As far as places to spend quality father-son time go, an alley behind an East Pierce County shopping center ought to be at the bottom of the list.
Nevertheless, on an October evening that’s precisely where my 10-year-old son and I found ourselves. And we were having a blast.
We were geocaching, a game in which you use GPS coordinates to find hidden items.
According to my GPS receiver, we were clearly in the right spot, but after 15 minutes of searching we’d had no luck. We looked next to utility boxes, peeked into the storm drain, and rapped on the building in search of a secret compartment, all while trying not to look suspicious to the security camera recording our every move.
But just when we thought we’d checked and double-checked everywhere, I noticed something a little out of place – the unmistakable latch of an ammo container on the back of the ...
Well, it would be bad form to say anymore here. But the camouflaged cache had been in plain view the entire time.
Caches like this are one of the biggest reasons that geocaching is more popular than ever, 11 years after its creation. A third of the 1.5 million caches hidden around the world have been stashed over the last 19 months, said Jen Sonstelie, marketing director for Seattle-based Groundspeak, the company that runs Geocaching.com.
“The creativity bar keeps getting raised,” Sonstelie said. “That’s one of the most enjoyable things about geocaching.”
Hidden caches range in size from as small as a breath mint to as large as a shoe box. The caches contain a log to sign, and larger caches often contain items to trade. The rule: If you take something from a cache, you leave something.
The items are rarely more exciting than a Happy Meal toy or a key chain, but as the players will tell you, it’s not about the treasure, it’s about the hunt.
“I think everybody has the treasure-hunting impulse in them,” Sonstelie said. “It’s a very basic human appeal. When you find something, you feel successful, and who doesn’t like that.”
That’s what hooked Dan Lipp of Olympia. His boss introduced him to the game in 2005 and today he’s already found more than 15,500 caches.
“Nothing beats that feeling when I put my hands on cache,” said Lipp, who’s online geocaching handle is Frisbee’r. “It’s an incredible high.”
When the game started in 2000 with just 75 caches, most of the caches were hidden in old stumps and downed trees. Today, hiding a cache is almost an art form.
Many are hidden in plain view where nonplayers (called “muggles” in geocaching parlance) can see them without a second thought. Just in case, rules to the game are almost always posted in the cache so those who accidently stumble across the containers understand what they’ve found.
One of the most popular hides in the Northwest is a pay phone in Portland where players must solve a puzzle then dial a code. Entering the code opens a secret compartment containing the cache.
“That is one of my favorites,” said Dave Wilkins, an Olympia resident who plays as grandpadave. “When I started in 2003, the game was pretty basic, but now so many of them are very clever.”
Mike Rogalinski, known as WatchDOGSMike, discovered the game last year and the 43-year-old Snohomish resident has already found more than 1,400 caches. He said the creativity of the caches has captured his imagination.
One of his favorites was a cache he couldn’t figure out how to open until he noticed two large bolts on the cache that reminded him of the connections on his car battery. He used his jumper cables to attach his car to the cache and up from the container came an electric antennae with the small log book attached.
Another required him to fill the cache with water while covering a small hole, allowing the sealed log book to float to the surface.
“It is so amazing when you find one like that,” Rogalinski said. “It’s so much fun to see how creative people are.”
Dan Richards, Yakicmacacher, is an Olympia resident who has found more than 2,000 caches around the state. One of his favorites is a large birdhouse he stumbled across in Eastern Washington. When he lifted the roof to peak inside, a toy munchkin popped out like a jack-in-the-box. The munchkin was holding the log book.
“It inspires you to be creative with what you hide,” said, Richards, who created several caches that are hidden inside downed tree branches.
The creative caches are everywhere. “You can find them as far away as military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq and as close as your neighborhood,” Richards said.
A Pierce County library has one stashed inside a fake book, but first you must find a separate cache that contains the call number of the book. There are fence posts doubling as hiding spots all over the state. There are toy squirrels and birds hiding caches perched in trees.
Many require solving puzzles just to find the coordinates. Others require solving a series of clues or finding preliminary caches before the final payoff.
In Germany, a player named tramdriver runs a cache called “24,” which is patterned after the television show of the same name. Participants must solve clues and catch trains in a certain order to find the cache within 24 hours. Along the way, they must send photos to tramdriver to prove they’re on course. When they finally reach the cache, the owner is waiting with a special reward – a shot of whiskey.
“There are so many ways you can be creative with geocaching,” Lipp said. “That’s one of the great things about it. And sometime you see something so creative your jaw drops. It’s a great activity.”
HOW IT WORKS
Choose a cache from geocaching.com, and punch the coordinates into a GPS system. Use the GPS to find the location, and then start hunting for the cache. When you find the cache, open it, take something from the container and leave something of equal or greater value. Sign the logbook and log your find on the website.
A $10 app is available for iPhones and Droids that allows you to search nearby caches and use your phone’s GPS to track down the hides.
There is no charge to use geocaching.com, but a $30 per year membership gives you access to additional caches and website features.
TYPES OF CACHES
Traditional cache: A stashed container with items to trade and a logbook to sign.
Microcache: Similar to a traditional cache, but much smaller and often harder to find. Some microcaches are as small as a Tic-Tac, while others are as a large as a film canister. Finders usually sign a register stashed in the cache.
Puzzle cache: Geocachers must solve a puzzle in order to get the coordinates to the cache.
Event and mega-event caches: These are caches related to gathering of people playing the game. Mega-event caches are a gathering of 500 or more players.
Challenges: Participants are challenged to perform a task at a specific location. This could be hiking a specific trail, singing a song in a public location or taking a picture.
Cache in, trash out: An event in which players pick up litter while searching for caches.
More information: Geocaching.com