Feature: Hide & Seek

May 28, 2015 in front, Summer 2015 Issue by Michelle McAnelly

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They are all around us, sometimes hidden in plain sight. Geocaching – the game, sport or hobby, depending on whom you speak with – entertains equally those seeking a technical challenge and children looking for secret treasures.


I am crawling under a bush, using bare hands to rake away leaves, when I hear my companion say, “I think it’s been muggled.” I feel a twinge of disappointment, but there are plenty of other places to search.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Jeremy Pass and I are geocaching, using GPS coordinates to find geocaches, hidden waterproof containers of varying sizes and materials, that Pass has placed throughout the Shellmound Recreation Area, located along the beech- and red-maple-tree-lined banks of the Tennessee River in Jasper, Tenn.

To say a cache has been “muggled” means someone has found it and destroyed it or moved it without knowing what it was. Borrowed from the Harry Potter universe, “muggle” (a non-wizard in the books) is a piece of geocaching jargon categorizing anyone not familiar with the hobby.

When I arrived this morning, Pass had already hiked four miles from his home. His energy seemed undiminished. “I’ve got four or five [geocaches] around here and four more out closer to the dam. It’s all within just a two- mile walking distance,” he says nonchalantly.

I realize Pass will walk at least eight miles by noon, counting his return trip.

An avid outdoorsman, he wears his hair in a short white ponytail, his backpack is laden with gear and water and he carries a well-used walking stick. As I’ve been having tough luck as a fledgling geocacher, Pass is a reassuring sight.


The Culture and the System

Like orienteering, the objective of geocaching is to locate a physical point. Geocaching, however, brings technology to the fore. Geocaching became possible in 2000, when the Clinton administration turned off Global Po-sitioning System selective availability, an intentional limitation imposed by the U.S. government in order to degrade the accuracy of civilian GPS signals and prevent receivers from serving as cheap military targeting devices. The U.S. Air Force operates the Global Positioning System, which became fully operational in 1995.

Today, as Pass says, “We use billion-dollar satellites to find Tupperware.” All you need to begin geocaching is an account on Geocaching.com and some way to access the GPS network. Pass uses a dedicated GPS receiver, while I use the Geocaching.com app on my iPhone. On the website, you can find geocaches in your area or share the coordinates of caches you place yourself.

ass began geocaching in 2012, when he stumbled across a geocache on a trail near Chattanooga, Tenn. Two days later, he created an account on Geocaching.com. The site is so universally used by geocachers that they of-ten refer to one another by their usernames on the website, even in person.

Typical of geocachers, Pass has placed his caches strategically, forcing seekers to abandon Interstate 24 and experience the natural beauty of Shell-mound more fully than they could zipping past at 70 miles per hour.

Also typical of geocaching, his caches are difficult to find. Each site re-quires a few minutes of methodical and attentive searching before I find the cache, usually a small plastic container covered in camouflage duct tape. Pass also has converted hollow plastic squirrels and bark-covered PVC pipes into caches and is constantly on the lookout for creative containers.

I keep hoping Pass will have mercy on me and provide some hints, but his grin only broadens over time. “I’m not just going to say there, right there. You’ve got to work for it!” he says.

After four or five caches, I begin to get a sense of Pass’ style. Spoiler alert: his caches often are nestled in the roots of trees, on the side closest to the bank of the river, where muggles are even less likely to spot them.

Like most caches, Pass’ containers hold inexpensive, miscellaneous items like toys, flashlights, memorabilia and, most importantly, a paper log for geocachers to record their names and the dates of their finds.

ne of the golden rules of geocaching is that when you take something from a cache, you must replace it with something of equal or greater value. As I do not have a suitable trade, I leave the contents, which include a Spider Man toy, sticker decals for cars and a business card for the local hang-gliding company, and simply write my name on the log. According to the paper, about 30 others have found the cache.

The logs are critical in serious geocaching circles because they physically prove a geocacher has found a cache he or she marks as found on Geocaching.com. Otherwise, a user could simply “find” caches online without leaving home.

When geocachers report a find on the website, they are rewarded with a yellow “smiley,” a smiling-face icon that replaces the geocache icon on the website map. Pass has 90 smileys.

Smileys are a currency of bragging rights within the geocaching community. Most avid geocachers are more focused on acquiring smileys than the items within the caches, although the inverse is true for children. For many, geocaching is a family activity.

As we walk, Pass discusses his plans to organize geocaching group hikes and a CITO, or Cache In Trash Out event, in which participants pick up litter as they search for caches. CITOs arose from controversy during geocaching’s early days, when critics pointed out that, technically, geocachers are littering when they hide their caches.

“They already have a riverside clean-up day; it would pair well with CITO,” Pass says.

As Pass and I make the trek back to my car, he suddenly stops and picks up something. He laughs, somewhat ominously, and shows me a small bird’s nest.

This could work,” he says. I feel sorry for the next geocacher to come through Shellmound.


Tourism and Commerce

Rhonda Clark, a member of the Cherokee County [Alabama] Board of Education, has 1,700 smileys.

Her geocaching style is entirely different from Pass’. When I meet her at the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism, where the county’s geo-tour begins, she gives me a hint that directs me to the geo-cache she placed near the front of the building. Then we get in my car.

The geo-tour is exactly what it sounds like: a series of checkpoints that guide visitors to Cherokee County’s most notable landmarks. Geo-tours are not necessarily related to geocaching, but many geo-tours include caches. When Clark, a diehard geocacher, was asked to create the tour, she couldn’t resist placing geocaches along it.

Upon learning how many smileys she has, I’m visibly impressed, but she tells me about a local “geocaching legend” with the simple username of David who has more than 20,000.

We cover ground quickly, hitting three geocaches in 20 minutes. Clark is vibrant and talkative. Whenever we near a geocache, she acquires a laser-like focus. “OK, we are really close,” she says suddenly, inadvertently cut-ting off one of my questions, as we approach a state monument on the side of the highway.

We cover ground quickly, hitting three geocaches in 20 minutes. Clark is vibrant and talkative. Whenever we near a geocache, she acquires a laser-like focus. “OK, we are really close,” she says suddenly, inadvertently cut-ting off one of my questions, as we approach a state monument on the side of the highway.

Even with our DNFs, traveling by car allows us to accumulate as many smileys in 30 minutes as Pass and I did in four hours.

Some geocachers make the process even more efficient, placing dozens of caches along highways, barely separated by the minimum distance of half a mile that Geocaching.com requires.

Clark and I visit a geocache near an electric dam. When Clark sees the buildup of litter along a tree line, she sighs, but tells me that in the next few months she hopes to organize a CITO here.

As we approach the end of the tour, Clark shows me something on her phone. “Look, someone around here has made a piece of geoart,” she says. She has the geocaching app open, and I see that someone has arranged doz-ens of geocache icons into a giant blue representation of the Geocaching.com trademark over Weiss Lake.

There aren’t any caches in the lake, however.

“You have to solve the mystery for each cache,” Clark says. She clicks one at random. “You can find all of the answers on the Internet,” she says. “This one asks which is the mascot for Walter Wellborn High School. There are three answer options, and each one has its own coordinates. The right an-swer will take you right to the cache.”

As with the geo-tour, anyone intending to solve each piece of the geoart will inevitably wind up purchasing gas and meals as they travel around the area.

Because geocaches often are created using containers that would have wound up in a landfill otherwise, the commercial benefit to the surrounding area is achieved at negligible cost, Clark says.

The creative placement of caches can be as satisfying as finding them. During a trip my editor and I would make a few days later to take photos of geocaching sites, we visited Cherokee Rock Village – a sublime area strewn with monumental boulders, dark caves and man-swallowing crevices – and quickly realized our mistake.

Cherokee Rock Village is a renowned location within the rock-climbing community, and the caches placed there reflect the athleticism and adventurous attitude of its patrons.

Though caches appeared to be everywhere when I consulted the geocaching app, finding even those color-coded green for beginners often proved impossible. On the app, hints, including “Pretzeler” and “Claustrophobia,” accompany many of the cache descriptions.

There are other challenging locations as well. Just after Clark shows me the geoart, she points at a long, thin island in Weiss Lake. “You can only get to the cache out there during a drought,” she says.


Desoto State Park and Family Fun

Ken Thomas, superintendent of Desoto State Park, sports 162 smileys.

I interview him in a quiet back room of the park’s historic lodge, the lobby of which is filled with uniformed park rangers sitting comfortably in recliners, drinking coffee and preparing to head out into the field.

Thomas grows increasingly enthusiastic and animated while talking about geocaching, delivering his sentences rapidly and with strong and cheerful emphasis. He, too, mentions the David of 20,000 smileys. He even provides me with his email address. Later, I try to contact David, but, like a true legend, he proves elusive.

Thomas elaborates on how the park incorporates geocaching into its objectives. “We are providing so many outdoor activities wrapped into one,” he says. “While people are traveling to the geocache, they are passing birds and scenery that they will only see in an Alabama state park.”

I ask him how he first learned about geocaching.

“That’s actually a really funny story,” he says with a grin. “I’m a law-en-forcement officer, so part of my job here in the park is to protect the natural resources. So I found these guys digging up an ammo box and was initially suspicious. I thought that they were looting for Indian artifacts, which we have had problems with, but they explained to me what geocaching was and so I immediately went and found the rest of the caches in the park. Of course, to do that, I had to get an account on Geocaching.com, which I’ve kept active since.”

Thomas says he continues to run into geocachers in the park. “I’ve no-ticed it has become a family activity,” he says, “that it’s mom, dad and the kids, and that’s a very, very important thing to Alabama state parks. It gives us that warm fuzzy feeling to know that families are out here having fun in the park.”

“Not to sound corny,” he adds, “but we are in the business of providing good memories to folks.”

Thomas then points out the international aspect of geocaching. “Geo-caching’s global,” he says. “There are geocachers leaving the United States and going to other countries to geocache. And they aren’t geocaching be-cause they had to go to London, England on business; they are going to Lon-don to geocache.”

It’s true. There are more than 2.5 million geocaches around the world, scattered throughout every continent and almost every country. The game is most popular in Germany, which has almost as many caches as the United States, despite having only a thirtieth of the landmass.

It’s true. There are more than 2.5 million geocaches around the world, scattered throughout every continent and almost every country. The game is most popular in Germany, which has almost as many caches as the United States, despite having only a thirtieth of the landmass.

I suspect that Pass and Clark will be there. Possibly even David.

For more information about geocaching educational opportunities at DeSoto State Park, contact Ken Thomas at ken.thomas@dcnr.alabama.gov or see alapark.com/geocaching-in-DSP. To learn more about the Cherokee County Geo-Tour, see cherokee-chamber.org.


Geocaching Terms to Know

BYOP: Bring Your Own Pen/Pencil. Used by cache owners to communicate that geocachers will have to bring their own writing utensil. Most often used when the cache is too small to contain a pencil.

CITO: Cache In Trash Out. Events organized by geocachers to clean up an area while placing or finding caches. Some events focus on removing invasive plant species, re-vegetation efforts or building trails.

DNF: Did Not Find. An acronym used by geocachers to state they did not find a cache. This is also a type of online log at Geocaching.com and is used for alerting cache owners and searchers of potential issues.

D/T: Geocaches are rated in two categories, each designated on a 5-point scale. Difficulty relates to the mental challenge of finding a cache, and ter-rain describes the physical environment. A 1/1 difficulty/terrain rating would be the easiest cache to find, while a 5/5 difficulty/terrain rating would be the most difficult.

EARTHCACHE: An EarthCache is a location people can visit to learn about a unique geographic feature. To log an EarthCache, you typically have to provide answers to questions by observing the geological location.

FTF: First to Find. An acronym written by geocachers in physical cache logbooks or online when logging cache finds to denote being the first to find a new geocache.

GPSR: Slang for a GPS receiver. Equipment that receives GPS signals.

MULTI-CACHE (OFFSET CACHE): A Multi-Cache (“multiple”) involves two or more locations. The final location is a physical container. There are many variations, but most multi-caches include a first cache with a hint to find the second cache, and the second cache has a hint to the third and so on. An offset cache (where you go to a location and get hints to the actual cache) is considered a multi-cache.

MYSTERY OR PUZZLE CACHES: The “catch-all” of cache types, this form of geocache may involve complicated puzzles you will first need to solve to determine the coordinates of the cache.[/s2If]