Geocaching: A Global Game of Hide and Seek

“Got it!”
A voice echoes in Larose Forest, just east of Ottawa. Two dogs bound towards the group gathered near an old sign propped against a tree. The running dogs hardly make a sound; the pine needles sink into a thick cushion beneath their feet. Walking sticks in hand, ten men dressed in rain gear whip out small notepads to log their find. Wedged behind the sign is a small plastic box, layered in camouflage-print duct tape – though it may as well be a huge wooden chest with brass hinges and lock, hidden here in the middle of the forest. The Saturday Morning Caching Club has found its first cache of the day.

The Saturday Morning Caching Club don their rain gear before their day-long hunt. Photo courtesy Lib Mendonça

The Saturday Morning Caching Club don their rain gear before their day-long hunt. Photo courtesy Lib Mendonça

Geocaching is a real-life worldwide treasure hunt. Enthusiasts of the sport hide waterproof containers full of trinkets (caches) and post the hiding-spot coordinates on the Internet. Users log on to http://www.geocaching.com to locate caches within their area. GPS units serve as a treasure map. “Cachers” enter coordinates in their GPS devices and hike until they find the cache. Caches are not buried, but hidden in plain sight. They pop up in forests and parks, and also in urban areas.

The cardinal rule of finding a cache is; if you take something, leave something in return. Though caches can range in size, they often hold small dollar-store items like toy cars, miniature flashlights, gloves, or even rain ponchos to protect fellow geocachers from the elements. There is also a logbook to sign, which lets others know who’s already discovered the treasure. Cachers log their finds online – they each have a detailed list of statistics on the geocaching website.

The sport first emerged in 2000, when satellite systems became available for public use. Since then, the hobby has grown from just 75 caches to over 660,000 caches around the world. So what’s the appeal? The activity gets people outdoors. It fosters a sense of camaraderie and respect for the environment while providing an exciting, safe treasure hunt.

Alane Martinuzzi, a fifth grade teacher in Ottawa, finds the hobby a great incentive to get her three kids away from their video games.  She and her family regularly hunt on weekends. Geocaching poses real-life challenges like steep climbs, muddy terrain, mosquitoes and poison ivy. That’s not to mention the challenge of actually finding the treasure.

“You’re trying to think, ‘Where would I hide it if I was here?'” she says. “You’re trying to get in the head of whoever hid it, and see if you can find it.”

Picture this: a tiny bit of tightly wrapped green paper, no bigger than the tip of your pinky finger. This small cache, hung from the branches of an evergreen tree, was one of the more difficult finds for Martinuzzi and her caching clan.

Caches range in difficulty. They are rated on a scale from one to five stars (easy to hard). Rated on two levels, their “difficulty” level refers to the mental challenge required to find the cache, and “terrain” level refers to the challenges of the physical environment.  Cache owners must consider these aspects when hiding a container.

This box and logbook is a typical find for any geocacher.

This box and logbook is a typical find for any geocacher.

“It’s a user game,” says Lib Mendonça, a former Governor General’s footguard, and avid cacher. “If the users don’t hide anything, there’s nothing to find.”

Mendonça has been geocaching since 2003. Since then, he’s found well over 4,000 caches, and has hidden about 40 active caches.
People who hide caches are also responsible for maintaining them. Caches can get damaged by water and the elements, or they can get “muggled”, a term coined from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. “Muggles”, or people unaware of the sport, sometimes disturb caches unintentionally, removing the cache from its hiding spot or taking its contents. If a cache is misplaced or damaged, users will notify the cache owner through the website. Then the owner must repair or replace the cache.

Finding a cache requires a GPS unit. These devices use the satellites in the Global Positioning System to determine locations that help the user navigate the earth. They serve as a digital compass, or a digital map. Units range in price, from about $100 to $700.

GPS companies like Garmin International have caught on to the geocaching phenomenon. The company has catered to the needs of the caching community, and makes devices that have specific geocaching features. Their Oregon model, for example, allows for paperless caching. Instead of the user printing out cache details from the Internet, the information can be loaded straight into the device. Ted Gartner, a Garmin spokesperson, says the sport’s popularity is one of the reasons the company’s sales have increased. People of all ages are involved in the hobby – from retirees to families with young children.

“Kids like it because it’s kind of a high-tech video-game type of sport,” says Gartner. “Yet you’re still outside, you’re in the great outdoors, you’re getting exercise.”

Geocaching is a great form of exercise for Mendonça. He says Canada’s capital region is a great place for caching. Mendonça says back during the hobby’s inception, there were already people geocaching in Ottawa.

“There was a fairly early adoption, and that means we have a geocaching culture here that some places don’t,” he says.

The city boasts an official caching society, Canada’s Capital Cachers, as well as a few other groups, and many individuals involved in the sport. The hobby attracts men and women, young and old. Even Government-funded not-for-profits have caught onto the trend. NECO Community Futures Development Corporation started an initiative called Ontario GPS Treasure Hunting. The project has placed several geocaches in the Ottawa area, hoping to attract tourism. The project also focuses on GPS training and geocaching events. These factors contribute to Ottawa’s status as a geocaching hub.

Geo-mobsters and reporter Miranda Morningstar pose with a find in Larose Forest.

Geo-mobsters and reporter Miranda Morningstar pose with a find in Larose Forest.

“Ottawa is something of a wonder,” says Mendonça of the city’s vast array of parkland. There are many caches in Ottawa’s urban areas, yet the parklands are teeming with them.

“I don’t know if we appreciate it as much as we should,” Mendonça says. ” The Greenbelt gives us all these spaces, all these trails, all these forests that are just absolutely full of caches.”

Ottawa’s community hinges on early enthusiasts, who set the types of caches found here. Though there are many traditional caches in the area, puzzle caches are very popular. These involve more than just locating the cache; they require the seeker to solve a task or some clues. Clues in the first find lead to other caches, and eventually to the last box. For example, one tricky cache in Ottawa involves solving a Rubik’s cube to access a set of coordinates. These lead to the final stash.

Every Saturday morning, the club – or Geo Mob, as they’ve been dubbed – heads out for a hike. They go hunting in a group to collaborate on puzzle caches and to enjoy the outdoors together. Mob members include current and former military personnel, web developers, and students. Though there is a core group of the usual suspects, some days the group’s size reaches 40 cachers. The Mob, formed by Mendonça and fellow cacher Robert Duncan, celebrated its fifth anniversary in December, with no end in sight. Even today’s torrential rain doesn’t stop them. As the group trudges down a muddy ATV trail, dodging chocolate-milk coloured puddles, a couple mobsters speak in tongues. They talk about trolls, gems, and puzzles, using a mish-mash of made-up words. They’re chatting in geocaching terms.

Geocaching has become a cultural phenomenon because people have a hunger for low-risk adventure, says artist and photographer Margot Anne Kelley. For her book, Local Treasures: Geocaching across America, she travelled throughout the United States taking photos and gathering stories about geocaching. Kelley says caching is important because there’s a goal involved, which separates the sport from an ordinary hike.
“People like having a destination,” Kelley says.

Lib Mendonça and other members of the Caching Club dig into their well-earned bounty.

Lib Mendonça and other members of the Caching Club dig into their well-earned bounty.

The geocaching website allows cachers to connect with other cachers around the globe. Groundspeak, a Seattle-based company, was established to maintain the geocaching website. The site provides the infrastructure to log coordinates and to maintain a database of caches.
Cachers can log finds like “travel bugs” and “geocoins”, which are little trinkets with a specific numerical code. A cacher finds a bug at one cache, logs it online, and places it in another. This cycle continues, and the items gradually hitchhike worldwide.

“People live vicariously through these little minions they put out there in the world,” says Mendonça. He set a bug free here in Ontario, and has been tracking its progress online. Notable stops include Australia, Japan, Switzerland, and South Africa.

Since there are now caches all over the world, many cachers can travel and search abroad. Cachers taking a trip can also plan to meet up with the geocaching community where they’ll be visiting. Mendonça has searched in Toronto, Montreal, and Cape Cod.  He and his family lived in Essex for a short time, and he was able to search all over the UK. Mendonça likes to combine travel and geocaching.

“It can take you to these hidden little gems that you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise,” he says. “Places that aren’t in the tour books or even on the map.”

Since many hunts take place in parks, forests, and other natural environments, the geocaching community is dedicated to keeping the environment healthy. Cachers take part in an initiative called Cache In Trash Out (CITO), events that help clean up the trails where caching takes place. CITO has evolved over time to incorporate international clean-up days as well as everyday environmental awareness.

“Geocachers are outdoor enthusiasts,” says Shauna Maggs, marketing director for Groundspeak. “They really care about the trails.”

As the GeoMob treks through the forest, they keep their eyes peeled for garbage. They find a bucket, its worn camouflage paint giving way to its true white colour. The bucket once contained trinkets, but the cache has been replaced, and the bucket abandoned. It’s CITO material. One mobster brings the bucket along to place it in its rightful spot – the trashcan.

Raindrops roll off their hoods and hat brims. The Mob has been hiking for six hours. After a quick stop for coffee, soup and sandwiches at Tim Hortons, they’re off to find a few more caches in Casselman, a town east of Limoges. Their GPS units lead them to a spot near a small dam and waterfall. Mobsters clamber over slippery, ash-grey rocks in search of the treasure. Someone spots the clear tupperware container, and they sign the logbook.

With this find, the hunt is winding down. Some mobsters load into their cars to head back to the city, yet others forge on, eager to tackle a puzzle cache. This will be their twelfth cache of the day. They’re determined, despite the weather.

For the Saturday Morning Caching Club, the sport is all about community. Every week, they gather to enjoy a hike and the challenge of geocaching. The community is always expanding, because the hobby is something anyone can do. All it takes is an Internet connection, a GPS unit, and the will to get outside. Geocachers put down their video games and get up off the couch. They’re involved in a global game of hide and seek.

For more information, see the  Official Geocaching Website.

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