Real world treasure hunting

Real world treasure hunting

You might be surprised by the amount of hidden treasure in Ontario, Canada.

It’s here because of a rapidly spreading phenomenon called geocaching, which involves using a hand-held GPS (global positioning system) receiver to look for hidden containers called caches. Inside each one is a log book and assorted goodies such as kids’ toys, handy gadgets or gift certificates.

After recording a message in the log, ‘cachers’ are welcome to take any trinkets that catch their fancy in exchange for others they have brought. Back at home, they can also enter a comment online for the creator of the cache and other seekers to see.

Geocaching began in the United States in 2000 and has now spread worldwide. It has become so popular that there are now over 2,000 caches in Ontario alone, including several in downtown Toronto and others in the depths of Algonquin Park.

What’s so attractive about it? It brings out your hidden child. You’re giggling away going to look for hidden treasure. You know it’s not monetary, but it’s fun.

Discovering new and interesting places is an added bonus, whether cachers are visiting an area or looking for adventure close to home. It’s a really neat way to get people outside and off the beaten track. I’ve been exploring Ontario all my life, and through geocaching I’ve discovered places 30 seconds off the roads that I’ve been travelling for 14 years.

It’s really quite amazing. You have a route that you drive, and you just sort of set it on autopilot because you have a final destination and you don’t take the time to stray. And look what you find when you do! Already I have come across many new hiking trails, scenic spots and hidden getaways not far from home.

I first discovered geocaching with my friend Natalie, through a story in the magazine Canadian Geographic. We set out on our first hunt the next day, choosing an easy cache near Muskoka Falls as our destination. It took us just five minutes to find it. We were very excited. We looked at each other and said, “This is the coolest thing!” and then went back home and printed off information for two more.

For the rest of that year, we went geocaching together regularly after work. Successfully finding a geocache makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You get an instant reward. It’s nice to end your day that way. Laughter is a big part of such outings as well. It’s funny, because there’s a geek factor involved. You’re walking to some Tupperware in the woods, but with a sense of purpose.

On a buggy day in early June this year, I visited a cache near Baysville where I have been before. I found it in March, but I couldn’t get it out from under the ice. I finally got to see what was inside.

Caches are never buried, but often covered with sticks or leaves to camouflage them. The plastic screw-top jug I pulled from its hiding place half-under a log contained a charming love poem about a prince and a princess. It had been there for a long time, and I think it was created by someone from a camp near the location. I also found a little super-mosquito.

My favorite find so far has been parachute man. It’s a plastic figure whose parachute lets him down gently no matter where he is tossed. I like the stories in the log books more than the funny little things you get, however.

When I read about the adventures people have finding caches, where they’re from and where they’re headed, it gives me a sense of being part of something larger. There’s just something about standing, with a purpose, in the same place that strangers have stood over the past few years with the same purpose. There’s something comforting in that — a common thread. That’s what I like about it.

Most entries in log books are signed with geocaching monikers such as Go Play Outside, Geonimrod, Georedneck, Draggletail, Paddle to the Sea and Rogue Monkey.

My geocaching name is Rocksnleaves. This comes from a game I used to play with my brother while walking outside, where the object was to step only on rocks or only on leaves.

One thing I have noticed about the geocaching community is that it includes lots of families — it’s neat to read the number of entries that include children and adults. It’s a great family thing to do, because kids want to get out of the car anyway.

My own family has taken the plunge. One humid morning, my husband, brother and I meet friends Natalie and Peter in Baysville for an exciting geocaching excursion. My brother literally hops from one place to another.

After a quick GPS briefing, we’re off, clambering up a semi-hidden path between two public areas. Within minutes Peter is calling, “Here it is!”

We all gather round as the lid comes off the Tupperware container. “Oh, look at this!” exclaims Natalie. “A CD. Hair things. A flashlight. Ear plugs! Look at all these things.” My brother examines each object, trying to decide what he would like to take.

Peter picks up a hockey card from an NHL team no longer in existence. “This is a classic,” he says. He decides to leave it there for a collector. “It would be wasted on me,” he explains.

We read the log aloud, pausing over entries like, “Left a Jamaica 5 cents with a crocodile on it” and “Mosquitos!” Other comments include, “Found this cache on the way to cottage… Neat spot,” and “Three times it took us but we finally got it.”

When Natalie reads, “Left 3-D glasses,” Peter looks into the cache and says, “3-D glasses! Somebody scored those.”

With great concentration, Peter signs his name in the log and decides upon a small pot of yellow finger paint to take home. My husband adds a box of waterproof matches to the collection, and we are off to our next cache. This one, ‘High Up in the Hills’, is also relatively quick. My brother hauls the camo-taped container out of its spot, beside himself with pride.

In this one is a note for ‘huggles’ who might have inadvertently stumbled upon the cache. It explains what geocaching is and invites newcomers to join in the fun.

This time my brother takes a maniacal-sounding ‘laughing bag’ on a keychain, and Natalie leaves a packet of seeds. Over frozen yogurt afterward, we make grand plans for caching excursions in Algonquin Park and even further afield. Peter stops by a shop downtown to check out GPS units on his way home.

While some people might feel intimidated by the idea of using a GPS unit, it is not necessary to be an expert to join in the fun. Although I enjoy being outdoors, I didn’t know how to use a GPS until I began geocaching in my early twenties. It gave me an entirely new way of discovering magical little spots in Ontario’s backcountry relatively free of noise pollution, and has enabled me to record many soundscapes and wilderness ambience without the distractions of passing cars.

Early cachers were mainly tech-savvy people, but now the hobby is shared by everyone: retirees, young adventurers, families and groups of friends. In both online and paper logs, it is common to see entries from people who have just found their first cache ever. Many of these comment that it won’t be their last.

It’s no wonder geocaching is catching on. The technology is becoming more financially accessible, and the caches offer something for everyone, whether they’re looking for a quick, easy outing or a several-day trek.

Geocaching offers a chance to get outside with friends and family, move your legs, and find treasure of all kinds. What’s not to enjoy?

In the words of Peter and Natalie’s second log entry, “Gadzooks! We’re hooked!”

Want to try?

Follow the steps below for a successful first geocaching experience.

1. Beg, borrow or buy a GPS unit. These range in price from $100 upward.
2. Find someone to share the adventure (especially if you’ll be heading into the bush). It’s more fun when you have someone to laugh and giggle with and high five when you find it.
2. Go online to www.geocaching.com, click on ‘advanced search’ and enter the postal code of your home/cottage/getaway to see what caches are hidden close by.
3. A variety of choices will appear. Start easy for instant gratification. The caches are rated in terms of terrain and how challenging they are to find, but it’s a good idea to read the comments of previous cachers as well. There are also clues provided for most caches. Feel free to use them, especially for your first few outings.
4. Print out the information to take with you.
5. Buy or gather little goodies to put into the cache – the more unusual and fun, the better.
6. If you really want to get into the spirit of things, think of a geocaching name and register it online.
8. If the cache is off of established trails, buy a topographical map of the area, which shows features of the land, like hills. It’s always good to know what’s up ahead.
9. If you are not familiar with the area and will be driving to the cache, use the web site’s link to MapBlast to get directions.
10. Have fun on your first geocaching adventure!
11. When you get home, go online and post a message to let the person who created the cache know you’ve found it.
12. Start planning your next outing.

For more detailed suggestions about starting geocaching in a safe and fun way, surf over to www.geocaching.com.