Hacking the park

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Team portrait (we were named by the individual in the middle)

A couple of weeks ago, I received one of those mysterious email invitations that cause those of us with suspicious minds to wonder if the offer is entirely on the up and up. Would I like to participate in an exciting event called “Hack the Park”? For free? With a guest of my choosing?

The only catch was – well, as far as I could tell, there was none. I was invited, but not required, to blog about the experience . . . and since I’m always on the lookout for blog fodder, why not?

I said sure, and invited one of my Prospect Park Track Club teammates to be my date. 

You may have heard, as I vaguely had, of “museum hack” tours. “It’s kind of like a scavenger hunt,” is how one acquaintance described their hack experience. Lest that not sound universally appealing, they went on to assure me that it was a lot of fun, and a great and creative way to see a museum.

This event was hosted by the same people – an expansion of the franchise to the great outdoors. At the appointed hour, T, her 8-year-old son, and I arrived at “Meadowport Arch” (more commonly known to us park aficionados as “that tunnel that leads out to Grand Army Plaza on the Prospect Park West side of the Long Meadow”). We were greeted by a cluster of cheerful and enthusiastic young people (we would have recognized them even if they hadn’t been holding signs), who proceeded to check us in and give us a small, box-like device that turned out to be a Fujifilm portable printer specially designed to print photos on special Fujifilm film from a special Fujifilm app. (Three guesses who the sponsoring partner was.)

Can I say that at the sight of all this technology, my heart sank a little? A lot, even? I had been feeling pretty cocky up until then – T and I are both runners (as is her son), so we move fast, and between my running and my birding I know the park pretty darn well. When one of the cheerful, enthusiastic young people asked if we were competitive, T and I looked at one another, smiled, and confessed, “yeah.”

“So, do you think you’re going to win it all? ‘Cause it looks like you guys might!”

While I’m sure he says that to all the contestants, we chose to take it as a pointed acknowledgment of our runners’ physiques, keen intelligence, and unflappable demeanor.

And then I tried to load the film into the printer.

Let’s just say, it did not go well. First, I couldn’t get the goddamn thing to open. Then I couldn’t get it to turn on. T had slightly better luck, but we still required assistance from one of the (still, remarkably) cheerful and enthusiastic organizers. (Yes, she acknowledged sympathetically, it can be a bit sticky . . . though I noticed that it didn’t seem to stick at all for her.)

And then (dear God have mercy) we needed to figure out the app, connect it to the printer via magic wireless vibes, take a picture of our team, and print it out. I was handicapped in this because my efforts to improve my Spanish have led me to change my iPhone’s language setting – a form of language immersion that has taught me important vocabulary, like “la batería se está agotando” and “Safari no puede abrir la página porque tu iPhone no está conectado a Internet,” but does pose challenges when I’m trying to quickly grasp the essentials of a new app that would be daunting even in English, because it was designed by and for Snapchatting, Instagramming, ride-hailing millenials with nimble thumbs, and not for clumsy 56-year-olds who grouse about bad lighting and small print.

Fortunately, T is a good bit younger than I, with a bigger phone that’s set for a language she speaks fluently. She took over the app for the rest of the hack; my role was limited to carrying the printer and turning it on and off.

Ready . . . set . . . go!

The structure of the hack combines clues to destinations in the park; silly, fun challenges when you get there (like posing as members of the Family Litchfield reveling in that 19th century lush life); and a bingo card to be filled with photographs of designated subjects, taken via the app and printed on the run on that cursed portable printer (which continued to resist my touch, refusing to turn on when I wanted it on, then refusing to turn off when I wanted it off).

As mentioned earlier, T and I are both fairly (even ridiculously) competitive. I can’t speak for her, but I was a bit impatient when – after racing madly across the hole-pocked Long Meadow to our first challenge location – the cheerful, enthusiastic young person waiting there greeted us cheerfully and enthusiastically.

“High five! You guys are runners, huh? Are you havin’ fun?”

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I wanted to say: enough pleasantries, cut to the chase.

He then proceeded to tell us all about glaciers. I was about to heave a sigh of exasperation . . . and then I found myself getting interested. Did you know, for example, that when the glaciers rolled through, they so froze and compacted everything in their path that all the native earthworms were killed off? And that the worms found in New York and other formerly glacial regions are all Eurasian imports, brought over in soil used as ships’ ballast? Isn’t that fascinating? I had no idea!

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A photographic record of our hack (including hard-to-find fungus)

Totally into it now, I relished the history – social, political and natural – we learned from our cheerful and enthusiastic docents at each challenge. Our spirits plummeted, though, when we arrived at our last site, breathless, and discovered another team already preparing to leave, its final challenge completed.

Our only hope now was a bang-up job on our photo bingo sheet. We’d been filling in the easy squares as we went (hey, guys playing some New Age bouncy ball game that actually looks really fun, can we take your picture?); now we needed to find a squirrel (easy to find, hard to photograph – especially when you’re with an excited 8-year-old to whom stealth does not come naturally, but shouting “SQUIRREL!!!” does) and some fungi.

A note here: do you know how hard it is to find mushrooms growing in the woods when you’re actually looking for them? Try it sometime and see.

We were missing just one photo now, which we knew we could get back at our Meadowport Arch rendezvous. T’s son, who’d been a real trooper throughout, was flagging at this point – his cheeks adorably flushed – so it took some cajoling to complete that final leg, but we did it.

Could we possibly be the last ones there? It looked as though we might be . . . and yet, when we handed over our photo bingo sheet, the cheerful and enthusiastic young person considered it seriously and carefully – “hmmm . . . oh, that’s a great picture . . . very nice . . . where’s the squirrel, exactly?” – before declaring, “Well, it looks as though you guys are winners!”

Our prize: one of those portable photo printers and film, which I wanted nothing more to do with, but T’s son was thrilled to receive.

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Winners!

This event was a test run for the real Hack the Park, which is taking place on Saturday, June 3. I highly recommend it . . . though I’d suggest that if you’re over 40, you find a youngster to be part of your team. You’ll need them.

More info available here.

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