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Alex Juarez checks his GPS unit while searching for a geocache along a Springfield-area bike path.
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Geocaching: High-tech treasure hunt
By Kathleen Ostrander

It can be a solo adventure, a family experience, a chance for exercise, exploring or sightseeing; it could involve a code, obscure hints or solving a puzzle. In the past 10 years, geocaching has grown in popularity and evolved from a nerdy pursuit into an interesting and challenging hobby.

There are more than 500 geocaches hidden near the Springfield area.

When geocaching started 10 years ago, it was simply finding an item using a global positioning unit with the proper coordinates logged in.

But geocaching has evolved into an elaborate high-tech game of hide and seek with those who hide the caches making them harder and more complicated to find and those who find the caches becoming more and more determined to find them.

Caches, sometimes large and sometimes so small they are called "micro-caches," are hidden, their locations registered and on the official Geocache page and anyone with a Global Positioning System unit is invited to take a crack at finding them.

Caches could contain items, like special cache coins, small items like key fobs, little action figures, some item to geographically identify the geocacher - like an I Love Springfield button or larger items like books or games.

A cache can instruct the finder to do something - like take a picture, put a specific item into the cache or log onto the geocaching website after the cache is found and list a favorite food or song.

Geocaching can be done while visiting relatives, as a side jaunt on a business trip or as a vacation destination. The idea that it can be as easy or as difficult as one wants is what appeals to the Springfield residents who have joined the high-tech hunt.

The Whelpleys, Lisa and Rodd and their son, Ethan, actually got involved in geocaching several years ago when Ethan's grandmother decided it would be a fun adventure with her grandson.

"Of course, we had to learn all about it so we knew what they were talking about," said Lisa Whelpley, "and then we just started getting into it."

On a recent summer day, the Whelpleys hunted for a geocache to demonstrate how the hunt worked.

Lisa Whelpley logged onto the geocache website, found a cache in Springfield and downloaded the coordinates into her GPS unit.

With Ethan doing the GPS "steering," they made their way to a site on Durkin Drive. With Rodd Whelpley on the lookout for "muggles" - those who would take a geocache to be rude or because they didn't know what it was - they found the cache.

The GPS unit took them close and then they had to rely on the clue included on the website and sharp eyes.

An object that looked like a humdrum piece of debris was actually the cache and it contained a tiny logbook for the Whepleys to note that they found it, along with the date.

Rodd Whelpley said he had to climb a tree to get at one cache when the family was traveling and decided to go geocaching.

"We can just decide we want to go somewhere, an hour away or even a day away, and find a cache," said Lisa Whelpley. "We've even gone in the wintertime."

The couple said they liked the idea that geocaching was user-friendly.

"It notes on the website if the cache is in an area that is handicapped accessible and even if you can bring your dog along," she said.

"The next thing we want to do is begin hiding caches," Lisa Whelpley said.

"The geocaching website sells watertight containers and the stickers to put on them so people don't think you've hidden a bomb or hazardous waste."

Tim Murphy started geocaching as a way to keep in touch with his father when he moved from Burlington, Iowa, to Springfield.

"My dad just really got into it, and it was a way for us to keep in touch, something for us to talk about," Murphy said.

His dad found a travel bug geocache and Murphy found that really intriguing. Travel bugs do just that - travel.

They get a registration number and a little tag from the geocache webmasters, and those who hide the cache can log onto the website and find out where their item has gone. Murphy's dad found a teddy bear that's been traveling around the country.

"You can make up elaborate or really simple stories about a travel bug so people stay interested when they find one," Murphy said. He found a 45-rpm record adapter and is using it as a travel bug. The plastic insert goes in the middle of a 45-rpm record so it can play on turntable that is set up for albums.

"Whoever finds it is supposed to put it back in the cache but log onto the geocache website or write it in the log what their favorite song is. When I get enough, I'm going to make a CD of the songs," he said.

Alex Juarez heard a podcast describing geocaching and thought it sounded cool. He has an iPhone app to help him geocache.

"I found a really cool geocache coin once," he said.

Since geocachers aren't supposed to alert muggles to what they are doing, Juarez takes a camera with him when he's geocaching and pretends to take pictures while he's looking for a cache. Walking a dog as a subterfuge also is popular with geocachers.

"It's kind of neat that it's a hidden hobby. There are some really cool things in caches. Happy Meal stuff is really popular, but I've also found action figures and Harry Potter stuff," he said.

Juarez, like all good geocachers, carries a geocaching kit. It has trinkets to leave if the cache calls for leaving something, gloves in case the cache is covered up with something and an empty notebook in case he's the one to fill up the notebook in a cache he's found.

One sweltering summer day, Juarez was hiking along the Interurban Trail. The gloves came in handy because the cache was stashed under some woody debris.

He's got a place in mind to hide a cache of his own. It's likely to be around Springfield - but it could be anywhere.

According to the geocaching website, there are geocaches in 100 countries on seven continents. There's even a Boy Scout geocaching merit badge.

 


 

Geo-what?

  • First, it's pronounced Gee-oh-cash.
  • If you take something from the cache, put something back of equal or greater value.
  • Write about your find in the logbook.
  • Log your experience and find at www.geocaching.com.
  • No matter how large or how small, caches have a logbook or logsheet so those who find the cache can sign in.
  • Larger geocaches may contain items for trade. Usually trinkets, the idea is to take an item and leave something of equal or greater value for the next geocacher.
  • A cache could contain geocoins or travel bugs. These are trackable game pieces. They have a unique set of letters or numbers, sometimes on a tag that looks like a dog tag, that allows geocachers to follow their item as it travels. One geocacher described them as a version of the traveling gnome.
  • Those who register and hide travel bugs may ask the finder to log in and leave a message, or take the bug to a certain place - names of cities, like Springfields around the U.S. or bars with a certain name.
  • Since geocaches may be hidden in plain sight, the idea is to find them without making a big ruckus in public, That's to prevent geocaches being picked up by someone who doesn't know what they are, that would be a "Muggle" in geocaching parlance, and taken or destroyed.

 


 

Geocache types

  • Traditional: A container and a logbook. It might be in a film canister, Tupperware container or an ammo box. The coordinates listed on the cache page are the exact location of the cache.
  • Multi-cache: Involves two or more locations. Multi-caches usually have some sort of hint in the first cache location and the last location is where the physical cache is.
  • Mystery or puzzle cache: This involves more complicated clues, even riddles or codes, which need to be solved to determine the final location. As geocachers become more and more creative, these are used to add unique challenges.
  • Event cache: Geocachers and geocaching organizations designate a time and place to meet and discuss geocaching.
  • Mega-event cache: Draws more than 500 people, sometimes worldwide.
  • Cache-in, trash-out event: Geocachers collect and dispose litter along the trails while looking for a cache. These events can be held by communities as clean-up events, but geocaching etiquette is clean up on the way in and out during a cache search.

 


 

Getting started

Everything you need to know about anything is on www.geocaching.com.

You need a GPS. There are reviews and suggestions on the geocaching website. You can get a decent unit for around $100 or you can get super deluxe models for upward of $300.

Next, get a username and password on geocaching.com. You can upgrade and pay for a premium membership, but the basic one is just fine.

There are tutorials, forums to get advice and help, blogs from fellow geocachers, geocaching gear and GPS unit advice and reviews.

Caches are hidden, which does not mean buried. Before looking for a cache, make sure to review all the clues and descriptions that go with the GPS coordinates. The container may be clear, hanging from a tree limb or in a fake rock.

Veteran cachers get a sort of sense of where something might be hidden. Like, hey, that knothole in the tree looks like a different color brown - and it turns out to be a small container.

The website will give a degree of difficulty and a terrain designation. For instance, a 1/1 would be a pleasant walk in the park.

A 5/5 would involve a well-camouflaged cache that you have to rappel down a cliff to get to. OK, that's a little bit of an exaggeration if it involves rappelling - it has to say that in the clue. Or, it could say bring walking shoes, or you might need a boat.

Remember, geocaching protocol is to avoid making a big public display of what you are doing. That's to make sure geocaching non-believers don't walk off with the cache.

Record your visit into the log in the cache. Some cache descriptions say BYOP - bring your own pencil. If it's a microcache, a pencil might not fit.

Also log your first visit on the website. Go to the cache description page, log your visit with a date and add any comments.

If the cache is looking a little bedraggled because of weather or wear, be sure to note that because whoever planted it there might need to go refresh it.

 


 

Eddie the Razor

Editor's note: We decided after all these years, it really wasn't our place to "out" Eddie the Razor. But if a geocacher finds a cache and someone has left part of a computer memory board, Eddie the Razor has been there.

Geocachers that started out with the hobby early on registered on the geocache website using anonymous screen names. Even now, some of those early geocachers hold onto that anonymity.

There's a fairly famous geocacher in Rochester called Eddie the Razor. In the nearly 10 years since he's been geocaching, he's never used his real name. According to his geocaching profile, he's a retired ion weapons designer.

Really?

No, not really, said Eddie, but it's a great way to start a conversation.

Eddie likes to geocache on the road less traveled.

"There are some people who like to just find as many caches as they can, no matter how hard or easy. For them, it's the number. For me, it's the challenge," he said.

Eddie has been geocaching in the desert near Las Vegas and on an abandoned logging road near Mount Hood in Oregon.

"I'm pretty hard on rental cars," he readily admits. "I've been to some spectacular places. There are caches in national parks, some are underwater and there's even one in a bar in Cozumel, and if you find it you get a free beer."

For him, it's not the cache but the hunt or the unique aspect of the find - like one hidden in the one exact spot where an onlooker can see between the peaks of a mountain, or the perfect spot between two ancient pines to see a famous landmark.

He's planted a number of caches, some of which are child-friendly.

"It says right in the description that Mom and Dad should hand the GPS unit to the kids and let them find it themselves."

The cache might have a game in it, and the description tells the finder if they take a game, put another in. There are some fantastic caches out there, he said.

There are caches with science fiction novels asking the finder to take one and put their favorite in. A lot of caches that have "Harry Potter" or "Star Wars" items in them. There's also an "Alice in Wonderland" cache.

"There's a couple of caches that teachers are using. They teach the kids about directions, and they plant a travel bug."

Travel bugs are registered caches and the person who plants them instructs the finder to take them, well, traveling.

"The teachers can use the cache to teach the kids about different areas of the country; they can learn English with them if that's something the teacher needs to do, and they can use it to teach math. Each component of the hobby can be used to teach something," Eddie said.

Some caches ask the finder to take the travel bug to a certain area, take a picture and then put the picture on the website. He found a travel bug that instructed the finder to take it to a pizza place and get a picture, and then there was the Homer Simpson travel bug that finders were supposed to take to every Springfield in the United States.

Eddie's helped a travel bug that needed to have its picture taken with a police car.

"My wife is getting really good at looking at something to find a really difficult cache, like one that was hidden in an abandoned car. We sat and stared at that car trying to figure out where it was and she finally noticed one of the brake lights looked different, and there it was."

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

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