Geocaching: High-Tech Hide & Seek
For a wild adventure, grab a GPS and a waypoint from the Internet, hop in the car, then head out on foot, following mapping coordinates to solve sometimes easy or sometimes clever clues to locate a “cache” or hidden treasure
Greg Norberg’s sport has forced him to count the balconies at Keeneland Race Track in Lexington.
It’s sent him to a Middlesboro lair on the clue “magnificent metal-skinned lady”—the World War II airplane known as Glacier Girl—to make note of the numbers on her nose. It’s pushed him to race through the streets of his hometown of Elizabethtown following a trail of addresses, phone numbers, and cryptic answering machine messages.
It’s even launched him on a strenuous four-hour quest through the craggy and mountainous terrain of the Jefferson County Memorial Forest outside of Louisville to join a fairy tale hunt for puppet maker Geppetto’s beloved Pinocchio.
The prizes in Norberg’s sport are generally trinkets, such as Hot Wheels cars, cheap sunglasses, stuffed animals, key chains, and stickers.
But hundreds of Kentuckians share Norberg’s passion for turning up rocks, deciphering puzzles, and whacking through brush as part of a high-tech form of hide-and-seek known as geocaching.
“It gives you a chance to get out of the house,” explains Norberg, an airplane mechanic known to most Kentucky geocachers by his nickname, Turtle3863. “It gives you a reason to climb a mountain.”
The game of geocaching (from “geo” for geography, “caching” for the process of hiding a cache, or “cache,” meaning a hiding place) begins when somebody hides a cache, which is the equivalent of the treasure in an old-fashioned treasure hunt.
Traditionally, a cache (pronounced cash) is a waterproof plastic bucket, ammunition box about the size of a loaf of bread, or a jar filled with a logbook and small collectibles. A micro cache, however, may be as small as a matchbox. And a virtual cache, the only type allowed in environmentally sensitive areas such as state nature preserves, has no container at all; instead, the owner designates an existing landmark and requires the hunter to gather some proof that he’s found it. (That’s why Norberg was counting those Keeneland balconies and recording the numbers on the airplane nose.)
To find a cache, you’ll need a sense of adventure, along with access to the Internet and a Global Positioning System receiver, an electronic device that uses satellite signals to pinpoint a location anywhere on earth.
The person who hides the cache submits the longitude and latitude coordinates for its location—along with a few helpful tracking hints—to a geocaching Web site on the Internet, which then automatically creates a waypoint name, such as GCB381 for one called Lexington Tool Cache. Geocachers search the Web sites for caches that interest them. Then they take up the hunt, using the GPS units and satellite coordinates as their guides to pinpoint the coordinates on the surface of the Earth.
Geocachers have hidden more than 154,000 caches in 214 countries since the sport began in Oregon in 2000, according to the Web site www.geocaching.com, the premier commercial Web site for the game.
Those hiding places include about 1,500 Kentucky locations, ranging from a ghost town on the Nolin River to an office tower in downtown Louisville, and from the edge of a cliff in Red River Gorge to a street corner outside a hamburger joint in Hopkinsville.
Many caches are quick-and-easy finds, says Rod Hutcheson, a geocacher from Bowling Green who goes by the nickname Kywingrider in the geocaching world. “You’d be surprised how many are right near the interstate,” he says. Travelers can even use their bathroom breaks for 15-minute geocache treks, he explains.
But Calvin L. Saum II of Lost Creek in eastern Kentucky prefers the caches that take him off the main highway to small-town parks and sights that never make the travel brochures.
“Local people know the best places to visit or go in a town,” says Saum, who has logged more than 1,000 caches under the name KYtrex. “And the geocachers try to hide caches there. So, when you go looking for a cache, you see the pretty stuff. Everybody knows the tourist areas. But with geocaching I feel like I’ve got a backstage pass to the world.”
Still other caches let game players see places they’ve known all their lives in a totally new way, Hutcheson adds. One of his first caches led him to a sign describing a Civil War fort that was once located on the campus of his alma mater, Western Kentucky University.
“I went to school there for five years and I’d never gone over there and read this plaque,” he says.
Educational and historic caches are favorite hunts for Bob Wade, an Elizabethtown geocacher, who goes by the nickname Kypaddler.
“Kentucky, especially the Louisville and Elizabethtown area, has some very creative people hiding creative caches,” says the former Nolin RECC board director. “A lot of these guys will research the history of something, like if they’re going to hide it in an old cemetery, they’ll tell you about a Civil War battle that took place there. Some will research a certain kind of tree where they hid something in a knothole.
“It’s not just finding something under a rock. People find interesting things to tell you about the area where you are looking.”
The search for caches often involves adventure, and occasionally discomfort.
“I’ve been stung by wasps, bitten by mosquitoes and chiggers, had ticks on me when I got home, been scratched and stuck by thorns and in poison ivy,” says Rod Hutcheson’s father, Ray, who lives in Franklin near the Tennessee line. “I’ve been cold and hot, rained on. I’ve even waded creeks to get to a cache that I could see but would have had to walk another mile to get to a bridge over the creek. I can think of at least two caches that required me to climb a tree to get.
“On one occasion, I was scratching around in an old hollow tree looking for a cache when I found a possum trying to take a nap. That woke me up pretty fast.”
Saum, who credits geocaching with helping him lose more than 50 pounds, once went on a geocaching marathon that lasted 32 hours and crossed four states.
“That was one of those things that was fun at the time, but I don’t know if I could handle it again,” he says. Saum and his wife, Tammy, known as TrackerT, also have cached all night several times, including one night in Louisville when the temperature was down to 5 degrees.
“Sometimes the police will stop to check us out, but once we explain what we are doing, they wish us well and go on,” he says.
The reasons for geocaching are as different as the people who play the game, says Nathan Hoy, president of Geocachers of Kentucky, a Web-based social group for those who live and cache in the state.
“I like technology and I like getting outside,” says Hoy, who lives in Georgetown. “Geocaching sounded like the perfect blend of the two. I get to play with toys and go out for a walk at the same time.
“For others, it’s all about adventure and going around the country trying to find caches in each state.
“For others, it’s a treasure hunt. There are people who are very much into the caches.”
One of the rules of geocaching is that you can take any “treasures” you want from a cache—as long as you put something back. For example, some collector cachers exchange trading cards, coins, and other prizes through geocaching, Hoy says.
Many geocachers see the sport as a family activity, says Hoy, who plans to take his 2-1/2-year-old daughter on frequent trips as soon as she’s old enough to enjoy it more.
Rod Hutcheson’s entire family—including his wife, children, brother, and parents—often go geocaching with him. Last year, they even turned a family reunion in Owensboro into a geocaching adventure, Rod recalled.
Still other geocachers see the sport as a numbers game—and may log dozens of caches in a day and thousands of caches a year.
Norberg, who has found more than 1,300 caches and hidden 109 since he started the sport in 2002, says he doesn’t get too caught up in the numbers competition, but he occasionally does enjoy the race to be the first to find a new cache.
Geocachers can sign up for online notification every time a new cache is posted in an area.
“If one goes up and you’re the first to find it, it’s kind of a special thing,” Norberg says. “There are people who will watch it (online) and go out in the middle of the night. I’m not quite that crazy. I’ve done one at 4 o’clock in the morning, but it was right on the way to work so I couldn’t pass it up.”
This spring, he took satisfaction in earning bragging rights for being first to find a cache in Bernheim Forest near Louisville.
“There are a couple of people who really want to get those,” he says. “It’s kind of neat when I can beat those guys. I always put a little foam turtle in the cache whenever I’m the first to find.”
Experienced geocachers such as Hoy enjoy the challenge of a creatively hidden cache, such as the Louisville puzzle cache called Reflections that requires the seeker to find clues in the reflections of glass buildings. “I’d have to give that one high marks; it’s extremely different,” he says.
But in terms of sheer genius, he gives the edge to the Lexington Tool Cache, which sends bewildered seekers on an unpredictable trek for saws, screwdrivers, and other tools.
“It’s an ingenious container placed in an ingenious place,” Hoy says. “I wish I could tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil the fun.”
MY FIRST GEOCACHE HUNT
by Michele Day
Despite a few wrong turns and some anxiety about hiking through muddy woods, while writing this story for Kentucky Living I officially became a geocacher this spring.
With the help of two experienced Cincinnati cachers, Nathan and Liz Cannon, my 12-year-old son, Zach, and I notched our first cache in under an hour while traveling less than five miles from our house in northern Kentucky.
I’d set up the close-to-home adventure by entering my zip code in the “search for a cache” section of the Web www.geocaching.com. The description of the cache called It Had to Be Blue mentioned that it was near a familiar landmark, St. Elizabeth Medical Center in Edgewood.
I liked the idea of taking my first foray into an outdoor adventure game within sight of a place that has a good supply of doctors, bandages, and tetanus shots.
So, on an overcast Saturday afternoon, Zach and I met Nathan and Liz outside the hospital emergency room, then headed out in separate cars in search of N 39° 00.989 W 084° 33.343—the Global Positioning System coordinates for It Had to Be Blue.
Nathan and Liz, who were manning the GPS, took the lead, while I marveled to Zach that we were 10 minutes away from home but on a road I’d never been down in my life. Suddenly, Nathan and Liz made a sharp left turn on a gravel road.
“This looks interesting,” I thought, as I realized we’d turned into someone’s driveway. But Nathan and Liz weren’t interested in the driveway; they motioned that we’d driven past our destination and needed to turn around.
We revised course and headed back up our original road until we came to a patch of gravel that could double as a parking spot. Nathan and Liz pulled off and we followed.
A wide tractor path with mud-filled trenches that appeared to be about 4 feet deep caught my wary eye.
“This doesn’t look interesting,” I thought, and worried about how I’d clean the mud out of the carpet in my car. But Nathan and Liz weren’t concerned; they knew I was looking in the wrong direction. They refocused my attention off to the left, where a sign at the top of a slight hillside marked the entrance to a nature trail built by Boy Scout Troop 717.
My first cache hunt was about to begin in earnest.
Nathan gave me some quick instructions on how to use his GPS, which he said cost about $120 and included some extra features such as a compass and a mapping program that are nice for geocachers who are always turning down strange streets and uncharted paths.
He entered the GPS coordinates for the gravel parking patch in his device so we could find our way back to our cars after the hunt, then told me all we had to do was follow the black arrow on the device until it reached the crosshair.
I gave Zach control of the GPS, and he seemed to know what he was doing as we hiked under tree limbs, brushed past thorn bushes, and dodged mud puddles along the trail.
“This feels so isolated,” I thought, as twigs and leaves crunched beneath my shoes. “I could be on a remote path in the Smoky Mountains or in the middle of some dense forest…”
Suddenly, Liz interrupted my musings with news that we’d taken the wrong fork in the path. Seems she and Nathan had made the same wrong turn when they’d done this cache the first time. The misstep had cost them a lot of daylight and they’d had to hike out of the woods after dark, Liz recalled. (“Funny how she never mentioned the part about being lost in the dark BEFORE we headed into this isolated forest,” I thought.)
We backtracked for a few minutes, then turned down the correct trail. Several minutes later, Nathan inspected the GPS reading and announced that we were close.
I’d had the notion that a GPS receiver pointed you to the exact hiding spot of a cache—maybe it even made a noise like a metal detector when it found gold, I’d imagined. But Nathan and Liz knew better.
Under the best conditions, the GPS unit that Nathan owns will take him within 30 to 60 feet of a site, he told me. And the tree cover over our heads could make the GPS reading less accurate.
“Somewhere within 20 feet is an object about the size of a loaf of bread,” he announced. “Let’s see if you can find it.”
Zach and I shot each other confused glances and stumbled around trying to look in every direction at once. “We have no idea what we’re doing,” I thought. But within a couple of minutes, I spotted a camouflaged metal box half hidden under a dead tree limb.
We’d found our first cache.
It Had to Be Blue had been named that way for a reason. Zach and I grinned as we pulled out a blue stuffed bear, blue sunglasses, a blue ruler, blue stencils, a blue plastic frog, blue Pokemon figures, and a blue logbook inside a clear plastic bag.
Nathan and Liz had brought some toys for us to trade for the cache loot, because they knew we wouldn’t think of such preparations. But Zach didn’t want to take home anything blue. So, we signed the log book, replaced the cache—piling on a few extra twigs and leaves so the next cache hunter wouldn’t have such an easy time—and headed back up the trail.
We were geocachers now—and we were off on another treasure hunt.
KENTUCKY GEOCACHING WEB SITES
www.geocky.org. Run by the Geocachers of Kentucky, a Web-based social group for geocachers who live and play in the state. The group goes by the acronym GEOCKY, which it pronounces “jockey” in honor of the state's horseracing tradition.
The site features an online chat room and announcements of geocaching-related events in the state. Geocachers who meet through the Web site frequently meet informally to talk about their adventures and to go on group outings, says Nathan Hoy, president and Web master for the organization.
In addition, the group has worked with Kentucky state parks, nature preserves, and other groups to develop rules for geocaching that will protect the environment. The Web site includes lists of the rules for geocaching in those areas.
www.okic.org. Run by Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana cachers, focuses on the sport in Greater Cincinnati. It also includes a chat room and information about the sport.
www.geocaching.com. The premier commercial Web site for the game. You can plop in your zip code and find caches near you, across the U.S., or in many other countries. For newbies just starting out, you'll find lots of resources, guides, a glossary, and frequently asked questions—all free information—under “Getting Started” to help you not get lost.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: TEN FAVORITE KENTUCKY CACHES
For a list of favorite Kentucky caches and other variations on geocaching, click here: favorite caches