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Two hundred yards up the hill from my home in Bethany, PA, hidden in the heart of the borough park, is a small canister that few people have found or even noticed during the six years of its existence. It would be easy to overlook, considering one has to solve a puzzle of coordinates in order to obtain the exact location of this treasure—or “cache.” Concealed inside the canister are a small rubber dinosaur, a signature log and a congratulatory letter with the mysterious signature “The Fox and the Hound.”
Since the consumer launch of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the year 2000, “geocaching” has grown into a mainstream, global treasure-hunting game. With the aid of a handheld GPS device or a smartphone, participants seek out hidden items called geocaches using exact coordinates from the website www.geocaching.com.
Geocaching began 13 years ago when Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant, hid the first cache in Oregon in order to test and challenge the accuracy of the brand- new GPS technology. On May 3, 2000, Ulmer posted the coordinates of his cache online along with a single rule: “Take some stuff, leave some stuff.” The first to find his treasure had their pick of CD-ROMs, a cassette recorder, a “George of the Jungle” VHS tape, four $1 bills, a Ross Perot book, a slingshot handle and a can of beans. Obviously, the appeal of geocaching goes beyond the tokens left within these canisters, and speaks to the fun of the search and the reward of finding hidden treasure. Word of Ulmer’s cache quickly spread online, and soon people from all over the world were posting coordinates to geocaches.
Eric Fox and Chris Mackey, two of the northeast region’s most notorious geocachers, make up the duo The Fox and the Hound. Together they have both found and stashed thousands of geocaches. Many geocachers create online profiles to log their finds and achievements and to share stories about their adventures.
“The first library my son ever attended was in Bethany,” said Chris Mackey. “It was such an important moment and special place that I wanted to mark the occasion by leaving a micro-cache.” Geocachers from all over the country have solved Chris’s puzzle, found the cache and signed the logbook. One day, he’ll return to the park with his son and read over the names and places and reminisce about their first trip to the library.
In addition to leading the group Northeast Pennsylvania Geocachers, Chris Mackey is one of the preeminent designers of geo-coins in the world. A geo-coin is a metal or wooden medallion used as a common and often coveted form of treasure in geocaching. Groups or individual geocachers design their own unique coins that represent personal significance; these are then cached and shared with others. Specific geo-coins are sought and collected, and many coins contain a tracking ID so cachers can log the location of the coin. Its journey, which often spans the globe, can be recorded and followed by all.
I met Chris at his office in the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce building on a warm, late summer morning for a crash course in geocaching. Before we set out on our hike through the Merli-Sarnoski Park in Jermyn, PA, Chris explained that, although geocaching does not require more than a pair of sneakers and a smartphone, it is essential to the spirit of geocaching that all cachers follow a few ground rules while treasure hunting.
First, he stressed the importance of treading lightly and of practicing the “Leave No Trace” philosophy while hiking in order to minimize the impact on nature. Second, it is understood that one should not take something from the geocache without replacing it with something of equal or greater value. This practice of anonymous gift-giving and reciprocity is what defines the heart of geocaching and has connected people from all walks of life, while creating a strong community that extends all over the world.
Chris led the way through the park to our first cache using his handheld GPS. The trails were well maintained and he walked at a brisk pace, occasionally glancing down at his GPS to make sure we were heading in the right direction. The coordinates brought us to a stop at an inconspicuous pile of rocks just off of the main trail. There, behind a mismatched slab of bluestone, we spotted the cache—a military ammo box. Ammo boxes are the gold standard of containers because they are waterproof and animal resistant, and they have plenty of room for “swag,” or trade items. This cache contained sundry items, from personal trading cards to a matchbox car.
Our second cache was much more difficult to find than the first. Even with coordinates, caches are often cleverly hidden and tricky to find, and take a bit of poking and scrambling to uncover. Without Chris, I would never have thought to climb on top of a boulder so that I could reach over the trail, where the cache was hidden in a small nook of the rock wall. According to Mackey, some caches are hidden at the top of tall trees, some require repelling gear, and some are accessible only by boat or helicopter. Geocaches can be found on every continent in the world. Yes, even Antarctica.
A bit of bushwhacking was required to reach the next treasure. Mackey guided us to the spot as the crow flies using his GPS, and we reached the location after a short jaunt, where we discovered “Charlie’s Shoe Tie Cache.” The description inside explained that this was a cache made by kids, for kids, to commemorate the location where a young boy learned to tie his shoe. Charlie’s small, camouflaged container housed a few small toys and a sign-in log. The idea is that, one day, he can show his own kids where he finally learned to tie his shoe. In this way, caches often serve as a tribute to historical places, people or events, as well as to small but significant personal memories.
As we uncovered the “treasures” found in these quiet, waiting caches, from exquisitely designed coins to bouncy balls and figurines, I realized that the essence and value of geocaching has little to do with the swag found inside them. True, while Chris’s geo-coins are works of art and have value in their own right, and the toys and even money some geocachers leave behind can be a real thrill to find, the real value of geocaching is the experience itself. Alive and well in cities as well as the wilderness, geocaching is a great way to enjoy nature or one’s neighborhood with hyper-attentiveness and purpose and is, perhaps, an ideal activity for families with children.
Emerging from the woods and trails with recovered objects in tow, one leaves feeling an asynchronous connection with the person who left the last personal artifact, even though you’ll likely never meet. Above all, geocaching fosters a “giving” community that relishes the idea of sharing a special moment or place with likeminded individuals.