A high-tech treasure hunt: Geocaching in Indy 

click to enlarge "Sample cache materials" displayed as part of a Geocaching 101 class at Restoration Lutheran Church. - PAUL F. P. POGUE
  • "Sample cache materials" displayed as part of a Geocaching 101 class at Restoration Lutheran Church.
  • Paul F. P. Pogue

Ever since my wife and I got into geocaching, it’s been impossible to fill the van’s gas tank in peace. I’ll finish filling ‘er up, climb into the car and she’s working intently on her iPhone. I’ve long since quit asking what she’s doing. Before long we’ll be off to one of the nearby light posts, or searching underneath a newspaper box, or even tramping into the woods in search of a geocache, a hidden find that can be as small as your pinky nail or as big as a metal box. She’s up to 86 so far, and we’re just getting started.

Geocaching is sometimes referred to as a high-tech treasure hunt, where the whole world is your gameboard. Millions of caches hidden in plain sight around the world, with thousands in Marion County alone. It’s easy enough to get into: All you need is a GPS receiver, which most smartphones have these days anyway, a login to geocaching.com and some time. Overcoming the addiction is a lot harder.

Not long ago, veteran and newcomers alike gathered at Resurrection Lutheran Church for an Introduction to Geocaching event, with a variety of special caches hidden for the occasion.

This business used to be a lot harder — imagine trying to do this with 2001 technology and a GPS receiver and a bunch of numbers. iPhones with satellite tracking and Google Maps integration make it a lot easier, but according to Mitch Philips, who assembled the event, “The margin of error in a GPS receiver is still several feet or more. Once you get close, you have to rely on your eyes.”

What I love about geocaching is that it applies Super Mario logic to the real world. Wander around, jump on the right platforms, walk in a circle in just the right place — and poof, you have a box of swag. Or maybe a sliver of a plastic container just barely large enough to fit a tiny list of names.

Then again, you’re not doing this for the toys — spend ten bucks at a party store and you can get more knickknacks than you might find in a year of caching — but for bragging rights and fun. For that matter, when you take something from a cache you’re supposed to leave something of equal value, which is why most geocacher’s travel kits have anything from plastic toy soldiers to little trinkets they made themselves. I think I may have convinced my four-year-old son that he should regularly expect ammo cans stuffed with toys and trinkets to materialize almost out of nowhere if he searches the woods hard enough. On the other hand, as things stand, he would be right.

click to enlarge Uncovering a cache during Geocaching 101. - PAUL F. P. POGUE

Pint-sized trailblazers

Veterans and newbies split up into groups to check out the local caches. I joined longtime cachers Jennifer Hagerman (7,500 finds to her credit) and Adam Vibbert (6,090) as they led a team of families and newcomers around the site searching for caches. The crew included the Karushis family — Tony and Jennifer and their children Drew and Elizabeth — and Rick Cunneen and Craig Kairns, on hand to learn more to keep up with their Boy Scouts. “Give me a stick and something frictiony and I can start a fire, but when it comes to technology I’m lost,” Cairns notes.

Geocaching works well as a family adventure, as children can sometimes see and find things adults might easily miss. (Vibbert says this happens to him quite often when his daughter Bella is on hand.) Case in point: We make it to the edge of the woods, and the pint-sized trailblazers are leading the way. Sometimes it helps to be small. And energetic. “This is where you start looking for trails,” Vibbert says. “There’s usually some physical hint of where you should go, since someone’s been here before.” The kids make the majority of the finds, including an ammo can in the woods and a film canister extremely deviously secreted in a pile of concrete.

The world of geocaching ranges from easy park-n-grabs nestled in a Wal-Mart parking lot to epic adventures. One of the nastiest caches I ever saw was put out by some police on the fence surrounding their station — it was an electrical outlet cover painted a flat black and magnetically attached to the fence. Looked exactly like it was supposed to be there.

“You really know you’re crazy when you spend all day looking for a single cache,” Hagerman says. She walked 12 miles to find that one. Another time she followed an underground path in Chicago for three miles.

“Geocaching used to be a lot harder; you had to research it at home and plan it out,” she says. “Now it’s a lot easier to stumble around the woods for a while or pull out your smartphone and look at what’s around you.”

“I love going somewhere new,” Vibbert says. “A lot of times you’ll come across a place only the locals know about. There’s always something new and interesting.” And indeed, just searching for caches can be educational — quite often, the cache descriptions will include detailed accounts of a nearby famous gravesite or an obscure Civil War camp that used to stand in the public park where the cache is hidden.

click to enlarge Easily-trackable geocoins are often hidden in geocaches. - PAUL F. P. POGUE

Trackable trinkets

Sometimes the swag itself tells a story. Many trinkets are “trackables” — imprinted with a number that you add to the online log, so anyone can follow where it’s been. Sometimes people place them just for fun; other times to mark an important event.

My own family commemorated our Wish visit to Disneyland, after my son’s cancer recovery, by dropping off a trackable near the Wish resort, along with a request that it travel as far as possible. It made its way to England, across Europe, then Greece, and back to the U.S. Last we heard it was in New York. It’s traveled 16,871.4 miles. (Geocaching.com logs EVERYTHING.)

And indeed, in the end it’s all about the tales to tell. “You’re there to tell the story, not just sign the logbook,” Hagerman says. “It’s not just about the cache you find. It’s the adventure you have getting there.”

NUVO has placed a geocache somewhere around the NUVO office grounds. Check it out by following these coordinates: N 39° 49.670 W 086° 09.394

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Paul F. P. Pogue

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