A “coordinated” search

I learned about geocaching a year ago, when my son Al and I explored a GPS exhibit at the Putnam Museum. It sounded fun, but I decided I couldn’t justify the expenditure to purchase a GPS. Besides, if I had one, it would be harder to motivate Al to learn to use a map and compass in Scouts. 

Recently a co-worker asked me about what hobbies Al had, and went on to suggest geocaching. I had forgotten about the idea, and I initially didn’t even remember why I hadn’t pursued it. Then Mike explained that he had come across an old GPS when he was cleaning up, and since he now has a newer one, he offered me the old one. Naturally I gladly accepted it.

I got a Geocaching for Dummies book from the library, and read enough to understand how the GPS worked and how to use it for geocaching. But of course the book can’t tell how to use the particular model GPS I have – and the manual that came with it is not nearly as newbie-friendly as a Dummies book.

This morning it was our (last) turn to do monitoring of the bluebird boxes (our Webelos Scout conservation project), so I thought that would be a good time and place to try out the GPS. Maybe if I had carried the GPS manual with me, I’d have had less trouble, but as it was it took till we were done with the bluebird boxes before I finally managed to figure out how to get the device to direct me toward my chosen waypoint (set of coordinates). Fortunately we could have found my car anyway, even without the high tech help.

I had logged on to geogaching.com before leaving home, and had written down the coordinates (longitude and latitude) of a cache not too far off the highway. (Google Maps is great for locating caches in a particular area, easier than the text-based list showing caches in the vicinity of a particular zip code.) I parked the car about 500 feet of our destination, and we proceeded on foot. When we got to within a hundred feet, however, the GPS pointed in the direction of the woods to the side of the road.

Maybe when the cache was originally hidden two years ago, getting in there wasn’t too hard. But after three attempts to make our way through thigh-high vegetation, trying not to slide down steep slopes or trip over loose rocks, and only getting within 60 feet of the cache, I decided it was time to give up.

Stopping at the office on the way home, I used geocaching.com to find a cache only a mile away. At the entrance to a park, it was easy enough to get at. But this was supposed to be a two-box cache, and we could only find the first part. I checked the listing again when we got home, and saw that the second part had previously been stolen – but had been replaced just yesterday. Well, I have no idea if it’s already been taken again, or if we just missed it.

Fortunately Al was still enthusiastic about the whole endeavor. Just having found the one part was satisfying, even if there was no treasure in it to take. (The cache is always supposed to contain a log notebook where each person who finds it leaves a record of having found it, and often there are other items left also – the rule is to leave an item of roughly equal value to what you take.)

I used Google Maps again to look for caches near our home, and found a cluster in a park only a mile away. When he learned how close it was, Al was on his feet and ready to head out. I entered the coordinates for two caches into our GPS waypoint list (overwriting some Mike had put there previously – I still have to figure out how to add new ones), and we were on our way.

The GPS tells you exactly which way you need to go to get to the waypoint, how far away it is, and even how long it will take to get there at your current speed. But of course that’s assuming you can go straight there, “as the crow flies.” Al and I aren’t crows, and we did a good deal of walking in a “wrong” direction to get to a path that would take us around obstacles (mostly thick woods and steep hillsides).

Finally we reached a wooden bridge and found ourselves within ten feet of our destination. That’s about as close as the GPS can get you (and that’s a good deal closer than it used to be). Al found this frustrating, as we looked under the bridge and around fallen logs without success. (I pointed out that, considering how far away the satellites are and how big the earth is, pinpointing a location to within ten feet is very impressive.)

Before giving up on that cache, I decided to try the other side of the bridge, even though the GPS always seemed to show the distance getting higher as I headed to that side. I thought the logical place to hide something would be under the bridge, but not too far under. Even looking next to each support post, I nearly missed the box, which was black and blended in very well with the shadows.

Al pointing to the orange frog on top of the cache

Of similar size and construction to the plastic boxes baby wipes come in (though I’ve never seen them sold in black boxes), this cache probably seemed fairly weatherproof when it was first placed. But by now the log inside was thoroughly soaked, and I didn’t even attempt to write on it. Al was happy with the selection of small toys, and picked out a bright orange frog. We left behind a pretty key chain.

Buoyed by our first success, we headed for the next waypoint. This time we easily got within twenty feet, but then found the directional arrow pointing into thick woods. Keeping in mind the slight imprecision of the GPS, I tried approaching from the opposite direction along the path, and this time stopped at a slightly different point, again facing the woods. This time I saw where it looked like someone had pushed their way through to a large tree.

In the end, that one was actually the easiest to find. Far enough off the path so that no one will find it unless they know what they’re looking for, its blue color stands out against the brown of the tree roots and fallen leaves. Unfortunately, despite being closed so tightly it was hard to open, this box had not kept the moisture out either. The log notebook was soaked, and a decorative pin had rusted and stuck to a tiny stuffed dog. Al took the dog anyway, and we left behind a deck of cards.

I’m sure we’ll be doing some more geocaching. We’ve located a cache on our route to church, at a very recognizable landmark. (Though that hardly means we’ll find the cache itself easy to spot.) And Al is thinking about what we could leave in a geocache we create ourselves. I’m thinking about what kind of container would be more water-resistant, and how many layers of Zip-loc bags would keep the contents reasonably dry. Together we need to think of a spot that will be accessible to newbie geocachers like ourselves, but that people won’t be likely to happen upon by accident.

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