When I was a little girl, I loved to play hide-and-seek. Some of my friends liked to hide, others liked to seek, but I loved to do both. So you can imagine how excited I was when a friend introduced me to the high-tech hide-and-seek game called geocaching.
Played all over the world (even in Antarctica), the game’s fundamental concept is easy: participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to locate “caches” — a waterproof container of some type that holds a logbook and amusing knickknacks — which have been placed there by another player. The cache’s waypoints (longitude and latitude) are posted on the Web site www.geocaching.com. In the Hudson Valley, there are hundreds of caches hidden in tree stumps, under bridges, around historic monuments, and in parks. Cachers (as we are called) have even been known to hide these treasures underwater (so you have to dive to find them); others place them on islands, which require using a boat to reach. Once you start playing, you’ll see that caches can be hidden almost anywhere.
My first geocaching experience took place during a trip to Tillamook, Oregon, while I was visiting my friend, Sunni. It was she who turned me on to the game. “Geocaching,” she explained, “stands for ‘geo,’ as in geography, and ‘cache,’ as in something hidden. Don’t worry, you’ll love it.” She tossed me some pages she had printed from the Web site. They showed the name of the cache we would hunt for, its waypoints, a Google map, some history about the location, the difficulty of the terrain, the size of the cache, a few hints from the person who hid it, and some tips from cachers who had already found it.
Sunni was right: after uncovering that first cache, I was hooked. But it wasn’t an easy find. Located near a World War II naval air hangar-turned-museum, the cache — a six-inch container that the site said was painted green — was surprisingly well-hidden. According to Sunni’s GPS, we were within 20 feet of it, but we just couldn’t find the darn thing. The museum’s caretaker’s house was within the GPS parameters, so we poked around. We snooped under the stoop; peered inside a garden hose with a flashlight; jiggled a stick up into the downspout; and opened the caretaker’s trash can, thinking that maybe it was glued to the underside of the lid. Nothing.
Even my experienced mentor was perplexed. To make matters worse, visitors on their way into the museum began staring at us. Sunni winked at me, and started pretending that her GPS was a cell phone in an effort to divert their gazes. “We don’t want the cache to be Muggled,” she said to me.
“Muggled?” I asked.
“We borrowed the term from the Harry Potter books,” she explained. “It means there’s an outsider in the vicinity. Sometimes Muggles can innocently remove a cache, which sort of messes up the game. So we usually stop looking and do something else, like pretend we’re looking for our car keys.”
About 15 minutes later, Sunni let out a yell. “Did you find it?” I asked. She nodded and indicated a little bush, which I was certain I had looked through. “It’s cammoed (camouflaged) really well,” she said. “Look at the way they painted the plastic to blend into the greens of the bush and the yellows of the flowers.” There were a few kids’ toys in the cache, as well as the log. We signed it with our caching “pen names,” wrote TNLN (Took Nothing, Left Nothing), and put it carefully back into its hiding place. I couldn’t wait to return to New York to see what was hidden close to my own backyard. As soon as I got home, I bought a new pair of hiking boots, ordered my first GPS receiver, and immersed myself in the geocaching Web site. I quickly learned that there is more than one type of cache.
A variety of items can be hidden inside a cache
There are micro- and nano-caches, which — as their names suggest — are very tiny and very difficult for beginners to locate. Multi-caches require players to find their way to two or more locations, with the final one holding the physical cache. Another variety is the mystery cache, in which you must solve a puzzle in order to learn the waypoints; only then can you even begin to look for the actual cache. I also discovered that you can search for caches all over the world by punching in a zip code or town name into geocaching.com. The Web site also contains a glossary of caching terms and acronyms, including FTF: First To Find, and CITO: Cache In, Trash Out (geocachers have long been dedicated to cleaning up parks and other cache-friendly locations).
Armed with my new gear — and feeling rather geocaching-savvy thanks to my hours on the Web — I convinced my friend Kim to join me on a search; before I knew it, he was hooked, too. Since then, we have found dozens of caches together, and hidden a few of our own.
Not all geocaching outings are successful. I once searched the center of Woodstock on six separate occasions looking for a cache, only to find out later that it had been missing, perhaps all along. I got even by hiding a micro-cache called “Bee’s Knees and Book Worms” outside the Woodstock Library. Gleefully I watched player after player post a DNF (Did Not Find) on the cache’s Web page. It was more than three weeks before a resourceful cacher finally spotted it on his third attempt.
For me, the excitement of the game is in the hunt. But Kim and I have discovered areas we never would have seen had we not been caching: beautiful waterfalls and swimming holes known only to longtime residents or fellow geocachers. And it’s always intriguing to see what treats other cachers have left behind. “Trackable” items, called geocoins or travel bugs, are my favorites. The objective is to remove the item you’ve found (or grabbed, in geo-speak), log its serial number onto the Web page, “drop” it into another geocache, and track its subsequent movements on-line.
Photograph courtesy of Andras VighThe Road Runner cache (above) is hidden close to a waterfall near Hurley
Combining 21st-century technology with the timeless natural beauty of the Hudson Valley, geocaching is an activity that keeps me heading out the door every chance I get. So if you happen to see a woman gingerly reaching her hand into a fallen tree, or walking along the roadside gazing at the little electronic device in her hand, don’t assume she’s lost. It might just be me — caching in!
Just as film buffs expect reviewers to avoid spoiling a movie’s ending, respected geocachers are supposed to keep mum on a cache’s exact location. Here — while carefully dodging any telltale details — Tarshis reveals some of her favorite Valley caches.
Supose Elsi: Cachers need some sort of boat — or an impressive ability to swim long distances — in order to reach this cache, hidden on an island on the Hudson between the Rhinecliff and Mid-Hudson bridges. Besides the waypoints, the only other clue to the cache’s location is in its name — but its creator will go no further than that.
Will You Marry Me?: This romantic treasure is a “virtual” cache — a landmark that exists outside geocaching, rather than an object placed specifically for game purposes. Cachers must scour Greene County’s North-South Lake Campground for a rock with a marriage proposal carved into it, and E-mail the name of the betrothed to the person who posted the cache.
Enchanted Ferncliff: Located in Rhinebeck’s Ferncliff Forest, this multi-cache has three stages, each with its own fairy-tale feel. Cachers need to find one cache in order to determine the waypoints of the next, but the chase is well worth the effort: the last cache features a beautifully hand-crafted wooden box moored inside a tree stump.
Effigy of the Forgotten: It would be hard to miss the location of this cache — it’s hidden in a caboose on the grounds of a Kingston tourist center, as its creator readily divulges in the cache’s description. Even armed with such specific information, however, cachers are finding it incredibly difficult to dig up this key-sized prize; one frustrated searcher has gone so far as to characterize the cache as “evil.”
On May 2, 2000, the accuracy of GPS technology was improved tenfold when 24 satellites around the world strengthened their signals. The very next day, in Beavercreek, Oregon, Dave Ulmer hid what was to become the first geocache. Ulmer called his new game the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt” and posted to an Internet newsgroup the waypoints of a black bucket filled with tapes, books, and other items. Within three days, two people had found his stash and posted their hunt experiences on the site. Within a month, the list of “stashes” grew; on May 30, Matt Stum coined the name “geocaching.” Currently, there are over 650,000 active caches in more than 100 countries around the world.
Want to jump into geocaching yourself? Electronics stores and Web sites like www.offroute.com sell basic handheld GPS devices (such as the Garmin eTrex, left) for $100 to $150. Tarshis says serious geocachers might consider splurging for a more expensive unit like her $500 Magellan Triton 2000, pictured on page 30.