Geocaching Sparks Global Treasure Hunt
Reprinted with permission: Tri-City Herald, Sunday, September 22, 2002
Story by Loretto J. Hulse
Photos by Paul T. Erickson of the Herald staff (photos not available here)
Part treasure hunt, part technical exercise, geocaching is a fancy name for a fun game. Geo stands for the earth, where the game is played; caching for what the players do, hiding small treasurers for others to find. Once a cache is found – many contain small items like books, tiny flashlights and space blankets – the finder signs the log book inside and usually trades one trinket for another.
Wayne “Sluggo” Walker of Richland is an old-time geocacher. He’s been playing the game of hide-and-seek since May 26, 2000.
Yes, geocaching is a young sport. When Walker discovered geocaching while surfing the Net, the concept was only days old. In contrast, Matt Watkins of Pasco is a relative newcomer. He’s been searching for caches just since March, but has already discovered 25.
In geocaching, the players use a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to lead them close to a cache, usually a military surplus ammo box. Map reading skills increase chances of “winning.” So does a sharp eye, patience and a smile from Lady Luck.
Some call it a sport, some a hobby.
“To me the correct term is game. I’m the player and the caches the game pieces,” said Walker.
Try it once, and chances are you’ll be as hooked on geocaching as Walker and Watkins.
The geocaching hook sank deep into Walker when he was traveling, sometimes for weeks at a time, in his job as a troubleshooter for the nuclear industry.
“That’s not a healthy lifestyle; you tend to spend too many nights in taverns,” he said.
Once Walker discovered geocaching, late nights were a thing of the past. Before leaving on a trip he’d research his route, line up four to five catches for each week, and pack his GPS receiver.
On the road, “instead of sleeping in, I was up at dawn, hunting. It’s a healthy, mentally challenging pastime, and I found things and places even the locals didn’t know existed,” Walker said.
Watkins’ experience with geocaching is similar. He already had a GPS unit. “I’ve always been interested in gadgets,” he said. And when he read about the game in Wired magazine early this year, he was out hunting caches days later.
His first? One of Walker’s, “Sluggo’s Delta Hairlines Cache” on the Yakima River.
Now when Watkins leaves home, his GPS receiver gets packed too.
“It’s actually very useful in everyday life,” he said. “When you get off the plane in a strange town, it makes finding your hotel a lot easier.”
Walker’s enthusiasm for the game is infectious. Asked to explain geocaching, his first question was, “How much time do you have?”
Not because it’s complicated. It’s not; everyone from Cub Scouts to grandparents are doing it. “But because it’s just plain fun,” said Walker.
Watkins recently invited five children from the Boys & Girls Club to hunt for a box he hid at Edgar Brown Memorial Stadium in Pasco.
“They ranged from 7 to 11 years,” he said. “I showed them how to use the unit and turned them loose. They went right to it, located the box and traded items, just like a real cache.”
In mid-August Walker invited myself and a Herald photographer to join him and his wife, Clare, as they visited a cache he’d hidden on Chandler Butte. The day was windy, the cache well hidden, the view – even on a dusty Mid-Columbia afternoon – impressive.
“That’s part of hiding a cache,” Walker said. “You want to lead people to a scenic or meaningful spot – a pretty view, a monument.”
A site Watkins calls “the coolest” is one he found while on a business trip to Washington, D.C. It’s a four-part cache called “Uncommon Valor,” in Arlington National Cemetery.
The first coordinates send you to the headstone of a World War II soldier. So do the second.
“I noticed both had been in the Marine Corps and so was the third, another WWII vet. These have all been corporals and sergeants, so I’m beginning to wonder what’s up,” he said.
“At the fourth site it suddenly hits you. You’re standing at the Iwo Jima monument, those soldiers’ graves, they were three of the flag raisers.
“To me that’s a wow, and it’s something that’s not on the regular tour; you can’t do it in a brochure. Very few people get to experience something like this, unless they’re geocachers.”
Sometimes those hiding a cache want to tease. Walker still chuckles as he tells the tale of a cache he searched for in another state. Approached via the road, you could spot it easily. Approach from any other direction and it was well hidden.
The catch? A tall, miles-long fence protects it. “Go the easy way and you can see it, but you can’t touch it,” said Walker, grinning. He took the harder route and was able to swap one trinket for another and sign the log book.
That’s all part of the game. Some geocachers rack up finds like excited youngsters at an Easter egg hunt, while others are motivated by the thrill of the search. Give them coordinates and they’ll seek out everything from a hidden cache to a landmark. In a pinch, they’ll even search out a convergence, the point where a certain latitude and longitude cross.
Chances are you’ll never catch them at it. Part of the etiquette of geocaching is “be discreet, don’t get caught doing it,” Walker said.
He’s told some people he was using a light meter for his camera (it helps to carry one). He’s told others he was surveying.
Another rule is, if you place a cache, you’re responsible for maintaining it.
Yet another rule, Watkins said, is don’t put them on private, or even public, lands without permission. “Some places, like national parks, simply can’t take the foot traffic,” he said.
More than 29,259 caches have been hidden in 148 countries from Namibia to Vietnam to Yugoslavia. They’re in caves, deserts, forests, under sagebrush and in planter boxes on busy streets. There’s even one underwater with a lonely travel bug, “Nooch,” inside.
Watkins placed it on May 6, 100-plus feet deep in the chilly waters of Lake Chelan. That one’s beyond the abilities of most geocachers – you’ll need scuba gear. But for most caches all you need is a GPS receiver and Internet access.
Basic GPS units, which are roughly the size of a cell phone, cost about $100. Used units are cheaper, especially on the Internet.
“Once that’s in hand, access geocaching.com, choose a site and go,” Watkins said. Along with a water bottle and extra batteries for the GPS unit, a geocacher might want to take along a U.S. Geological Survey topographical map for the region. These are available on CD-ROM for several hundred dollars, or as folding paper maps available at sporting and camping stores, Forest Service offices and the Internet for $10 or less.
“It helps to know the terrain in advance,” Walker said, telling the tale of a cache he and his wife were searching for in the Basin. “We could tell where it had to be. The problem was there was a big canyon between us and it.”
“If, even just three years ago, you’d said a bunch of adults would buy an instrument and go out in the woods and tramp around, everyone would have laughed at you.”
Today they’re more likely to join you.
Reporter Loretto J. Hulse can be reached at 582-1513 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By the Herald Staff
GPS – Global Positioning System is a series of military satellites providing specially coded signals that can be processed by a GPS receiver to determine specific locations on the planet to within 5 to 8 yards or better.
Cache – A water-proof, animal-proof container. Military surplus ammo boxes are popular, so are gallon-size plastic containers. Cache owners often disguise the container. Wayne Walker of Richland uses paint, moss and leaves to make his less obvious. Burying is discouraged.
Spoiler – A disclaimer just before the log entries for each cache warning that the entries may contain information that will spoil the fun of finding.
Encryption – Some geocachers will use a simple code to encrypt their log entries to prevent them from being a “spoiler.” Some caches’ descriptions also contain encrypted hints to make it easier to find.
Progressive or multistate cache – You find the first which contains a clue to the second, third or more caches.
Puzzle – Sometimes a single cache with a puzzle or riddle to solve. Other times portions of the puzzle are in several caches and you must find them all to solve it. “There are a zillion variations to this one,” said Walker.
Virtual cache – There’s no physical cache to locate. Instead you’re sent to find an existing sign, object or place.
Event caching - A group activity, sometimes used as a fund-raiser or a way to spread the word about geocaching. These often include a picnic or potluck, prizes and a swapping of tall geocaching tales.
Travelbugs - Two-piece, numbered metal tags available at www.geocaching.com. You keep one piece and attach the other to an object (like a Matchbox car) along with instructions. For example Walker has a small stuffed bear – “Amelia Bearhart,” complete with flight jacket and goggles – on her way around the world, west to east. She’s traveled nearly 17,000 miles since mid-March, going from cache to cache.
Update: November 2014
I received an e-mail from a person that was using this page on my website from 12 years ago. Thanks Loretto for the article….the praise of a well-written articled goes to you.
I’m Angela, I work with kids and families in an after school program doing all sorts of fun activities. The kids in my group came across your page http://mattwatkins.org/geocaching.htm while searching for helpful geocaching tips since we are still pretty new to it and just found our first cache last week. We had so much fun doing it, we can’t wait to start looking for the next one. Thanks for the awesome and helpful info!
In the searches they also found this page http://www.fleetmatics.co.uk/resources/articles/geocaching-and-other-gps-games that explains geocaching and other similar activities you can do with a GPS and wanted to share it with you. I also was wondering if you mind adding a link to it?
I think it will fit great with your other resources and I’d love to be able to show the kids they helped contribute to your site with what they found!