Up they trudged, up a long hill. Then up another hill, shorter and steeper.
Circling the trees, they spotted it, squatting Zen-like in the undergrowth.
"There it is! There it is!" shouted 7-year-old Mason Thorson, pointing excitedly at the strange creature.
What was it? A bobcat? A bear cub?
No, it was Goldy the Golden Gnome of the St. Paul park system.
This year, as a holiday treat, the parks staff created a tree gnome scavenger hunt, hiding 11 gnomes in city parks, with rhyming clues to their locations. Ten of the gnomes stay in their designated homes, but Goldy moves to a different park each week.
St. Paul residents may detect echoes of the longstanding medallion hunt during the city's Winter Carnival, which includes cash prizes of up to $10,000 to the hunter who finds the medallion hidden in a city park.
There are no prizes in the gnome hunt, only pride. But local residents have delighted in following the clues and finding their quarry, posting photos on social media to mark their successful hunts.
"People have been loving it," said Jess Harkcom, a community recreation director for the park system. "I was just over at Highland Park talking to a family; they have gone out and found eight of them.
"It was so cool to hear them ask the questions: 'Where do the gnomes come from? Where do they go? Who takes care of them?' "
The answer to the last question is the parks staff, who made the gnomes out of boughs, gave them faces and hats, and regularly check up on them.
"We call ourselves the Guardians of the Gnomes," Harkcom said Wednesday. "We go out and make sure they're intact. We have had to go out and make a few gnome repairs this morning."
Goldy was in fine shape, nestled comfortably off a trail in a park that shall remain nameless. His discoverers were thrilled by their successful hunt.
"It was really exciting!" exclaimed Mack Peterson, 5, of Woodbury. Mason, up from Iowa to visit relatives, was amazed by the golden hat that gave the gnome its name.
"I thought the hat was really made of gold!" he said.
The tree gnome scavenger hunt will continue for about two more weeks. For more information, visit stpaul.gov and search for "gnome."
John Reinan • 612-673-7402