October 18, 2021

Youngsters really dig Dawson City Klondike Hunt

Graziano/contributing photographer

City Police Officer Jeff Fitts helps (left to right faces shown) Grayden Yunghans, 8, Lia Barber, 11, Tristen Yaple, 10, Cole Meeker, 8, Sophie Mayer, 9, Mottie Baker, 11, and Reid Partis, 12, carry a large piece of “gold” as part of the Dawson City Klondike Hunt in Suggett Park on Friday morning.

A 14-year-old girl carrying a bowl of gold sprinted out from the trees in Suggett Park toward the adjacent basketball court 40 yards away.

“Thief! Thief!” a 9-year-old boy who was in pursuit of her yelled.

About a yard away from the court, he caught the girl, knocking the bowl away from her. Drenched in sweat, the two caught their breath before Lt. David Guerrera and the boy escorted the girl to a makeshift town court to see Judge David Alexander.

It was her third offense; she was ordered to pay more gold for her bail.

“It is really fun,” said the 14-year-old girl, Angel Wells of Cortland.

She joined about 200 other kids — age 5 to 14 — in the first Dawson City Klondike Hunt on Friday morning in Suggett Park in Cortland.

In 1896, miners converged in Dawson City, Canada, to hunt for gold. Kids did the same to recreate the hunt as a game in the park, scouting and digging for hidden gold — gold-painted rocks.

The idea originated with city Police Officer Jeff Fitts. He played the game as a kid and had the idea to recreate it for kids. He teamed with Community-Oriented Police Officer Jesse Abbott and Cortland Youth Bureau Recreation Supervisor Andrea Piedigrossi to brainstorm ideas.

The idea evolved from there over three months. Fitts said Piedigrossi figured out how to turn Suggett Park into a makeshift Dawson City with a town court, team stations, a bank and areas for gold digging.

Piedigrossi said rocks were collected and spray painted gold all week, and city Youth Bureau volunteers and police got to the park early to hide them.

Aside from the parking lots, the creek and swimming pool, all areas of the park were fair game for the kids to search for gold. Once the horn blew about 10 a.m., the kids sprinted to every corner of the park scouring for the gold. Within seconds, groups of kids were already running back with a handful of rocks.

The kids were split into three large teams, with each team having a deputy and bandits. The bandits were able to steal the gold from those who found it, and the deputies were tasked with catching them.

Just as bandit Wells was caught by 9-year-old deputy Tucker Trabucco of Harford, the bandits have to face the town judge, played by Alexander, and pay for their bail with their team’s gold.

“The kids learn about team building,” Fitts said. “It is a learning experience, learning right and wrong.”

About 100 kids were expected to attend, Piedigrossi said, so she and all who participated were happy to see more than 200 attend. She said she definitely expects to have the event next year.

Abbott said the event picked up a couple of sponsors this year, such as Tops supermarket, which donated water. He hopes more will support the event as it continues.

“This is what community policing is all about,” he said, as he stood by a group of city police officers who volunteered to help. “It is a great community event.”

For Wells, the event was a good way to meet new people. She moved to Cortland from Florida in November. She said in Florida there were never any events like this.

Nine-year-old Trabucco said he liked the concept because it get kids to consider how hard things were back in the 1890s, and that he got to play a deputy.

But mostly, he just enjoyed searching for the gold, he said before running back to his team to continue the hunt.