A 150-year old British tradition has taken root on the Island. Known as "letterboxing" among the English, "questing", as it's known locally, involves exploring one's own community via a treasure hunt, guided by the playful verse of the quest's creator.
The idea for these educational treasure hunts was imported to Martha's Vineyard by Felix Neck Director Suzan Bellincampi in 2004 when she developed a quest for The Trustees of the Reservations' Menemsha Hills property, basing it on similar projects she had been involved with in communities in and around the Upper Valley region of Vermont and New Hampshire.
Today, the Quest MV program has expanded to 14 quests throughout the Island - including one aboard the Steamship Authority's ferry, Island Home, as well as an off-road 4X4 adventure at Cape Poge.
One of the most popular quests, however, is the kayaking adventure at the Audubon Society's Felix Neck Sanctuary where intrepid questers have the opportunity to explore the maritime wonders of Sengekontacket Pond on a self-guided tour in search of the hidden treasure box.
By Ms. Bellincampi's account, the quests have become very popular of late. "This is our third year and every year there's more and more interest in them," she says. "People really seem to love them."
For beginners and those who have never kayaked before, Ms. Bellincampi suggests taking a guided tour first, but for the experienced and curious crowd, nothing beats the self-guided kayak quest, for which both single and double kayaks are available.
"The quest is for someone who wants to explore on their own and discover the stories of the pond in a way that's kind of personal and unique," she explained.
Formed at the end of the last ice age, as the Laurentide ice sheet made its leisurely retreat across New England, Sengekontacket Pond is the Island's watery Northeast flank, flushed and renewed by channels along Joseph Silvia State Beach. Pushing into this narrow body from the far side is Felix Neck: a labyrinth of trails, salt marshes, sand plain grasslands, oak forests, and brackish ponds.
By boat, however, there is even more to see of the Sanctuary, and kayakers are encouraged during their quest to investigate Sarson's Island, a narrow sand spit that is guarded ferociously by its territorial avian inhabitants and off-limits to humans.
As the quest literature ruefully recalls, the majestic snowy egret briefly made this plot of land its home in the 1980s thanks to the ministrations of the sanctuary's former director, Gus Ben David.
"Oh these birds thrived," the quest booklet reminds you. "'Til a few years later when the cormorants arrived."
One bird featured prominently at Felix Neck, whose natural history on the Island has followed the opposite trajectory of the snowy egret, is the osprey, an elegant raptor that migrates from as far as South America to breed, and whose numbers on the Island dwindled to as few as two pairs by 1970 as their egg production was ravaged by widespread use of DDT, a synthetic pesticide.
Today, there are 70 pairs, thanks in large part to an effort led by Mr. Ben David to erect nesting platforms at Felix Neck and around the Island.
Kayakers can expect to see these streamlined predators circling the sanctuary for food, perhaps in the salt marsh where "fiddler crabs might peer from the holes," and "mussels and snails inhabit the folds," according to the quest booklet.
Of all the Sanctuary's creatures, however, Ms. Bellincampi has a soft spot for that most ancient of living marine creatures, the horseshoe crab. "They're just fascinating," she says. "They have blue blood, you can find their molts, they're gentle animals, they're big, they have compound eyes - there's all kinds of crazy stuff about them."
Questers are invited to learn more about the natural wonders they observe on their self-guided tour by stopping by the Felix Neck Nature Center, which features displays and live animals.
Besides natural history, questers are also reminded of the bygone human inhabitants of these cherished areas.
On The Trustees of the Reservations' Cape Poge property in Chappaquiddick, where an off-roading quest is available, participants discover that here the Wampanoags supported themselves with cultivation for thousands of years, mainly through the application of "large-scale burning" methods that turned scrub oak forests to grassland. As a result, one of the curious paradoxes of the Vineyard is that there are actually more trees now than there were hundreds of years ago.
For a full list of Island Quests visit Questmv.org. Call Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary, 508-627-4850, to learn about kayak tours.
Quests at Cape Poge run through November. Oversand Vehicle Permit required. Call 508-693-7662 for details.
Peter Brannen is a freelance writer living in West Tisbury.