A 21st Century Quest

Originally published in the July 2012 issue of Ocala Style Magazine. Photos by John Jernigan.


Look closely at that spider sitting deathly still next to a strange-looking rock. Be sure to take a peek under the rock, too. You may find a cache — the reward in the sport of geocaching that is often described as a game of “high-tech hide and seek.”

Armed with Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers or smart phones, approximately 5 million geocaching enthusiasts seek hidden containers, known as caches, in hundreds of countries on all seven continents. You are probably standing within a few yards of a geocache location, and don’t even know it because the best caches are disguised to blend into the surroundings.

Geocaching.com, the site where all geocachers must first visit before they can play this high-tech scavenger hunt game, says more than 1.7 million active caches are hidden worldwide. Florida is home to thousands, and the Ocala National Forest is the mother lode of geocaches in north Central Florida. Just enlarge the map on the geocaching.com web site and you’ll see at least 500 geocaches dotting the Forest’s trails.

A 21st Century Quest • Photo by John Jernigan

Photo by John Jernigan

You don’t have to go into the woods, however, to find these hidden “treasures.” Many are within city limits, even in areas around buildings such as the one near the Ocala Recreation and Parks Operations building. City Park Ranger Brian McKay has hidden caches inside the city’s parks for three years. His colleagues call him the “geocaching guru” because he is so passionate about the Recreation and Parks Department’s geocaching program.

“Three years ago, I was working one evening when I saw a couple flashing a light and obviously looking for something,” he remembers. “After they told me about geocaching, I looked into it and became hooked on the activity myself.”

McKay teaches summer workshops for seniors, adults, and children, and he says most of his students stick with the activity long after the workshops end. In addition to learning how to find caches, students also learn how to place new ones. And hiding the varying-sized containers is something akin to art and science.

From hollow plastic spiders and other insects to fake rocks and camouflaged Tupperware bowls, the apparatuses used to conceal a geocache log are quite clever. The hiding spots can be right in front of you but you won’t even know it until your handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver directs you to the area where the cache is hidden. The cache can still be up to 30 feet away from the latitude and longitude coordinates shown on your GPS, so navigational techniques and clues are important.

So what are you getting for all this high-tech scavenging? The thrill of discovery is the motivator for avid geocachers. Most caches contain simply a log that you sign and date; later, you post your find on geocaching.com. Some caches do contain small items, such as coins, toy badges, or buttons for trade. If you take something, the rule is you leave an item in return.

Bob Seger and Jim Smith of the Geocaching Club of The Villages

Bob Seger and Jim Smith of the Geocaching Club of The Villages. Photo by Mary Ann DeSantis.

“Geocaching is something you do for your own enjoyment,” says Bob Seger, president of the Geocaching Club of The Villages and the number two geocacher in the state of Florida. He has found more than 18,270 caches and has placed more than 335 for other geocachers to find since 2007. Last year, he traveled 8,000 miles to what he describes as “cache-rich places” in Nevada, Utah, and California. In June, he will head out again — first to New York and then westward.

“Geocaches take you to interesting places where you meet interesting people,” adds Villager Jim Smith who got into the hobby five years ago for fun.

Smith and his wife, Sally Ann, have traveled as far as Budapest, Hungary, looking for caches, but the ultimate thrill for them was participating in “Cache Across America” last year with another couple. They drove 17,000 miles and made two airplane trips in six weeks to find a specific cache in each state, including Alaska and Hawaii.

“The final cache was hidden in the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, D.C.,” Smith says. “It was a great ending to the adventure.”

Ocala’s McKay says that geocaching gives people an opportunity to get outside and see new scenery.

“People tell me all the time that they didn’t know some Ocala parks even existed until they went there looking for a cache,” he says.

Geocaching began as a hobby in May 2000 when the first geocache appeared only a day after the U.S. government officially removed “selective availability” from the Global Positioning System satellites that were used primarily by the military. Civilian GPS units became more accurate than previously permitted. Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon, hid a container filled with books, videos and a slingshot in the backwoods and posted the coordinates on the Internet with a challenge “to go find it.”

That single Internet posting led to the phenomenon of geocaching, although in the early days it was called a “GPS Stash Hunt.” Mike Teague, the first person to find Ulmer’s stash, started gathering online posts of coordinates around the world and documented them on his personal web page. Discussions ensued that the word “stash” had negative connotations. The new name, “geocaching” was the combination of the prefix geo for Earth and cache, the French word for a hiding place to temporarily store items.

A 21st Century Quest • Photo by John Jernigan

Photo by John Jernigan

In September 2000, the geocaching.com site began when web developer Jeremy Irish stumbled upon Teague’s page and realized this new hobby combined his interests of treasure hunting and using tech-gadgets. Irish and Teague worked together to improve the cache-hunting experience for people who were just learning about GPS technology.

Now that geocaching applications are available for smart phones, the hobby is growing even faster and into new frontiers. Searching for caches has moved beyond trails and landmarks into cyberspace and below the sea. Virtual caches do not contain a traditional box or logbook but are usually an object that must be described to the cache’s originator. For example, a plaque located at the posted coordinates may have a date or name that finders would identify.

Even more challenging are the underwater geocaches that SCUBA divers began hiding a couple of years ago. Underwater geocaching follows much the same rules as the land-based game, but definitely has more challenges. Caches must be submersible and able to withstand water pressure and corrosion. And underwater geocachers often must sign a waterproof logbook to prove they were really there.

No matter where a cache is located, the basic rules remain the same for geocachers as they did  in 2000.

“Find it, sign the logbook, put it back together, and hide it where you found it,” Smith told beginners at a recent workshop in The Villages. While some newbie geocachers may question the necessity of actually signing logs before posting the find on geocaching.com, both Smith and Seger emphasize that the sport is on the honor system.

“If you cheat, you are cheating only yourself,” says Smith.

Seger adds, “In this sport, you police yourself. It’s a lot like golf in that respect.”


Before You Begin: Hints for First-Time Geocachers

1. Go to geocaching.com and register for free. Put in the zip/postal code of where you would like to search.

2. From the list that appears, select traditional geocaches with a Level 1 difficulty and easy terrain.

3. Notice the description of the container size. First-timers may want to look for large caches that are easier to spot than the miniscule “bison tubes.”

4. Look to see when the geocache was last found. If it was found a week or so ago, it’s most likely still active. If several months have passed since anyone logged a find, chances are it’s missing.

5. Check the “smiley faces.” A lot of smiles means it’s still in place and relatively easy to find.

6. Send the coordinates to your handheld GPS unit or smart phone. You may also want to print out a copy of geocache description and any hints. Automobile GPS units do not work as well for geocaching as handheld units made specifically for the activity.

7. Pack your bug spray, sunscreen, tweezers to remove cache logs from tiny spaces, spare GPS batteries and water before heading outside for your family-friendly adventure. Sturdy walking shoes are also a must.

Terms You Should Know

Bison Tubes: Micro or “nano” geocache containers, usually made from anodized aluminum. The tubes hold only a tiny roll of log paper.

BYOP: Bring Your Own Pen/Pencil. An acronym often used by cache owners to communicate to other geocachers that you will need to bring your writing utensil in order to sign the cache logbook.

Cache: A shortened version of the word geocache. Pronounced “cash” and rhymes with stash.

CITO: Cache In Trash Out is an ongoing environmental initiative supported by the worldwide geocaching community. Since 2002, geocachers have been dedicated to cleaning up parks and other cache-friendly places.

Earthcache: [WRITTEN AS ONE WORD] A type of virtual cache, maintained by the Geological Society of America. The geocacher has to perform an education task pertaining to the earth science of the cache area.

Geocache: A container hidden that includes, at minimum, a logbook for geocachers to sign.

Hitchhiker: An item placed in a cache that has instructions to travel to other caches. Sometimes they have their own logbooks attached.

Muggles: A non-geocacher. They usually look puzzled when they befriend a geocacher searching for a cache or accidently find a cache.

Multi-Cache: The first geocache holds clues to find a second cache, and the second one holds clues for a third.

Traditional Cache: A basic container that includes a log book and may or may not include trade items. A traditional cache is found at the coordinates given and involves only one stage.

Source: geocaching.com

LETTERBOXING: The Low-Tech Version

If you are not tech-savvy or really don’t want to buy the handheld GPS units needed for geocaching, letterboxing is another family-friendly scavenger hunt activity that has been around more than 150 years and uses clues and references to landmarks embedded in stories or nursery rhymes. Many geocaches in this area are hybrids, meaning they are a combination of a geocache and letterbox.

A letterbox contains a unique rubber stamp (often made by the person who hid the box), an ink pad, and a logbook or journal. Letterboxers have trail names and carry their own rubber stamp to use on the box’s logbook and inversely stamp their own personal journal with the letterbox stamp.

A couple of years ago, a friend and I wanted to combine our two favorite hobbies: hiking and rubber stamping. Letterboxing was an activity that seemed designed for us, and we’ve searched for the well-hidden boxes throughout Florida and Georgia. One of my first letterbox finds was in Ocala’s Veterans Memorial Park on Silver Springs Blvd. Today, my personal journal is filled with unique and artistic stamped impressions that are fun to look through and remember my travels.

Just like in geocaching, you will find the lists of letterboxes online and can filter for a specific area to search. And don’t think that high-tech accoutrements have left letterboxing enthusiasts behind. Smart phone apps are available so that you can access clues to letterboxes from anywhere.

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