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WHAT’S THE CACHE?
Hunting For Treasure With Help From Above
The Register Guard
August 28, 2003
by Mike Stahlberg
The latest outdoor sport is part treasure hunt, part high-tech hide go seek, part video game, part puzzle and 100% fun.
It’s called geocaching (pronounced geo-cashing , and it’s an internet-driven outdoor game in which - with a little help from above - you are the search engine.
In a little more than three years, geocaching has woven a worldwide web of adherents who use satellite technology to browse nooks and crannies of the great outdoors looking for “treasures” hidden by other players.
Those who hide treasures and those who seek to find them are guided by latitude and longitude readings provided by hand held GPS (Global .Positioning System) devices. The coordinates for each cache, as well as a coded clue for finding it, are posted on the hobby’s Web site, www.geocaching.com. Comments of those who search for the cache are also logged there.
To Amy Fox of Eugene, it all sounded “pretty weird” when a friend first described geocaching to her. But she and her husband, Jay, decided to give it a try on an outing with their three young children.
“We found our first cache, and we were hooked,” she said.
That was 18 months ago. Now the Family o’Foxes-their geocaching pseudonym – are among the most active cachers in the Eugene area. “I could talk hours about geocaching,” said Fox, as the family piled into a mini-van one evening last week to begin a search for their 298th “find”.
“It is a great hobby - a great family hobby. We get to spend a lot of quality time with our kids doing something that is fun.” Jay Fox said the cache they would be hunting for had been posted only the previous evening. He’d already entered its coordinates into his GPS unit - 44 degrees, 8 minutes, 56.5 seconds north latitude, 123 degrees, 7 minutes, 57.0 seconds west longitude - when he began driving towards the Willamette River north of the Santa Clara area.
Seven-year old Samantha Fox and her younger sister, Madeline, were excited about searching for this cache - named “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” - because the posting said it “contains all sorts of things that little girls might like to play with.”
After parking near the entrance to a former county boat ramp, the Foxes followed a dirt road and footpaths - stopping several times to pick and eat blackberries - as Jay Fox checked his hand-held GPS. As they reached a jumble of downed logs, he announced “we’re getting close.” Kids and adults alike peered under bushes and under logs. It was only a matter of minutes until Jay Fox spotted a plastic pail wrapped in camouflage tape. The three young Foxes sorted through the contents of the cache and each picked an item to take - the girls took a plastic crown and a toy hairdryer, and Andrew selected a small notepad.
One of the rules of geocaching is, “if you take something, leave something.” The Foxes left a small stuffed bear, a bag of jacks, and a soccer toy.
Meanwhile, Amy checked the log book and found that two other cachers had beaten them
to the site. She recorded the Foxes’ find, then she and Jay repacked and re-hid the cache.
Not all geocaching outings are as quick and uneventful. Amy recounted a hunt in which she got stuck in mud over her knees and another during which Jay broke his arm.
“Caching has provided us with lots of memories, and I wouldn’t trade any of them,” she said.
The hobby has also provided the Foxes with several new friends.
“We really enjoy the social aspect,” Jay Fox said.
The Family o’Foxes have organized several “event” caches - gatherings where people socialize, talk about their hobby and work on a hunt or two. The Foxes also started Emerald Valley Cachers, an online discussion group for local geocachers. The two-month old club already has about 45 members, Amy Fox said.
Geocaching only became possible in May of 2000, when the Clinton Administration demilitarized GPS technology. That allowed civilian units to pinpoint a location to within a 20-foot diameter circle. Previously, the devices were accurate only to within 100 yards.
A couple of days after GPS signals were unscrambled, Portland-area computer consultant Dave Ulmer responded by placing a pail of trinkets in the woods and posting the coordinates online. It was quickly found by a couple of other GPS users, and soon other “GPS stash hunts” started via Internet newsgroups devoted to GPS technology.
A Vancouver, Wash., man, Mike Teague, started gathering details about all the available “stashes” and listing them on his personal web site. By August of 2000, however, Teague was ready to pass the Internet geocaching torch to Jeremy Irish of Seattle, who had visions of an automated Web site that would make the game more user-friendly. That site, for example, sends registered users weekly e-mails with lists of new caches hidden in their area.
When www.geocaching.com went online 36 months ago, Irish said, it listed only 75 caches. Now there are 65,000 active caches hidden in 184 countries around the world.
His site has 150,000 registered caching “accounts,” but the number of people involved is larger than that because many accounts represent couples or whole families involved in the sport. The site gets about a million separate visits a month and displays 16 million pages.
“Geocaching is still doubling about every six months,” he said, and that trend should continue as long as GPS capability becomes more widely available (some cell phones now have built-in GPS capability).
He is shocked at how rapidly the game has grown. “I thought it was really a neat idea - I really liked the idea of getting people outdoors and away from their computers,” Irish said. But he never dreamed it would catch on in such a big way.
Irish credits much of the game’s popularity to the fact that “geocaching goes through an evolution every year” as new angles on the game emerge.
“Basic geocaching is a stepping-stone to other games outside,” he said. “The players come up with new ideas all the time. Among them are: multistage caches (where the contents of one cache contains clues leading to others), “virtual caches,” (where nothing is hidden - the coordinates simply lead to a monument or interesting site), puzzle caches, theme caches;’ scavenger hunts (where people search for a specified item, then post its coordinates) and “traveling bugs:”
Traveling bugs are items placed’ in a cache with the intent of “hitch-hiking” to a certain destination. A classic example of that would be the “small toy car that Chuck Vanlue (caching name: Seal Rock George) picked up from a Eugene cache and moved to one on the coast. “A guy in Rochester, N.Y., wanted to recreate the race in the movie ‘Cannonball Run,’ so he put model cars in two different caches and asked people to help move them to Los Angeles,” Vanlue said. Each traveling bug. has a web page on which .its movements can be tracked. The car Vanlue moved is still “bouncing around on the coast,” but the one it is racing against got sidetracked. “It’s now in the Netherlands and you can’t read the caching logs because they’re all written in Dutch.”
Vanlue, who works at Symantec in Springfield, took up caching this spring after reading a magazine article on the sport, followed a few days later by a chance encounter with the Fox family. He, too, was soon hooked on caching.
“I personally have found 111, as of noon today,” Vanlue said. (Yep, he spent his lunch hour tracking one down). And there’s plenty more out there. “Within a hundred miles of my home coordinates there are probably around 1,000 active caches,” he said. “My 19-yearold son who lives in Corvallis and. I have a competition going.”
Meanwhile, Bob Seymour (Cascade Packer) of Eugene is approaching 500 caches found, many of them located on outings with his 14-year-old daughter, “Eagles Eyes.”
“It’s addicting,” said Seymour, who enjoys caching because “it gets you outside and you find different places where you haven’t been before.”
Traditional caches typically start out containing a few trinkets or pieces of memorabilia - anything the cache’s creator feels like including. Often, there’s also a one-page explanation of geocaching that asks any non-players who stumble across the cache to return it to its hiding place. But the entire contents of a container can change several times as dozens of visitors take and leave items.
“Playing cards, toys, marbles, soap bubbles, sidewalk chalk - you name it, you’ll find it in there,” Vanlue said.
The contents don’t really matter because, “the treasure isn’t necessarily what’s inside the box,” Vanlue said. It’s the view around the cache or something you see or experience on the way to it.
“I’ve lived here a little over 15 years, and I started playing this game about five months ago,” Vanlue said. “And, in those five months, I have found more places than in the prior 15 years ... parks, boat ramps, trails, great views, cemeteries - just cool spots that I never knew existed.”
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