‘It’s a High-Tech Treasure Hunt’ - The Missourian: Features People

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‘It’s a High-Tech Treasure Hunt’

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Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 10:00 am | Updated: 4:25 pm, Tue Apr 16, 2013.

Susan Benedict, Washington, and her sons Alex, 13, and Matt, 10, didn’t mind the snow as they trekked through patches of it Sunday afternoon to check on a hidden treasure.

With them were friends Mike Willming, Washington, and his son, Mark, 11, who had created the hidden treasure, known as Bye Bye Birdie, back on Oct. 20.

The treasure is out in the open, if you know where to look and if you have the right equipment to narrow down the search area. All you need is a GPS device, or a special app on your Smartphone, said Benedict.

This is the world of geocaching. If you’re not familiar with it, geocaching is described as a “worldwide scavenger hunt” where people all over the world hide “caches” in random places, then post the GPS (longitude and latitude) coordinates of the location on the geocaching.com website along with a brief description and sometimes a few clues or codes to crack, so that others wanting to take on the challenge can go in search of it.

Once the cache is found and opened, inside there will be a logbook for the finders to sign and date and oftentimes there also will be trinkets known as “swag” for them to take.

Finders can take a swag item and leave one of their own behind too, said Willming. Typically swag is nothing more than the kind of simple toy items found in gumball machines, but occasionally someone leaves behind a “trackable” item or “travel bug” that is intended to be taken by another hunter to a new cache. The item includes a code that can be input on a website to follow all of the places it has traveled.

Willming recalled relocating a trackable item once to a cache he found in Bourbon and a week or so later it was showing up in Australia.

What’s the Attraction?

One of the first things that attracts people to geocaching is the challenge of finding something that’s hidden.

Using GPS coordinates provided by the person who hides the cache will bring someone to within six feet of it, explained Willming. From there, hunters have to rely on any clues that were provided and their brainpower — knowing where to look.

Caches come in all shapes and sizes, Willming noted. They can be as small as the tip of your finger or as big as a tree trunk (he has one hidden inside of a hollowed out tree somewhere in Washington).

They can be hidden in easily accessible locations, dubbed park and grab caches, because you can pull your car over, jump out and find the cache that easily.

Others require serious legwork, sometimes extensive hikes into wooded areas. Those are some of the most fun, said Gary Daud, Union. That’s why he loves it.

“It’s a high-tech treasure hunt,” he remarked. “It gets you out and takes you to places you otherwise would never go.

“We did one once that was seven miles, a 4 1/2-hour round-trip hike. That one was really special.”

Benedict agreed.

“If I say to my kids, ‘Let’s go out for a 5-mile hike,’ they’re going to complain about it the whole way,” she said. “But if I say let’s go on a 5-mile hike to find this cache, it’s fun; they’re up for it. And even after we find it, they want to keep going.”

The Benedicts, like many geocachers, now use any trip, to anywhere, as an opportunity hunt for a cache.

“On trips into St. Louis, we can find caches along the way, or when we go to see my grandma in Crystal City, we do geocaching every time we go now,” Benedict said.

Another attraction of the sport is the pride and satisfaction that comes from finding something that was hidden, said Daud, especially if you are the “first to find” it.

“There’s a big race (among geocachers) here to be ‘first to find,’ ” he commented.

Several people receive email alerts anytime a new cache is added within a certain mile radius, and they are out the door as soon as possible to hunt for it.

“Bragging rights are part of it,” said Benedict, admitting she’s one of those “who goes running” when a new cache goes live near Washington.

The group dynamic is another reason many geocachers like the sport, Daud noted. Many families go geocaching together, even several families together.

“My circle has grown because of this,” said Benedict. “We’ve made many new friends. It can really bring people together.”

There’s also an educational component to geocaching, said Benedict, who works as a teacher at Pacific High School and created a geocache series called Washington History.

“I grew up in Washington, and the history was part of my life. So I did some research and put together a series that takes people to various places around town,” said Benedict.

The description that’s included on the website about the cache goes into detail about each area and what makes it special to the community. There’s also a puzzle component to this series that, once all of the caches in it are found, leads hunters to a bonus cache.

There also can be lessons in science, social studies, even communication.

“Once you find a cache, you can go to the website and write stories about your finding it, and those can be really fun to read,” said Benedict.

For Boy Scouts, there’s also a merit badge in geocaching. That’s how Benedict and Willming first learned of it.

Franklin County Becoming Known Among Geocachers

Franklin County — Washington and Union, in particular — is becoming known among geocachers for its creative and interesting caches, said Daud, who created a popular “park-and-grab” cache series called The Seven Guardian Angels because it involves information on the seven guardian angels and the caches are hidden on guardrails from Dutzow to St. Clair. There also is a bonus cache, once hunters find all seven, that leads them to the “celestial city.”

Another top local cache is Willming’s Bye Bye Birdie, which is rated among the top 10 hidden around St. Louis, because after you find it, you’ll have to figure out how to get it open.

Yet one of the most talked about caches among hunters in the St. Louis metro area was the Mayan Calendar Survival Celebration, held Jan. 1, that was created in large part by Tony Colter, Labadie. It included three puzzle caches that required hunters to solve puzzles based on the Mayan calendar in order to get the coordinates to find the caches, Colter explained.

He also created a series called Throw a Curve that is intended to introduce people to back-road areas of Franklin County.

“It’s meant to take you on scenic drives to find the caches,” said Colter, noting hunters have to pay attention to the speed limits along the curves because they will have to do some calculations using those numbers.

Willming, who prefers building and hiding caches to actually hunting for them, takes pride in creating unusual caches, not the typical “Tupperware hidden in the woods.”

“I’m into giving someone a decent experience geocaching,” he remarked.

The sport is great for a community’s tourism, added Willming. It draws people to your area, and they often come looking for an experience, so they will more than likely stick around to eat and shop a little.

There can be all kinds of hazards that come with geocaching, hunters admit, especially caches that take them into wooded areas. And it’s not uncommon for hunters to look suspicious in their search, thus attracting the attention of local residents and ultimately the police.

“But it sure beats video games,” Willming remarked.

2 Million Caches Hidden Worldwide

Geocaching has been around for about 10 years, and while it may not be a household word yet, it’s growing in popularity.

Last weekend, geocaching.com, a website that explains the sport and helps people get started hunting, noted that geocachers had hit the 2 million mark for the number of caches hidden around the world.

“It’s a movement,” said Daud.

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