By Sara Olkon
Photo by Jason Smith

It's all the time, and finding people who you feel comfortable being weird with. ””
—Fourth-year Grace Chapin

It’s 2 a.m., and Grace Chapin awakens from a terrible nightmare in a cold sweat.

A fourth-year and head judge of the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, Chapin dreamed that this year’s competition was lifeless and boring.

She can rest easy. Now in its 25th year, this quintessential campus tradition compels hundreds of undergrads to spend 84 straight hours deciphering cryptic clues, seeking out obscure items, and creating useless and alluring artifacts using anything from scrap wood to discarded bathroom fixtures.

It’s challenging, mind-bending, and often bizarre—but never boring.

Chapin signed up as a first-year while a resident of the Snell-Hitchcock Hall, legendary front-runners of a competition long dominated by campus housing teams. She became so enamored that family and friends started giving her Scav-themed birthday gifts.

“It’s like my BA,” says Chapin, who majors in psychology and minors in Germanic Studies. “As a judge you spend all year thinking about this … it’s the epicness of it.”

What began in 1987 as a post-exam diversion has since grown into a beloved student experience — spawning two documentary films, countless relationships, a few marriages, and at least one baby. This year, the contest aims to set a new Guinness World Record for largest scavenger hunt. (The distinction is currently held by a group of 212 schoolchildren at an elementary school in Ontario.)

“The Scav Hunt is a brilliant example of the entrepreneurial and improvisational spirit typical of our students—a spirit that they take from the University as a whole and, even more important, a spirit that their Scav Hunt—their irony, wit, playfulness, curiosity, risk-taking, self-reliance, and open-mindedness—sustains for the whole community,” says John W. Boyer, dean of the College.

Humble Idea Quickly Catches On

On the Wednesday night before Mother’s Day, “Scavvies” gather at the Cloister Club at Ida Noyes Hall. At midnight, the judges reveal the list of 300 or so random clues and commands, (e.g., have a potato break the sound barrier.) The teams have until noon Sunday to complete the tasks as creatively as they can.

Credit for spearheading the first hunt goes to Chris Straus, AB’88, MD’92, who lived in Hitchcock at the time. He saw it as a nice way to blow off steam after midterms.

“Lists were meant to be fun to read and entertaining ... with some mystery,” Straus says.

Road trips are part and parcel of the competition, although their origin was actually a beautiful accident.

“Road trip items grew out of a first-year asking for a five-cent soda can that was mistakenly delivered to Mr. G’s [a grocery store in Hyde Park],” says Straus, who is now associate professor of radiology at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Most contestants did not realize the cans were in the neighborhood, and some drove to Iowa or flew to New York City.

One year, a team made it all the way to Las Vegas—too far even for Scav Hunt. Newer rules, designed to guard against road exhaustion or pricey flights, forbid more than a total of 2,000 miles of driving.

In the late ’90s, judges started making the hunt much harder and Google-proof. The hunt also has evolved so that team members who have advanced carpentry skills hold special status.

Second-year John Bobka, for example, heads up the “manly-contractor” segment of Snell-Hitchcock's team. He helps supervise compilation of raw materials — plywood, PVC piping, and any fixtures they run across dumpster diving—and takes charge of building any items. Last year, Bobka led the design of a human-sized cat-scratch tree. 

Perhaps the most notable of all construction projects was from the ’99 hunt, in which one team successfully built a nuclear reactor from scratch. It was the brainchild of two physics majors, Justin Kasper and Fred Niell, who assured all concerned that their project wasn’t as scary as it sounds — there was only a trace of plutonium.

“On what other campus could students be summoned to assemble (in various iterations) a live elephant, a nuclear breeder reactor, a life-sized battleship, a bust of Abraham Lincoln made out of pennies, a book printed in the American colonies before 1776, and the official exorcist of the Archdiocese of Chicago?” ponders Boyer.

‘How can I not do this?’

Indeed, the sheer randomness of the tasks is what enthralls some of the competitors.

“How can I not do this? It's an amazing opportunity to create,” says second-year Nicholas Cassleman, a co-captain of the Burton-Judson team. “This school is super theoretical. It’s really refreshing and fun to make something that doesn't have theoretical or practical value.”

Take, for instance, the video he made last year of little sugar cookie people meeting their demise — an homage to the Boston Molasses Disaster of 1919.

Or when Cassleman managed to walk on his hands across the Midway. (It helps that he practices gymnastics and the circus arts, he concedes.)

The competition “breaks down all the barriers” between students and creates “truly touching moments,” Cassleman says.

Scav romance is common, Chapin says.

“It's all the time, and finding people who you feel comfortable being weird with,” she explains.

As a participant—she became a Scav judge her third year—Chapin performed a legal wedding, danced in (and won) an “androgyny” drag show, tracked down a double-belled euphonium (a hard-to-find brass horn last made about 50 years ago), and went to class dressed as David Bowie (she dressed in two Bowie iterations, as Aladdin Sane and then Ziggy Stardust).

Her devotion was obvious as a first-year.

“I will be doing Scav Hunt until I literally can’t anymore,” she said at the time. “I’ll be 65, and they’ll be trying to send me home.”