X Marks the Spot
The high-tech treasure hunt known as geocaching is getting kids off the couch to discover the excitement of America's Great Outdoors.
story & photos by Jeff Clark
Justin's heart skips with excitement. Standing beneath a tall Douglas fir he awaits instructions from the group, most of whom are huddled around handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units. "We've got the location," his group leader says as they begin grabbing gear to move out. "Justin, try and find us a bridge. We need to cross this river."
Justin heads toward the river's edge. This is his favorite part of the hunt: visiting new lands and traversing different - and difficult - terrain. Spotting a bridge, he signals the others and waits for them to regroup so they can cross over the rapids into a fog-filled forest. As he waits, the sun snakes through the trees casting an ethereal glow over the landscape. The group arrives, moving soundlessly across moss-covered trails and mist-soaked wooden walkways.
Deeper in the forest, Justin's group leader stops to consult her GPS unit. "We're about 200 feet away," she says. "Keep your eyes peeled." Everyone slows down, scanning the trees and ground for signs of their target. Tyler calls to Justin, the nearest member of his team, "Do we have any idea what size this thing's supposed to be?" "No," Tyler answers. "There wasn't any information in the file. It could be anything. Or anywhere."
Justin sighs and takes in a deep breath. Secretly, he'd hoped they could find their objective quickly and that he would be the one to discover it. "Fifty feet," calls his leader, "spread out, everyone." The team scatters looking behind trees, under leaves, and below the wooden walkway cutting through the underbrush. A silent eternity later, Justin's group leader emerges, silhouetted by trees holding an old army ammunition can. "I got it!" she cries. Disappointment flashes across Justin's eyes for the briefest instant, but then he looks up excitedly saying, "Way to go, Mom!"
Geocaching is an international outdoor activity for all ages. Treasure hunters are on the chase at over 700,000 locations in more than 100 countries on all seven continents around the world. But geocaching got its start right here in Oregon when a GPS enthusiast hid a container and posted the coordinates on the Internet. And since then this high-tech treasure hunt has seen exponential growth in popularity as a fun and family-friendly activity that gets everyone from mom and dad to the kids to Fido off the couch - and, in our case, on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"Geocaching can be a wonderful hobby," says Anne Boyd, a BLM archeologist in the Spokane District. "The exercise you get and the chance to explore new areas while searching for treasure is hard to beat." She says the reasons for geocaching are as diverse as the people who enjoy it. "For me, it's all about getting outside and seeing things that I might not have known about. For some, it may be a way to get exercise or take the dogs for a hike. For others, it's teaching the kids how to use a GPS and to appreciate the great outdoors."
Falling squarely into the latter category is Jody Weil, BLM Oregon/Washington Communications Director, avid geocacher, and mother of Justin and Tyler. "Geocaching is something we do as a family," Weil said. "One kid can decipher the clue, the other can be in charge of the GPS unit and be the leader. And we can all participate in the actual hunt. Sometimes we even get a little competitive and keep track of who finds the most caches first."
In addition to healthy competition, Boyd and Weil each gave examples of how geocaching is highly informational as well. "There is one type of geocaching that is educational and significant to BLM lands in Eastern Washington - and that is earthcaching," Boyd said. This particular activity leads people to learn more about the geology of an area by visiting the site and answering some questions. There's no cache hidden at these sites - but the reward of the hunt to witness new scenery and learn about earth science is a highly valued prize of its own. Boyd continues, "Professional geologists, college professors, and other instructors are increasingly using the earthcache experience to introduce others to the nature of our area, and I think many folks have been surprised and excited to learn about these geologic treasures."
"Geocaching has taken us to places that have a story of their own," Weil said. "We once found a cache along the Oregon Trail. Our youngest son, Justin, was studying the history of the Oregon Trail in his school class and was able to make a real life connection by going out and seeing the actual tracks still rutted in the ground. He was so proud to take the pictures into his classroom and show them the real thing. Geocaching allowed us to make that connection in a fun and tangible way."
- Before you head out, select a difficulty level rating based on your outdoor skills.
- Check weather conditions and carry supplies such as water, food, maps, a compass, and extra clothes.
- Let someone know your destination and expected return.
- Travel sustainably, tread lightly, and leave no trace.
- Contact your local BLM office before placing a cache, planning a geocaching event, or conducting commercial geocaching activities on public lands. Don't hide caches in protected wilderness areas or cultural and archaeological sites. And please don't disrupt wildlife or create trails to hidden caches.
For more info on geocaching, please visit the Oregon BLM's geochaching homepage.