If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience



Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 11.43.55 AM

A worldwide treasure hunt

Searching for geocaches

By Steve Guntli

It’s close now.

My GPS readout is telling me it’s within 20 feet of where I’m standing. Maybe it’s shrouded by the tall grass that covers a half-acre to the north. Maybe it’s stashed in the branches of one of the gnarled trees to the south. Maybe it’s a devious tag, and it’s been disguised to look like that rusty padlock, or that nondescript rivet.

Finally, I find it: a shopworn plastic container, dusty but intact, tucked into the roots of a tree. Inside, a motley collection of plastic spiders and rubber lizards, postcards, advertisements for yacht rentals and scuba diving medals. A tiny, bright orange notebook, its pages brimming with signatures and anniversaries and private jokes, commemorates the people who got here before me, a shockingly long list of names for this obscure little treasure in an obscure little field in Blaine, Washington. I add my name to the roster, reseal the container and set it back where I found it.

It’s a seemingly inconsequential thing – a box of junk tucked under an old tree out in the wilderness, and I suspect any onlookers would think I was out of my mind as I trudged through the high grass in the middle of the day, smartphone in hand, puzzled expression on my face. But there’s a captivating sense of adventure connected to this little box. You get the sense that there’s a secret world of esoteric little treasures hiding in every corner of the globe, just waiting for you to find them.

That’s the appeal of geocaching – the high-tech scavenger hunt that’s grown exponentially over the last decade.

Geocaching sprung up in 2000, after the U.S. government removed the “selective availability” feature that limited most civilian Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. Suddenly, the average person had access to GPS technology as powerful as any used by the U.S. government. While the potential for mapping routes across the country has been realized by just about every smart phone and tablet on the market, the founders of Groundspeak, Inc. saw the seed of a new sport.

Jeremy Irish, Elias Alvord and Bryan Roth founded Groundspeak in Seattle just four months after the selective availability option was removed. Today, the company is at the forefront of a cottage industry, responsible for designing and selling geocaching gear, accessories and apps. Their website, geocaching.com, is the largest geocaching website in the world, with over two million users in nearly 200 countries. The site is responsible for managing the huge community of cachers around the world, keeping tabs on missing or stolen caches and responding to feedback from the community.

Alexandra Dolk is one of the people responsible for keeping this community happy. Dolk, a 2009 Blaine High School valedictorian, graduated from the University of Washington this year with degrees in environmental science and environmental studies. She now works at Groundspeak as one of the website’s community managers.

The rules of the game are simple: find the cache, sign the logbook and if you take something from the box, leave something of equal or greater value in its place. How someone chooses to go about finding a cache is up to them, either by following coordinates mapped out on a GPS device or using their smartphone’s built-in GPS capabilities in conjunction with Groundspeak’s geocaching app.

Caches can vary in size, from as large as an ammunition box to as small as a button. Participants can store anything they want inside, as long as it’s legal and non-perishable, so no food, alcohol or illicit drugs. Trackables, a new product launched by Groundspeak, are items with specific coded dog tags that are put in a cache with a specific destination in mind. For instance, a person could leave a Trackable in a cache in Washington with instructions to take the item to Germany. Cachers who find the Trackable will try to get it as close to its destination as possible, and the owner can track the progress through the website.

It’s the sheer volume of caches available, and the often ingenious ways to find them, that makes the hobby so addicting. In a recent blog post on geocaching.com, Dolk recounted a geocaching expedition she took with her family throughout Blaine, which yielded 15 finds. Those 15 are only a small fraction of the caches hidden throughout Blaine and neighboring Birch Bay. Groundspeak claims on their website that most people in North America and Europe live within a short walk of at least one geocache.

Part of the appeal of geocaching is discovering interesting details about an area that you never would have noticed otherwise. For example, a geocache entitled “Zombie Cam” led me to a tiny lot less than 500 feet from my office. There, I found a cache at the foot of an old video surveillance tower that, through rust and paint, had adopted the pallid color of a zombie. I’ve walked past this hundreds of times and never would have noticed it.

Like any good recreational activity, an entire language has sprung up to describe the various goals, quirks and habits of geocachers. The most prestigious goal for a geocacher is the elusive FTF, or “first to find.” Getting an FTF takes diligence, patience and luck, and it helps to monitor the list of caches going up in an area frequently.

A DNF, or “did not find,” lets the community managers, like Dolk, know that the cache wasn’t at the designated coordinates. Enough DNF complaints and the staff will retire the posting from the website, so people won’t waste their time searching for a cache that no longer exists. One may also hear cachers use terms like “cords” (coordinates), “GZ” (ground zero, or the site of a cache) or “muggle” (a non-cacher).

Some cachers like to get tricky with their hiding places. Perhaps a tag will be attached to a floatation device and hidden inside a hollow fencepost, and the only way to retrieve it is to fill the post with water. Maybe the cache is disguised inside a fake piece of chewed gum or a false bolt hidden under a bench. These are called “devious caches,” and Groundspeak sells a variety of them on their website.

Others like to get downright extreme with their hobby. Whether it’s embedding a cache in a cliff-side crevice or hiding one on the bottom of a lake, these caches tend to require skill, patience and a certain amount of daring to claim. It’s caches like these that inspired the designers of geocaching.com to develop their ratings system, which ranks caches on a scale of 1 to 5 for both terrain and difficulty. Dolk advises anyone wanting to give geocaching a try to check the difficulty rating before anything else.

“A terrain rating of 5 means you probably need some kind of special equipment to find it, like mountain climbing gear or a boat,” Dolk said. “That’s only for the really hardcore people.”

Dolk doesn’t count herself among the really hardcore geocachers quite yet. She has personally found around 120 caches, a pretty low number among her co-workers, some of whom have logged nearly 12,000 finds. The world record holder, according to Dolk, has logged about 100,000 finds since 2000.

“To get to that level, you need to be kind of obsessed,” Dolk said. “That takes a lot of time and effort.”

Dolk’s more casual approach to the hobby makes her a good point of reference for the community. She’s not about to go hanging off a bridge to retrieve a magnetic cache pinned to the struts; she just wants to spend some time outside.

“I’m fairly outdoorsy,” she said. “I love to go hiking, and I enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with geocaching. It’s an extra little incentive to get outside.” x