Geocaching Ten Years On

[caps]T[/caps]he year was 2005 and Steve Card’s wife had just heard about an exciting new hobby that she wanted the family to try: geocaching. She thought that geocaching, a treasure-hunting game played with a Global Positioning System, would be a fun way to get everyone outdoors.

Card remembers thinking, “That sounds like a waste of gas to me.”

Despite Card’s misgivings about the idea, he dutifully went out with his two sons and bought his wife an $80 GPS from Fred Meyer for Mother’s Day that year. “We took it out and found some geocaches and I fell in love with it. That was about the last time she touched the GPS,” he says with a chuckle.

At the time, geocaching was still a relatively new creation, the by-product of the Clinton administration’s decision to allow civilian GPS users to receive unscrambled signal. Two days after the signal became clear – on May 3, 2000 – Dave Ulmer hid a black plastic bucket containing a logbook, some videos and software, a slingshot, $4, and other items in a wooded area in Beavercreek, Oregon. He posted the global positioning coordinates of the bucket online, inviting others to find it.

Geocaching was born.

Today, as geocaching approaches its tenth birthday, its popularity is at an all-time high. There are almost one million active hidden containers or geocaches worldwide. The location of each geocache (or just ‘cache’ in most participants’ slang) is tracked using its global positioning coordinates on the website that is at the center of it all, the all-powerful geocaching.com.

The “cache” itself is a container of varying size that usually contains a few trinkets and the all-important logbook. They can be hidden almost anywhere in the outdoors: under a park bench, near a landmark, or underwater, just not on private property or anywhere dangerous. Every time geocachers find one, they write their special geocaching.com nickname or “handle” in the cache’s logbook and add one to their total geocache tally.

On a windy overcast February morning, Card (geocaching handle: coastcards) hops out of a gray SUV, followed by Bob and Karen Bennett (yachatswalker and birkiehiker), Ivan Mangum (bostonmangum) and Mangum’s two young children. They have just driven ten miles down the Oregon coast from Coos Bay after a much longer drive to get to Coos Bay earlier this morning. Everyone looks happy to be out of the car.

Ever since he got hooked on geocaching in a way his family couldn’t keep up with, Card has found this group of kindred spirits, whom he met at a geocaching meet and greet event in Newport, to share his hobby with. They go out together every two months or so during the year, and about once a month in the summer.

“Some geocaching is more casual and some is more about building your numbers. This group is a bit like that,” says Card. “We’re out to go geocaching. I mean we enjoy it a little bit while we’re there, but we won’t go to an interpretative center or something like that, we’ll go to the next geocache.”

The group walks briskly down a small concrete path that takes them right to the land’s edge with both Card and Mangum closely monitoring the screens of their $200 handheld GPS systems. A hundred feet below them huge waves crash into the dark cliffs and seals’ heads bob in and out of the water. From this spot, you can see for miles down the coast in either direction.

But the small metallic plaque that adorns this vantage point is the reason for their visit. Each member of the group is holding a foldout pamphlet with a series of questions. Each question is attached to a series of GPS coordinates. The first set of coordinates has led them here.

“What is the name of the island the seals hang out on?” Karen Bennett says, reading the question aloud.

“Shell Island,” says one of the children, reading off the plaque.

They all jot down answer, and now only have twenty more locations to visit in order to complete the Adventure Coast Challenge, a geocaching style challenge linked to today’s Coos Bay Geocaching ‘Meet and Eat’ event.

Challenges like this one are just one of numerous spin-offs or offshoots of traditional geocaching. There’s “Virtual Geocaching”, with no physical cache at all but requires you to answer a question about or take a picture of the location, “Earth Caching”, which includes a task that teaches the cacher about the earth science of the location, and “Night Caching”, with caches that can only be found at night using reflectors or flashlights, among others.

Another facet of geocaching is geocoins, small coins with both generic and customizable designs that are also tracked online. According to Ivan, “about five percent of geocaches contain geocoins” which makes every find that much more exciting. The idea is for geocachers to move the coins around from cache to cache. “I’ve got a couple in Czechoslovakia right now,” says Karen Bennett with obvious excitement in her voice. “A German couple were over here visiting a few years ago, and they found a couple of my coins and took them back to Europe with them.” Bennett has about 200 active geocoins in circulation, and she closely monitors their travels online. “Us girls, we like shiny things. These and jewelry,” she says laughing.

The Adventure Coast Challenge takes the group all over the countryside surrounding Coos Bay. They visit a monument in a small coastal town dedicated to local fishermen lost at sea, a wine-tasting business, a statue of a fireman outside a private home and, much to their surprise, Steve Prefontaine’s grave.

“One of the really cool things about geocaching is if you’re traveling to an area you have never been to before and you go looking for geocaches, you discover little trails, little scenic vistas in towns that you’d never see if you were just traveling through,”Card says. “But because someone put a geocache there, you find all these cool surprise spots.”

The group completes most of the challenge before heading back to Coos Bay for the Meet-and-Eat held at the local Red Lion Inn. In a private banquet room, two hundred geocachers crowd around thirty tables.

There’s a buffet, a raffle, and a trade table covered in geocaching-related items: flashlights, new empty caches, camouflage spray paint, logbooks, batteries, reflective trail tacks, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Geocaching. Signal the Frog, geocaching’s official mascot, who distinguishes himself by the GPS antenna sticking out of his head, even makes an appearance.

The geocachers are dressed casually, and all sport a nametag with their geocaching handle, the name others will most likely know them by.

“The first year we did this, thirty-five people showed up. This is our fourth year and we’ve got 200,” says Steve Wilcox, the organizer. “It’s just a social event. You see all these names online, and you have these meets to put the face with the name; a lot of these people have never met before.”

These types of meet-and-greet are becoming more and more common throughout Oregon, and insure that the geocaching community, which refers to non-geocachers as “muggles”, remains extremely tight-knit.

“It’s funny, I notice people geocaching all the time. I’ll see them near one of my caches or someplace else and I’ll watch them” says Card. “Sometimes they don’t know that I know what they’re doing, so they’ll try to hide it,” he laughs. “Even if you have no idea who the person is, it instantly makes you feel closer to them. It’s like you have some kind of silent bond.”

For another take on Geocaching, Jill Kimball and Melanie Johnson have put together a piece of their own: Down the Rabbit Hole.

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