredericksburg Department of Economic Development and Tourism.

Laura L. Hutchison, a former editor at The Free Lance–Star, teaches English and journalism in Stafford.