When I first heard of geocaching, I thought, Boy Scouts. Then I thought, compass happy orienteering enthusiasts. Then I thought, rugged outdoor individualists. Then I thought, isn’t this the perfect activity for a covid-cautious family of screen-enthusiastic treasure-seeking pirate-loving map-fanatical mystery fans?
We could traipse all over town (and beyond!) searching streets, parks, and forest trails for small waterproof containers that Geocache devotees – ordinary people – have hidden – just for us to play a game of hide and seek. A website (we use Geocache.com) lists GPS coordinates to guide us to various hiding spots: under a rock, bridge, bench, root, tree branch. Each cache has a name (strange and whimsical), and each has a logbook for logging your success. There’s even a cache of prizes in most of them; you take one and leave another if you like.
The kids were immediately on board. We gathered a handful of tschotskes from around the house – a seashell, costume jewelry, small figurines – to leave in exchange, and off we went to nearby Dickinson Park. If we couldn’t find the cache, at least we could play on the playground or hike in the woods.
GPS and cell coverage being what it is, we spent some time wandering around, figuring out which direction to go, and how far, and then at some point you just have to look up from the screen and use your eyes. “The Bull and The Parrett” cache took a little groping around; we soon found a small container nestled under leaves in the crotch of a tree at the edge of the woods. The kids gleefully exchanged the glass rocks for objects we’d brought. We logged in on paper and phone, and then ran off to the playground.
What a great connection this activity is to the big world, and an exposure to the kindness and generosity of strangers. We are playing a giant game with people we will never meet, but there’s a connection, especially fun for us during these disconnected times.
On our way home we stopped for a second cache, “Do Whales Drink Water” hidden near a neighborhood sidewalk. A passing family called out encouragement – clearly fellow Geocachers, and a sweet moment of personal connection! But the search was futile and we gave up, figuring it had perhaps been washed away or taken.
While the kids are mostly willing to go adventuring with us, sometimes their preference for being indoors keeps us from getting out and about. A game takes them further, faster and is more fun, and gets us out to new places too.
They love puzzles and mazes and maps and codes and mysteries, so it’s a great fit. There’s the excitement of the hunt, learning GPS (“I get to hold Nana’s phone!”), puzzle solving, buried treasure, prizes, and logging it all in and adding messages to other seekers – it’s all a thrill. It stays interesting because each cache is different. And along the way we find other things; a bridge over a stream, perfect climbing trees, secret pathways, a new playground, or a corner we’d walked past but never really seen.
It turns out there’s an overlap with birding sites. Ebird.com lists places where birders have reported sightings, and often those places also have geocaches, a win-win. Our next destination, Rood Bridge Park, was new to us AND had birdwatching AND meandering trails AND a playground AND two caches – perfect!
Our search included cooperative teamwork, lots of hypotheses, and a little confusion, since GPS stops being accurate once you get within 10-15 feet. But after much clambering up and down the branches of a perfect-for-climbing tree, they finally saw it – “Bronze Swans,” a metal tube tied to a branch, right there in plain sight.
Geocaching grew out of an older game called letterboxing, which uses landmarks and narrative directions. When GPS became available the sport shifted. The first cache was in Oregon in 2000. That cache was later “destroyed by a lawnmower” and now a commemorative “Original Stash Tribute Plaque” lies on that site. The “Original Can of Beans” that survived from that cache has been turned into a trackable item which gets relocated each time it’s found. There are more variations on the game that I’m sure we’ll discover. There have even been caches on the International Space Station and the Mars Rover!
Next up, “Birds of Rood Bridge Park” took some wandering over muddy trails (closed due to flooding, but I recalled the words of my father: “It doesn’t say absolutely.”) The recent spate of dry weather days meant there were only a few shoe-sucking spots, and we are hearty explorers!
This cache was brilliant; a lovely painted birdhouse hanging on a tree near the trail. A side door lifted to reveal a weather-proof plastic box, and we gasped to see the wealth of cheap plastic prizes, our best cache yet! The kids spent a long time poring over each prize, before we could finally nudge them along.
Not all adventures can avoid cranky low blood sugar moments, and it turned out the kids had no interest in birding or hiking any of the 60 acres, as we’d hoped. Instead, a bridge over a rushing creek was the final entertainment. Tossing sticks and watching the current carry them downstream captured them instead.
We lured them back to the car with the promise of a nearby “park and grab” or “cache and dash” – one that sits along a roadside. “Cemetery Side” turned out to be poorly packaged and fairly soggy and gross, so we left it behind. Oh well, some owners don’t keep up their caches, and there won’t always be birdhouse delights.
Since its inception in 2000, Geocaching has had several storied misadventures. Caches have been reported as potential bombs, creating havoc. Seekers in remote areas have been caught in dangerous circumstances. Once some lost wilderness hikers stumbled on a cache and called rescuers to their location by using the cache’s GPS coordinates. Another time, cache seekers stumbled upon a car trapped in a ravine, and called rescuers to that otherwise hidden spot. Our own adventures are low risk; bruises and scrapes the norm.
At Marshall Park, a favorite, there’s a playground AND a creek, AND miles of trails in all directions, all in a forest, AND two caches in opposite directions, so we could get a fairly good hike in too.
As it turned out, a good warming hike was necessary after hanging out in the cold damp playground, where we adults were imprisoned on a bench by a Witch and Wizard who needed to work out some child and pandemic-related issues by being more powerful than any grownup in the world. After lots of magic and wand waving and spells and standing at the top of the play structure crowing about how powerful they were, we were off on a lovely run/walk through the forest.
There was plenty of debate about the right direction (GPS shows the route as the crow flies), but finally, so many cool prizes at both “37 Rocks” and “Two Sisters.” Also, a tree full of bird holes, an array of intriguing features in trees and water, and some experimental stick banging on a bridge’s metal bars to create new musical sounds. All in all so satisfying.
This week we hid caches of chocolate chips around the backyard, and a new game was born. Who knows what will come next?