Geocaching: treasure hunts for adults, kids

Tiffany Gonzales and I meet in a Plover parking lot, just off of Interstate 39. We are going on a treasure hunt.

“Should we take two cars?” I ask, clueless.

“I thought we’d just walk from here,” she responds, waving a printout of hints and directions. She also pulls from her backpack a portable global positioning system, which she wears on a lanyard like a necklace.

Tiffany sets the GPS coordinates, just as her guidelines advise, then points. “This way – only .15 miles.”

Here? The GPS was guiding us just beyond the concrete jungle of retailers, toward easily overlooked Pacawa Park. We hover at the outskirts of a fenced ball diamond.

“We’re within 4 feet,” Tiffany announces, “but that could mean within 20 feet.” She knows this from experience.

So we look, beneath our feet, on nearby tree limbs, around chain links and posts. The clues? We are seeking a waterproof match container, and we know the name of this adventure is “rightfieldtrip.” The rated degree of difficulty is two out of five stars.

What we seek won’t be buried or on private property – those are universal rules in this sport.

The bumbling ends within 10 minutes, when Tiffany pulls her hand out of a coiled tube that tops the fencing. “Got it,” she says, waving a cylindrical container. Inside it is a written log of who preceded us.

Since being placed on Oct. 29, 2008, at least 26 people have found this treasure. Tiffany signs her name, adds the date of discovery, returns the log and its container.

The thrill of the hunt is its own reward, and the sport of geocaching (GEE-o-cash-ing) has nearly 780,000 other excursions to test your patience and attentiveness around the world. Within 30 miles of our starting point in Portage County are 339 such adventures.

I refer to geocaching as treasure hunting for adults, but it’s also low-cost family fun. A GPS is the only required equipment, around a $100 investment, and Tiffany’s contains a joystick, which she says makes navigation easier.

The pastime “takes you to places you might never go otherwise,” says the Chicago native, who found her first geocache four years ago. Now she’s a geocaching club advisor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

“Honest and earth-friendly” is how she describes geocachers. “We’ll fix messed up geocaches, or tell the owner” online when a fix is needed, she says. If a geocache holder contains a treat for the finder, it shouldn’t be taken unless replaced with something new.

Sometimes geocache instructions include a personal story about why the location was chosen. Often the locations are interesting or scenic, making the excursion an exercise in hiking as well as sleuthing.

Tiffany has sought geocaches in downtown Chicago, at rest stops during interstate trips, during father-daughter outings and with Stevens Point friends after midnight. She prefers geocaching alone but stays aware of her surroundings and calls it quits if feeling too isolated or unsafe.

“I always have a compass on me,” she says. “If I’m in the woods for eight hours, I can get totally turned around.” She also avoids disorientation by using the GPS to mark her car’s location, “so it’s easier to find on the way back.”

Also in her backpack are a cell phone, hand warmers, bug spray, lip balm, first aid kit, rain poncho, local and state maps and a little pink clock (“a trade item,” in case she decides to take something from a geocache container that she finds). Tiffany also carries an empty cream cheese container, swathed with black tape – to make it waterproof – and a couple of blank geocache logs.

“I may place it, if I see a good and new spot” for geocaching, she says, of the tape-covered container.

The Web site is the only one that Tiffany uses. A basic membership, sufficient for most of us, is free. The premium version costs $30 per year.

Before parting, we seek a second geocache, in the same Plover park – but this one is far trickier, hidden in woodsy terrain. Some tree trunks soar; others are toppled and rotting. Tiffany scraps the GPS at 25 feet from our mark, when treetops and wind make readings annoyingly inconsistent.

“This is a perfect spot for a geocache” challenge, she decides. We are looking for a camel-colored container that sure seems like good camouflage among the crunchy oak leaves blanketing the ground.

We poke and prod at least 20 minutes, and if Tiffany had worn sneakers instead of flip-flops, she likely wouldn’t have relented. A geocacher only two days earlier described this hunt online as “a quick and easy find,” but that’s not so today.

Reading more online comments about this geocache might provide additional clues, Tiffany decides. If she had an iPhone, she would do this now.

“I’ll be back for you,” she vows, with a nod toward the woodland, as we stride back to our cars.

A West Coast computer consultant, Dave Ulmer, gets credit for placing the first geocache in 2000. Friends told friends about the little game, to find trinkets in an Oregon woods, and it mushroomed from there.

Now geocaching takes on many forms and missions, including May 2-3 “Cache In, Trash Out” initiatives, where geocachers deliberately remove litter as they hunt.

The Wisconsin Geocaching Association hosts a CITO event at 9 a.m. May 2 in Wausau’s Riverside Park Pavilion. “Temporary caches will be hidden in areas that are meant to draw your attention to the trash,” the organization says. Prizes will be awarded.

Consult for details about this and other geocaching events.