Hunt puts townie IQ to the test

Like a Port version of ‘The Amazing Race,’ traditional Thanksgiving Eve rally leads participants on a frantic search for clues that only make sense to longtime residents

AS MEMBERS OF the winning team in last year’s Port Townie Road Rally, Tony Matera (left) and Brian Barber are busy planning the clues and route for this year’s event. They held clues used in past rallies while standing outside Schooner Pub, where the rally begins and ends on the night before Thanksgiving, Wednesday, Nov. 21. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

“4+7 on fire.”

A photo of the Ozaukee Press, a cardboard box and former Port Washington High School teacher Len Friede.

Pictures of singer Sheryl Crowe, a tube of Crest and a diagram of a basketball court.

These are just a few of the questions that teams have had to decipher during the Port Washington Townie Road Rally, which is marking its 27th anniversary on Wednesday.

Billed as “danger, excitement and romance all rolled into one fun-filled, semi-athletic event ... a test of both speed, endurance, bravery, city pride, townie knowledge and a little luck,” the event has drawn anywhere from 30 to 100 people each year.

It could be billed as a local version of “The Amazing Race” as teams try to figure out obscure clues and handle a variety of challenges in a timed race.

It’s held the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a day when “everyone comes back to town for the holiday,” said Brian Barber, whose team won the event last year and is preparing this year’s rally.

“It’s a fun night and a cool tradition,” Barber said. “And you end up learning things about Port you never knew.”

The event is the brainchild of Tom Didier, who said he and his wife Lora stole the idea after competing in a scavenger hunt  that stretched throughout Ozaukee County.

“It was a fun little venture,” Didier said.

They decided they could adapt the idea to Port Washington, setting out a series of clues intended to perplex and befuddle as it tests a team’s “townie knowledge.”

There’s no set number of people for a team — it’s as many people as fit in one vehicle.

“Minivans are very popular,” Didier said. “We’ve even had people rent mini-buses for the rally.”

The teams gather at Schooner Pub on Wednesday night, registering at 6:30 p.m. There’s a $5 per person fee. Beginning at 7 p.m., a team is sent out every five minutes with a map showing the boundaries of the rally and the first clue.

Whoever collects all the clues in the least amount of time, wins the money.

For the first 10 to 15 years, Didier and his wife set up the contest each year. More recently, the winner of the previous year’s contest was charged with setting up the rally.

The clues run the gamut, from simple word puzzles to abstract photos to numeric quizzes.

“You don’t have to be a townie to play, but having one in the car wouldn’t hurt. Just saying,” said the rules posted online this year.

That’s because some of the clues reference a place in Port’s history — a business that’s no longer there, for example, or the site of a historical event. 

While every clue leads to a location, teams sometimes have to do more than just find the right site. There are tasks to complete, everything from catching a chicken and holding it for five seconds to eating a package of raw ramen noodles.

“It sounds easy, but if you’ve ever tried to consume a pack of ramen raw, you know it isn’t,” Didier said.

And it’s not always easy to find the next clue, even if you have the right locations. Clues have been hidden at Mile Rock, which was surrounded by water, so team members got soaked when fetching them. 

Matera, who said he’s competed “as long as I can remember,” recalled one year when GPS coordinates led the teams to a field owned by Didier’s family.

“We had a terrible blizzard that year and there we were, running aimlessly through the field, snow up past our knees,” he said. “There have been clues in trees and you had to climb up and find them.”

Sometimes, clues are on outdated technology, such as cassette tapes or VHS tapes, Barber said.

“You have to drive around and find someone with a working VCR or cassette player,” he said.

In the early days, Didier said, people didn’t have smartphones so they would often stop at pay phones to call friends or relatives for help.

“People bring phone books, maps — backpacks stuffed with things to help them,” Didier said. “Some people bring a change of clothes — I’ve gotten wet and muddy many times.”

Because the rally is timed, some years there are challenges intended to trim time from a team’s total. Barber recalled one year when teams were challenged to collect as many different Fish Day buttons as they could, with a minute taken off their time for each one.

One team had 23 buttons, he said, noting, “They almost won because of the number of pins they brought in.” 

Teams who are perplexed and can’t figure out a clue can call in for help, but there’s a 10-minute penalty associated with that. Call three times and your team’s disqualified. “To win it, you pretty much have to get each clue,” Didier said.

Since teams are running all over, flashlights in hand seeking clues, organizers let Port police and the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office know what’s happening to avoid any unfortunate incidents, he added. 

The rally’s intended to take about an hour to complete, Didier said, giving people a chance to relax and socialize afterward.

But lest you think it’s fun and games, be warned. People are serious about the competition.

Matera recalled one year when clues led his team to the lakefront. One member headed to Mile Rock while he ran along the breakwater to the lighthouse.

Other cars were heading to the marina as he ventured out, so he sparingly used a flashlight while enroute to the lighthouse, he said. But once he realized the clue wasn’t there, he made sure to flash the light on the way back so other teams would head there as well, burning precious time.

There’s strategy involved in picking teams, Didier said.

“We’ve had college kids participate and people in their 60s and 70s,” Didier said. “We’ve had families and groups of friends.

“You want knowledge. You want someone who’s athletic, someone fast. You want at least one townie on your team.”

While some may question why people would spend the night before their holiday running around, solving riddles and meeting challenges, organizers have a simple response:

“Why? Because you know you want to hold the title of Pdub Townie Road Rally Champion for the next 365 days.”

The answer to the questions:

The D&G Club, a bar and restaurant at the corner of Wisconsin Street and Whitefish Road, that burned down decades ago.

The press box at the Port Washington High School athletic field, where Friede was the voice of the Pirates for years.

Shirlcrest Court, a short street on the city’s north side.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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