A new pastime is getting people out of their houses and into caves, up mountains, across valleys and even into storm drains. They are in search of caches — containers filled with trinkets and a logbook to record their version of "I was here."
Then it's on to the next challenge. They reset their GPS device and search for the next bit of treasure. Along the way, they may spot white-tailed deer or tiger swallowtails, American goldfinches or great blue herons. They will almost certainly visit places they've never seen before, whether famous national parks or small municipal ones just up the road.
Geocaching, as it's known, began in 2000, when GPS technology metamorphosed overnight. The U.S. government removed the "selective availability" feature that intentionally degraded the signal emanating from satellites. The Global Positioning System, which the Department of Defense had developed, now had dozens of peacetime possibilities. It could improve rail travel, road and marine navigation, and emergency responses.
These were the days when few people had GPS, long before the pleasant Australian voice coming from the car's speakers calmly told us how to navigate that jughandle or this five-way intersection. But those who already had the technology were eager to see what they could do with it.
On May 3, 2000, a computer consultant in Oregon hid a navigational target in the woods. He posted the coordinates on a GPS user group with simple rules: Take something, leave something. By the end of the month, geocaching was born. It quickly spread and now has its own website, Geocaching.com, which documents caches all over the world.
Getting started is easy. Users can go to the site and set up a free account, then type in their ZIP code to find caches in their area. Geocachers can use a smart phone enabled with GPS technology, but a hand-held GPS is better and a lot less frustrating, experienced cachers say. Often, the person who hides the cache offers a hint, which is helpful because GPS devices aren't always at their best in the middle of the woods.
The caches are usually a small weather-tight container filled with stickers, pins, trinkets and miscellaneous items, such as crayons, pencils or business cards. Some include geocoins with tracking numbers that travel all over the world, like high-tech Flat Stanleys.
Since geocaching began, caches have gotten more elaborate. Some are puzzles with multiple stages, requiring the cacher to answer questions before getting a clue to move on. Some are "Earth" caches that focus on natural areas and do not allow the cacher to remove anything, instead offering virtual "credit" that the visitor has been there. But generally, the adage that began it all remains: Take something, leave something.
Millions of people worldwide have taken up geocaching. In the Chesapeake region, cachers can hunt around the Inner Harbor in Baltimore or in the remote caves of West Virginia, and just about everywhere in between. Those who manage parks and historical sites have figured out that partnering with the cachers is a great way to get more people outdoors. Various nature centers and arboretums in the Chesapeake watershed have dedicated geotrails . And the National Park Service recently developed geotrails for the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail and the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Water Trail.
Cindy Chance of the National Park Service has become a believer. The geotrails on the John Smith and Star Spangled Banner trails have brought in people who would never have come otherwise.
"This is not like the Appalachian Trail, which is like a footpath. These trails are in rural landscapes, as well as urban, and are heavily dependent on local engagement," Chance said. "Geocaching draws people in to those local sites."
That's one reason Reisterstown geocacher Dave Gede loves his new hobby so much. A lifelong Marylander, geocaching has taken him to places in the Chesapeake region he never visited before — including Backbone Mountain, the state's highest peak, and Mallows Bay, where hundreds of unused wooden ships built for World War I were sunk in the Potomac.
"The wonderful thing is, we've found all these little places we never would have otherwise," he said. "Not only does it get us out of the house and off playing with the computer and the typical stuff everybody does, but it gets us out of the state."
Gede and his daughter, Jayme, 12, agreed to meet me and my daughter Maya, 7, at Cromwell Valley Park in Baltimore County for our first geocaching adventure on a recent Sunday morning. As we pulled up to the park, a beautiful 371-acre swath of green in the middle of suburbia, I felt embarrassed. The park is less than four miles from my house. I had been there exactly once. My daughter had been there three times — twice for school field trips.
Gede, who lives about 10 miles farther away than I do, said he'd never been there before he started geocaching. He chose it because it was close to my house and because the caches there were, as he explained it, "mid-range. Well-done. Well-placed. For the most part, they're not a waste of time."
Our first cache was hidden close to the entrance of the park. The girls were thrilled to find it, even if the treasure inside was little more than a few small trinkets. Maya took two, and I put in two Muppet rings that had been left over from her birthday party the night before. Jayme, spunky and red-haired, passed on taking anything. The next cache was hidden near the park's main house and also relatively easy to find. Maya took an oyster shell; Jayme took a computer chip. I put in another Muppet ring, Dave a trackable coin called a "pathtag" he had made for his new hobby.
We then climbed into the woods, down a streambed and under a bridge that crossed a rocky creek to find our third cache, this one hidden by a geocacher who goes by the handle "VerySmartGirl." (Lots of geocachers don't use their own names, and will only put nicknames in the logbooks.) We spotted a toad, but no cache. Dave had found it once before, and the online notes indicated it had been found in May. But that is a lifetime ago in geocaching. He surmised it had washed away during the rains. He said he would put a "DNF" — did not find — note online, so that VerySmartGirl would know her cache had disappeared. Dave has hidden dozens of caches himself, and if one disappeared, he explained, he'd want to know.
As we walked to the next cache, we noticed the butterflies and the birds and some pretty wildflowers. The girls stopped by an apple tree and picked a few. Jayme led Maya to another cache in a four-trunked tree — the clue was "go 4 it."
In three hours of caching, we found four caches and could not locate two. For Gede and Jayme, it was a relatively tame outing — these two have fallen shoulder-deep in snow at Backbone Mountain, waded into the nearly frozen Lehigh River in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and braved spider crickets as they slithered under rocks in pursuit of caches. But I hadn't been on a hike through the woods in quite some time, and it showed. I fell a few times. I vowed to come back to Cromwell soon with my bicycle and better shoes.
When I told Susan Kelley of the Maryland Geocaching Society that my adventures helped me rediscover a local park, she told me she hears that a lot. Indeed, when she began caching in 2004, she and her husband discovered a tiny park up the road from their Calvert County home. Since then, she's hunted for caches in 43 states, a few provinces in Canada, and in the Caribbean. Favorites include the Red Rock Canyon and Valley of Fire outside of Las Vegas, where finding the clues required reading hieroglyphics. Kelley helped the National Park Service place the caches on the Capt. John Smith and Star-Spangled geotrails, and she helps organize "Cache Across Maryland," where cachers have to find 10 caches in six weeks and then they get the coordinates to the society's annual picnic.
"It's led me to do things I never, ever imagined we would do," said Kelley, a grandmother. "We bought a kayak so we could cache along the rivers. This year, for the first time, I went into a cave. I have done a couple things where I have to go through water drainage tubes. It's built up my courage to try some new things."
As for the Gedes, who have cached from Maine to Florida, there are many trails left to explore. One he hasn't done yet is in the Cacoctin Mountains of Western Maryland. It requires a cacher to walk back and forth for hours. It is called "The Pointless and Sadistic," and is likely even more so in the winter, when the ground is slippery and the caches are harder to see.
"I still have that one on my list to do," he said.
Ready to join the hunt? Here are some tips
Geocaching is fun, challenging and a great way to get outdoors. Families can do it together, and children 5 and older will love the adventure. Some trails require a lot of walking. Experienced cachers recommend bringing a hand-held GPS, long pants, gloves, water, bug spray, sunscreen, first aid kit and a snake bite kit (just in case). Don't forget to bring a bag of trinkets to place in the caches. The GPS on your phone can work, but it can also frustrate cachers.
To start, go to geocaching.com and set up a profile. It's free. You can look for caches in your area, or your favorite park, nature center or downtown area.
Check out the Maryland Geocaching Society's page, www.mdgps.org, for details on local activities and the Cache Across Maryland challenge. The Northern Virginia Geocaching Organization also has a site, www.novago.org, focused on sites around the nation's capitol. Delaware geocachers can get started at www.geocachingde.net/index.html. For other regions and states, visit geocaching.com — in some cases, individual counties and regions have their own pages.
The United States has only a few official geotours. Two are in the Chesapeake watershed and are managed by the National Park Service
The Captain John Smith Geotrail includes 61 geocaches in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. For details, visit: www.geocaching.com/adventures/geotours/captainjohnsmith.
The Star-Spangled Banner Geotrail winds through Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, telling the story of the War of 1812. It has 34 geocaches. For details, visit: www.geocaching.com/adventures/geotours/captainjohnsmith.
Some states offer their own trails. Delaware has one winding through its state parks. Visit www.visitdelaware.com/geo/caches.php for details.
A lot of nature centers in the watershed offer their own trails. In Baltimore, Cylburn Arboretum and Irvine Nature Center recently opened geotrails. Virginia has more than 9,000 caches; 1,000 of them are in Richmond, leading seekers through the city's rich and complicated history.