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Geocaching is catching on
By MARK ST.J. COUHIG
They are everywhere: hidden caches of widely-trafficked goods and covert communications. Though you walk past them every day, you are likely unaware of their existence.
This international network is a secret world, the sole province of a select few.
And they walk among us.
Now that we have your attention...
But not to worry - geocaches may be hidden, and they may require effort to find, but they are innocent pieces in a worldwide game and anyone can play.
More than a million geocaches are dispersed throughout the seven continents and others are found at the bottom of the oceans. There is even one on the space station. To find them, sign in at www.geocaching.com and get started.
Geocaching is a hobby, a game, a sport, a quest. It is a great pastime for anyone who likes solving puzzles and wants an excuse for enjoying the great outdoors. It's family-friendly, too - a great way for parents and kids to spend a day together. The kids enjoy the puzzles, the sites, the occasional mind games and the "swag" - trinkets that geocachers leave at the caches.
Geocaching is like a real-life video game.
The kids (and the grown-ups) might even learn something. With help from Clallam Fire District Chief Steve Vogel, a year ago Sequim Boy Scout Greg Robinson placed geocaches at 14 different historical spots in town. He needed a project to help him become an Eagle Scout, and so he created this "geocache tour" on behalf of the Sequim Museum and Art Center.
Proceed at will
Geocaching can come easily or present a challenge.
For example, each cache receives two ratings, one for terrain and another for the difficulty of finding it. A "1" for terrain means those with limited mobility can reach it. A "5" means special equipment is required. That may mean a boat or even scuba gear.
Then there is the difficulty of locating the cache.
Some geocaches are large and in the great wide-open - "as big as garbage cans," says local geocacher Hugh Brown. They're the easy ones to locate, like the mailbox with "geocache" prominently painted on its side at the Sequim Visitor Center. Some are "micros," no bigger than the tip of a finger. To make matters even more difficult, micros are usually ingeniously disguised.
With three experts in the field, I recently located one of the more obscure geocaches on the peninsula - a piece of tightly-woven copper ribbon in a hollowed-out nut, one of many nuts and bolts in a large piece of hardware found just east of Sequim. (That's all I'm saying).
Brown prefers finding the urban caches, the ones "people walk by every day and they have no idea they're even there."
His compadre in geocaching, Richard Stoddard, prefers the traditional geocaches, which often are found at a spot that is scenic or otherwise special. "Some place you've never been before," Stoddard said.
Some specialty tools may be required. Brown travels with a TOTT ("tools of the trade") bag, which includes two flashlights, some small hand tools, a magnet on a bendable wire, and more. But most geocaches are just waiting for you to puzzle out how to find them.
While searching out by John Wayne Marina for one devilishly clever microcache, we were joined by a fellow in a red Toyota truck. He pulled onto the shoulder and rolled down his window.
"Where is it?" he asked. No further explanation was required.
Bill Whitman, who lives on a boat in the strait, had visited the same spot with his son Milo, 8, and had come away empty-handed. Like us, he had found the "red herring" left at the spot - a camouflaged rock that was intended to leave the impression that perhaps we were on to something.
Not to give too much away, but it's a good thing Whitman happened to be carrying a wrench with him.
Where in the world are you?
The primary tool of the game is a GPS, an electronic device that works with the Global Positioning System. This space-based global navigation system consists of 24 satellites orbiting 11,000 nautical miles above the earth. It was built by the U.S. government for military purposes but was later opened to the public. A GPS can cost anywhere from $100 to $600, depending on added features.
There also are GPS apps for iPhones and Droid cell phones.
These devices provide reliable location information by triangulating on at least three of the satellites.
The result is a series of longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates. For example, the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, home of the aforementioned geocache, is located at N 48° 04.475, W° 123 04.852 (that's degrees, minutes and seconds.)
But that only gets you close. No cacher gets his hands on that visitor center geocache, for example. without decrypting the hint provided on its web page at www.geocaching.com.
Geocaching can be addictive. Caroline Stuckey, who owns Olympic Mailing Services, has in her career located almost 4,000 geocaches. In March she will head with friends to the so-called "E.T. Highway," located in Nevada near Area 51, where she hopes to pick up another thousand finds. She plans easily to exceed her current record of 86 finds in one day.
Brown has found 535 caches, including some in Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, and even the Bahamas. Like Stuckey, he's also found the original geocache, which is located in Oregon.
A little history
Geocaching.com, which provides the history of geocaching, says that on May 3, 2000, Dave Ulmer placed a five-gallon bucket at N 45° 17.460 W 122° 24.800. It contained two CD-ROMs, a cassette recorder, a "George of the Jungle" VHS tape, a Ross Perot book, four $1 bills, a slingshot handle and a "notorious can of beans."
"The coordinates were then listed on the Internet and modern-day geocaching was born."
Soon after, one of the traditions of geocaching was founded: Mike Teague, the first to find that first cache, took the money and left some cigarettes, a cassette tape and a pen. Even today the practice continues, with many geocaches containing "swag" - trinkets to be shared. You're expected to take something and leave something.
That "notorious can of beans" also was the symbolic start of another tradition: It became a "Travel Bug" - an item that is moved from site to site. (Following an expensive and technologically impressive restoration, it continues to make appearances at geocaching events.)
Travel Bugs are still popular and are only to be removed by someone who agrees to place them somewhere else. Some are actually sent out on "missions," with the person placing them establishing that they should at some point end up in a specific locale: Japan, perhaps, or Moscow.
The rules of the game
Though the entire framework is based on the honor system, there are rules. Stoddard, who has found 2,188 geocaches, including some in Hawaii, also has hidden five caches. Geocaches must be no less than one-tenth of a mile apart and the cacher must have "adequate permission" to place it.
All sorts of twists are allowed. For example, there are "multi-caches" that require seekers to find several caches sequentially en route to the mother lode.
Every ceocacher loves being an "FTF" - a first to find. To aid in that effort, geocachers set up communications systems to automatically alert them whenever a new cache has been placed. Even at three in the morning these brave souls will take off into the mountains - and are likely to find other geocachers have beaten them to the punch.
Do you belong?
Geocaching is hardly highly organized, but birds of this different feather have created their own organization. The Washington State Geocaching Association has nine chapters, including the North Olympic Peninsula chapter. A year's membership is $12.
A geocaching get-together at Islander Pizza in Sequim last February drew more than a hundred enthusiasts.
Stuckey said, "Geocachers are a different breed."
"And proud of it," Brown added.
Maybe, maybe not. At least on that second part.
Stoddard said the first time he saw a gathering of geocachers he "just walked away. They were just too geeky."
"Now he fits right in," Stuckey said.
"No, I don't," was Stoddard's quick response.
Not that all geocachers are geeks. While locating one in downtown Sequim, the group was joined by Captain Chris Turner of the Clallam County Fire District. He established one of the very first caches in Sequim and still occasionally checks in on it.
Reach Mark Couhig at email@example.com.