My husband’s smart phone tells me I’m 500 metres—as the crow flies—from our Ottawa home. At the minute, he and I are wandering into a thicket of bushes near the historic Rideau Canal. I’ve probably passed this spot hundreds of times, but until recently, I had no idea it contained a hidden treasure.
My search—or should I say my obsession in finding the secret stash—began shortly after I was asked to write a story about the growing popularity of geocaching, a hobby I had been vaguely aware of for several years. I knew it was something like a tech-boosted scavenger hunt, but I had paid it about as much attention as I paid news of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show—an entertaining obsession for some, I thought, but not for me. That was before I found myself staring at two converging dots on the smart phone’s screen while standing in salty slush up to my ankles.
A “geocache” is a cleverly hidden weatherproof container—anything from a plastic box to a fake rock. Inside is something small, like a dollar-store toy or a “geocoin,” an item geocachers collect and trade. Rules are you can keep a trinket if you leave something in its place. The items are often attractive to children, making this a popular hobby for families and for groups like scouts and girl guides. The P.E.I. Council of Scouts Canada, for instance, has hidden several geocaches at one of its camps.
Geocaching, however, is not just a young person’s game. Older adults also enjoy “the hunt.” And though there are accessibility issues at some locations, many sites are easy to get to.
Caches can be found all over the world, and include locations of major importance to Canadian military history. Juno Beach and Dieppe are just two examples (see sidebar). Other remote sites include the cache near the Cape Pembroke lighthouse in the Falkland Islands, another on a sandbar off the Cayman Islands and one near a statue in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan. One was placed on the International Space Station by Texan video game developer Richard Garriott, a guest astronaut on a Russian spacecraft.
To find out where they are hidden, many geocachers log onto geocaching.com, a non-profit site launched by Jeremy Irish in September 2000, shortly after GPS (global positioning system) fan Dave Ulmer hid the first geocache in Oregon. At the moment, the site has more than four million members and lists over 1.4 million geocaches. It offers information in 36 languages, including Vietnamese, Bulgarian and Farsi.
When members find a geocache, they write their geocaching nickname and the date in the geocache’s logbook and record the find on the website. If the cache contains an item with a tracking number, they can pick up the item, hide it in another geocache, and track its later progress online.
Using a variety of search techniques at geocaching.com, geocachers can get the latitude and longitude of caches, which they can plug into a handheld GPS device. Alternatively, they can download a smart phone app and use the phone’s built-in compass, as I did, to locate a cache. During an assignment last year on board Her Majesty’s Canadian Ship Fredericton, Legion Magazine talked to crew who had spent part of their shore leave locating caches in such places as Malta and Oman. The searches helped increase their knowledge of local geography, history and culture.
Indeed, along with geographic coordinates, a geocache’s listing may provide a hint, detailed information about the history of the area, or a photo of the location. For instance, the listing for the geocache I was trying to find included the history of a nearby bridge and an encrypted clue.
The actual “treasure” might turn out to be something as simple as a piece of paper with some more information about the surrounding area. But for many geocachers, the loot is beside the point. The thrill is in the hunt. “It really doesn’t concern me, what the contents of the cache are. It’s just getting there and finding the cache,” says Bob Bunting, an Internet consultant from North Vancouver.
Bunting, probably one of Canada’s most experienced geocachers, fell into the hobby a decade ago through a love of the outdoors. “I already had a GPS and I used it for kayaking and hiking,” he says, adding that he’s a somewhat stereotypical profile of a geocacher—someone who likes both techno gadgets and the outdoors. Prices for a GPS device vary, but Bunting says it is not difficult to buy one for $100 or less. And sometimes you can hunt without a GPS, as explained later.
Among those converted to the hobby is Jim Cyr. “I laughed at people who had their Volkswagens and their canoes on the top,” recalls Cyr, who works for the Nova Scotia provincial government in Halifax. “Geocaching definitely helped me become more of a hiker.” After taking up the hobby, he also started camping and volunteering with search-and-rescue organizations.
Cyr got into geocaching shortly after moving to Halifax from Montreal five years ago. His favourite caches are “the ones that allow you to learn more about the city.” He recalls one that focused on the history of the First World War Halifax Explosion of 1917. “Even though the container itself wasn’t necessarily memorable, reading about the background was.”
Not only did Cyr get to know his new hometown; he also met fellow geocachers. These days, he also joins “events”—where geocachers descend on a site en masse and race to find numerous new geocaches.
Being first has a—pardon the pun—cachet among geocachers. Many people are also keen to extend their “life list” of finds, but they’ll have a long way to go to beat Bunting, who has racked up more than 10,000 finds in locales like San Diego, the Nevada desert and Phoenix. Like many geocachers, he often plans vacations around geocaching.
Even on short drives, Cyr loads up geocaches to do on the way.
Newcomers to the hobby often get their feet wet in their own neighbourhood before venturing further afield. Geocachers in the nation’s capital, for instance, can find about a dozen caches within a five-minute walk of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill.
Carolyn Ibis, who works in a restaurant in Prince George, B.C., began geocaching with friends in April 2010. Originally, she found lots to challenge her new skills in her own backyard. “In Prince George, there’s only about 75,000 people [but] there’s hundreds of caches,” and new ones weekly.
While visiting her sister in Saskatchewan, Ibis found a geocache outside an isolated old church near Regina. “My sister didn’t even know that church was there.”
Companies, meanwhile, continue to developed elaborate electronic geocaching games that include multiple geocaches in one area, tied together by a historical or fictional story. They’re like walking tours crossed with video games, which geocachers download onto GPS devices. One platform, Wherigo, offers more than 1,300 games, everything from a photography tour of downtown Fredericton to a virtual safari in South Africa.
Game companies are not the only entrepreneurs who have seen the commercial potential. Online stores cater to the demand for GPS units, geocoins and geocaching containers. In 2002, Bunting developed one of the world’s first trackable geocoins. Today, he still sells a popular model featuring a Canadian flag and the logo “Canadian caches from eh to zed.”
But the trail has not always been smooth. In the early days, the U.S. National Park Service restricted the activity due to worries geocachers would injure themselves or damage archeological sites. Today, park managers may permit geocaching in their jurisdiction, and several have done so.
Initially, Parks Canada was also cautious, says Bunting. But Canadian geocachers quickly rallied to plead their case pointing out geocaching could help encourage people to visit Canada’s national parks. In fact, the need to work with park officials spurred the creation of national and provincial geocaching associations.
Bunting was among the geocachers who helped convince Parks Canada to develop a manual for geocachers in 2007. It outlines procedures for hiding or looking for caches in national parks. For instance, all caches must be accessible from a trail or other public area, and they cannot contain items to be traded. The container must never have been used for food, so that it will not attract wildlife. Geocachers must also get an authorization seal from Parks Canada before hiding a cache.
The most popular Parks Canada geocaching destinations include Fundy National Park in New Brunswick, Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park in Quebec, The Forks National Historic Site in Winnipeg and Jasper National Park in Alberta. “For us, it’s a great way to help people discover the national parks and national historic sites,” says Julie Lefebvre, a lead activity analyst with the Visitor Experience Branch at Parks Canada’s headquarters in Gatineau, Que. “We’re really happy that we’re into this.”
Environment Canada in 2006 set up a small program to encourage students to set up geocaches near watersheds. Inside each container is information about the environment of the surrounding region. “Schools throughout Canada can research their watershed and develop stories, brochures or other promotional products to develop into caches. Students then hide these caches for the ever-growing geocaching community to find—allowing their knowledge to be transferred in a fun and engaging way,” writes Environment Canada spokesman Henry Lau in an e-mail. Environment Canada provides detailed guidelines so that students and geocachers don’t damage watersheds while hiding and seeking.
Geocachers in urban areas also need to be surreptitious when looking for treasure so that they don’t give the game away to “muggles”—geocacher slang for non-geocachers, borrowed from the term for non-magical people in the Harry Potter books. “You don’t want to let them know…where this cache is hidden, because sometimes it will go missing, if someone sees what you’re doing,” says Ibis.
Of course, skulking around a downtown street with a GPS has its own hazards. Geocachers are sometimes mistaken for detectives, thieves or spies. To avoid that issue, they try to blend into crowds. One common trick is to hold the GPS unit to their ear occasionally, as though they were talking on the phone.
In July 2008, a passerby in Ottawa spotted a geocache attached to a lamppost on an overpass and called police. The bridge was closed for four hours until authorities could determine the container was harmless.
But such stories are rare. Guidelines at geocaching.com urge geocachers to avoid hiding caches where they could be mistaken for security threats. In fact, most geocachers are eager to stay far under the radar. Part of what draws them to the hobby is they are aware of a whole secret world hidden from the eyes of muggles. “We’ve been caching in Victoria a couple of times, and you literally don’t need a list of the caches or a GPS. You could walk through any park and if you find a nice-looking stump somewhere within reach of a trail, you’ve probably got a better than 50 per cent chance of reaching into the stump and pulling out a cache,” says Bunting.
Of course, Canada being Canada, not every geocache is easily accessible year round. While hunting for a geocache in a rural area near the Halifax International Airport earlier this year, Cyr and several other geocachers were forced to abandon the search because they had not brought snowshoes.
Trading geocoins is one way people sustain interest in the hobby even when they can’t get outside, adds Bunting. So are people content to merely trade during the winter, rather than hunt? Bunting laughs. “Oh, no!” he says. “I know cachers from Calgary, you know, it’s 25 below and six inches of blowing snow, and they’re out there.”
So was my own winter foray into geocaching a success? Well, I did find a cache. It just wasn’t the first one I sought, or the second. But the third try was the charm—I found a small magnetic box attached to the bottom of a public bench. When I extracted it, after almost an hour of prowling around my neighbourhood, I felt like Indiana Jones discovering the Lost Ark. I opened it up, wrote my name in the tiny logbook, and carefully replaced it.
But don’t ask me where exactly I was. Spoiling the fun for others is the ultimate mark of a muggle.
Homing In On History
Geocaching can get you outdoors and on the hiking trail, but it can also be a guide through history. For military history buffs, Canada’s network of national parks and historic sites offers plenty of opportunity to learn, but it is also very important to tread carefully and take time to remember while visiting such places.
Some geocache searches present an opportunity to brush up on the War of 1812, which is less than a year away from its 200th anniversary. The 1812 On The Niagara Parkway Tour takes you through nine different stops on a 20.5-kilometre search along the Niagara Parkway by Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. “You’re gonna spend more time doin’ the math than drivin’,” the geocache website claims. In many cases, the clues for the proper co-ordinates are taken from the numbers on historic plaques.
Parks Canada has designed some of its own geocache searches at its historic parks, including Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan. Geocachers are encouraged to register at the admission gate to receive a set of clues which will take them around the site of the final battle in the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.
For those fortunate enough to visit Europe, there are geocaches at or near many of the historic sites where Canadians fought during two world wars. Geocaches can be found along the shores of Juno Beach where Canadians landed on D-Day in 1944, and in and around Dieppe, the site of the Aug. 19, 1942, raid that ended in disaster. Other searches take people to the parks around the Canadian National Vimy Memorial and Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. For the latter, 2011 marks the 95th anniversary of the July 1, 1916, battle which occurred on the opening day of the Somme offensive.
At the In Flanders Field site in Tyne Cot Cemetery near Ypres, Belgium, all visitors are encouraged to take time to think about those who gave their lives in the First World War. Tyne Cot is the largest of all Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries. Other sites in Belgium include searches around the battle site at Passchendaele and at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres where the names of almost 55,000 Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War with no known grave are commemorated.
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