WITH VIDEO: Geocaching: ‘High-tech treasure hunt’

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

In parks, near waterfalls, in cemeteries, in urban areas and just about anywhere, geocachers young and old enjoy the pastime of what area geocacher Jim Engard referred to as a “high-tech treasure hunt.”

Geocachers use a GPS or smartphone to find hidden containers known as caches in locations all over the world. A cache might contain a little treasure, such as some beads or a toy from a fast food restaurant meal.

According to etiquette, if you take an item, replace it with another item of your own. There is also a log where the geocachers sign that they have found that particular cache. Each geocacher creates an account on geocaching.com. When he or she logs in, the account shows where they have logged caches and how many they’ve found in each state.

Caches are hidden everywhere, and there are many out there. Engard, who goes by “yogi57″ on geocaching.com and is referred to as “Yogi” by other cachers, has found more than 2,000, both in Ohio and while traveling out of state.

The hobby began in May 2000, when the United States government discontinued use of “selective availability,” an intentional degradation of public GPS signals implemented for national security reasons. This decision meant GPS devices became much more accurate.

On May 3, 2000, an enthusiast of the technology, Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, “wanted to test the accuracy by hiding a navigational target in the woods,” according to geocaching.com.

“He called the idea the ‘Great American GPS Stash Hunt’ and posted it in an internet GPS users’ group,” the website states. “The idea was simple: Hide a container out in the woods and note the coordinates with a GPS unit.”

Within three days, two different readers read about the stash, used their own GPS receivers to find the container, and shared their experiences online, the website states. This led to other people hiding their own “stashes,” although the name was later changed to “geocaching.”

Today there are more than 2.3 million active geocaches and more than 6 million geocachers worldwide, according to geocaching.com.

When a geocacher hides a cache, he or she posts the coordinates on geocaching.com. Engard said the original idea was to encourage people to see scenic areas and explore nature. However, today although scenic caches are still prevalent there are also many urban caches in cities around the world.

Originally the containers were plastic containers the size of a shoebox. As it became more urban, smaller containers were more popular, often film canisters or a medicine bottle or something like that.

Interest has grown hugely over the years. Engard said it used to be that he might have to travel 100 miles to find just five caches in one day, with fewer than 500 caches in a 100-mile radius. Today there are more than 12,000 caches in a 100-mile radius, he said.

Geocachers come from all ages and all walks of life. At a Findlay “meet and eat” recently of the Northwest Ohio Geocachers, attendees included retirees as well as one woman, Shannon Armitage of Fostoria, who goes geocaching with her young children. Geocachers know each other by their names on the geocaching.com website; Armitage’s is “m0m0f5″.

Engard said trading the trinkets found in the containers is particularly popular among children. Some geocachers leave signature items, something they make themselves.

Engard said the hobby has changed as technology has. It used to be that a person could find the cache with a GPS but all the coordinates had to be entered by hand. Today the coordinates can be downloaded which saves time and means fewer mistakes, Engard said. While many geocachers use a GPS system, there are also smartphone applications designed for geocaching.

However, even once a geocacher has found the location of the cache, it can still be hard to find it as some people “really camouflage” their caches, Engard said. Caches are hidden under bushes, on a rock slope, in a hollow tree. Then there are the dangers.

“You don’t stay clean and you don’t avoid bugs,” said Beth Landers of Bowling Green or “chaenorrhinum,” who was at the Findlay “meet and eat.”

Geocachers have stories of being bitten by ticks, or tripping in groundhog holes. Several area geocachers also reported having been stopped by the police who believed them to be acting suspiciously.

Then there’s one cache, in Bowling Green, that a mouse has moved into, Landers said.

Engard said he hid the first cache in Hancock County, in a location at Litzenberg Memorial Woods. Only months later did he learn that the Hancock Park District had forbidden geocaching because, they said, it would be disruptive.

Engard replied that he had hidden a cache six months earlier and the park district staff replied that they hadn’t noticed, evidence that geocaching didn’t disturb anything. The park district employees realized it would be a good way to get people using the parks, and asked Engard to teach geocaching classes for the parks each spring.

He said, however, that it’s important that geocachers talk with park officials and follow their guidelines.

“If you’re not careful, you can overwhelm a park,” he said.

Armitage likes that geocaching is a hobby she can decide to pursue at the drop of a hat, going outside if it’s a nice day. She goes geocaching with her five children, who range in age from 6 to almost 18. They’ve enjoyed finding caches at night, shining their flashlight onto little reflective tags.

Armitage at one point was homeschooling her son and found that she could use geocaching for math, science and social studies curriculum, including lessons on how to read a map and estimate distances, as well as the science of plant growth in the spring.

And through geocaching she has met friends she might not have crossed paths with otherwise. She has met other geocachers from Australia, France and Germany at geocaching events. The hobby is popular not only in Ohio but worldwide.

“There’s soldiers in Afghanistan hiding and finding caches,” Landers said.

Engard has found many caches in northwestern Ohio but has also enjoyed geocaching while traveling, such as during a recent visit to his sister in California. He said geocaching has taken him places he would never have discovered otherwise and he had the chance to see some beautiful spots while in California.

It’s also good exercise. Engard said he had had heart problems and his doctor encouraged him to walk.

Once he started geocaching he could find himself walking several miles in a day.

Marijo Poling of Piqua, or “diamond1949,” also finds it a good way to get out and get exercise. She and her husband have traveled to all 88 counties in Ohio and have attended several geocaching events. She was introduced to geocaching by her daughter, Jen Henkel of Perrysburg, also known as “cachergirl27.”

Both mother and daughter were at the recent geocaching meet and eat in Findlay.

Poling has gone geocaching with her granddaughters, ages 4 and 6, as well as with her father, who is in his 80s.

“Our grandkids call it treasure hunting,” said Judy Haggard of Lima, or “redhatjudyh,” another attendee at the Findlay gathering.

Poling has combined her interest in geocaching with an interest in genealogy and has enjoyed finding caches while out looking for her ancestors in cemeteries.

“It’s a great way to learn a new place,” Landers said.

She moved to the area a year and a half ago, and has enjoyed getting out into the parks and getting to know people.

Engard has discovered a great deal of natural beauty while geocaching, recalling a waterfall he discovered near Columbus.

“You’d be amazed what you find,” he said.

Haggard said she has learned history through geocaching, looking at items like state historical signs. In Oklahoma she saw the grave of Jesse Chisholm and in New Jersey a spring where Henry Hudson had filled his buckets. “So it’s just neat things like that,” she said.

Engard said some people try to find a certain number of caches, such as finding at least one cache every day, or finding one in each of Ohio’s counties.

“They call it the ‘Great 88,’” he said.

Some geocaches are designed as games or puzzles, where the coordinates to one cache might be hidden in another, so the geocacher is led from one to the next to the next.

Poling said items left in caches are called “swag” which in geocacher-speak is an acronym for “Something We All Get.”

Landers said these can range from party favors to happy meal toys.

“I found Forever stamps once,” she said.

Often a geocacher will take an item out of one geocache and then put it back in another cache. Engard said someone might log where a “travel bug,” a small model car, is found and on geocaching.com there is a record of where the car has traveled to, recording how many miles the car has traveled.

One year, the local geocachers had a contest where everyone in the group set out a travel bug. The winner had had someone take his travel bug to Nashville, Tenn., an area where geocaching is very popular, Engard said.

Several geocachers interviewed said the hobby is also particularly popular in Ohio. The “Midwest Geobash” each year in Wauseon attracts 2,000 to 2,500 people, Henkel said.

Geocachers interviewed recommended going out with someone else if it’s your first time geocaching.

For one thing, a good GPS can cost $120 or more, which is “kind of a big investment” for a new hobby, Landers said. In addition, Henkel said, experienced geocachers can give their tips and hints.

Poling advised against going out geocaching alone, saying an older person could fall. Others present said they would go alone in some areas but not others, with Landers saying there are some parts of urban areas she would not be comfortable loitering alone.

The Northwest Ohio Geocachers have a website with information at nwogeo.org. More information is also available by calling the Hancock Park District.

The monthly “meet and eat” at Panera Bread in Findlay is at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of every month. Regular gatherings are also held in Maumee, Lima and Tiffin.

The area geocachers will hold their “Spring Fling” at 9 a.m. Saturday in Litzenberg Memorial Woods. It will include a potluck and a cache “poker run,” in which stickers with bar codes are hidden in containers, after which the barcodes will be scanned with each code representing a particular card, to “see who has the best poker hand,” Engard said.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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