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Meredith Streeter and John Bensetler. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen
Hide and Seek
A 21st-century spin on treasure hunting that can take you a few miles or around the world, geocaching is most loved not for the rewards, but for the journey

By Rick Marshall

John Bensetler is sliding one arm through the strap of his backpack when he notices the park’s hedge maze. “See?” he says, pointing across the parking lot to the entrance of the maze. “There’s something I never would have known existed if we didn’t come out here.”

And I agree with him, because that’s a pretty accurate assessment of why I’m here. I’m in the park with Bensetler and his girlfriend, Meredith Streeter, to learn about geocaching: a global scavenger hunt that’s been occurring right under my nose for nearly four years now.

“Well, let’s see where we need to go from here,” says Streeter as she pulls a handheld Global Positioning System unit out of the backpack.

The game owes its existence to a landmark decision made in 2000 by the United States government. On May 1 of that year, the Clinton administration made the signals emitted by GPS satellites available to the public, prompting commercial development of devices that could receive the signals. Within days of opening up the airwaves, the first geocache was hidden and the search began.

The technology behind GPS systems is actually far easier to make sense of than one might expect. For many years, 24 satellites in orbit around the planet have been broadcasting their locations via radio signals to receivers on the ground. A GPS unit simply triangulates its position on the Earth relative to these manmade stars. So, after determining your own location, you can also enter an additional set of coordinates into the GPS unit, making it possible to know how far—and in what direction—your destination lies.

“You basically just get the coordinates [off the official geocaching Web site], enter them into the GPS and hit ‘Go To,’ ” explains Streeter as she types a few numbers into the device. Handheld GPS units like the one she is using cost anywhere from $100 to $600 these days, and as with most technology, prices for equivalent units drop each year. According to Streeter, they can be found in just about any shop with a section for outdoor activities like hiking and hunting.

The official Web site of geocaching, www.geo, hosts the list of more than 100,000 caches currently hidden around the world. Boasting tens of thousands of active geocachers of all ages and nationalities, the game would have run its course long ago if the number of caches had remained stable. So, the Web site offers advice on how to create a new cache and where to place new caches, as well as how to maintain existing ones. Once a new cache is created and hidden, it must be approved by the Web site’s administrators and receive the necessary upkeep (reminders arrive in the owner’s e-mail account at regular intervals).

Anyone wishing to search for caches can do so by using criteria such as zip code, state or country (more than 50 lie within five miles of the Metroland office here in Albany, but in case you’re the daring type, a recent tally reports eight caches hidden in Iraq). Along with listing each cache’s coordinates, there’s a brief description that includes hints, a difficulty rating for the hunt and a record of everyone who has found the cache on the Web site.

“The level of difficulty usually depends upon the surrounding terrain,” explains Streeter. “You don’t want kids trying to find a cache where there’s a dangerous cliff nearby or anywhere where they have to cross a busy intersection.”

As we approach the cache’s coordinates, the arrow on Streeter’s GPS suddenly points off to our right—due east—into a wooded area that runs alongside one of the park’s paved trails. We’ve walked less than a fifth of a mile from the parking lot where we started out, and the pair pauses to allow some joggers to pass by before heading into the brush.

“You’re not supposed to let people know what you’re doing,” says Streeter as both she and Bensetler peer down the path in each direction. “It’s not so much that you’re doing anything wrong, but if you walk in front of somebody, take a film canister out of a tree, open it up, do something with it, then put it back, people are going to get suspicious. They’re going to call the police . . .”

“Or the Department of Homeland Security,” interrupts Bensetler.

“Yeah,” nods Streeter as we each duck under a thorny branch and enter the brush, “and they’ll end up throwing it out or moving it or something.”

And this is where things really get interesting, as there are very few rules regarding what constitutes a proper cache. Waterproof containers such as Tupperware or ammunition boxes are the most common caches, with the occasional film canister thrown in for a bit of extra difficulty. While there’s usually a description of each cache listed on the geocaching Web site, geocachers are a creative bunch, and equal parts ingenuity and diabolical planning are typically involved in placing a new cache.

“Once you get into the woods and under the trees, the GPS’ signal is interrupted,” explains Bensetler when the GPS unit’s direction suddenly becomes erratic. While caches hidden in more urban environments exist—and allow for a better signal—the hiding opportunities that a forest provides have made caches like the one we’re looking for more popular.

“[One of the local geocachers] is famous for placing things inside tree fungus, then reattaching it to the tree,” he says as he runs his hand along a nearby birch tree. “There was one time when the cache was actually a carriage bolt that had been cut in half, with another set of coordinates in the hollowed-out center.”

In some cases, finding a cache may involve several steps, with one cache providing coordinates to the next, and so on. These multi-part caches often require finding several sets of film canisters before arriving at a large container’s hiding spot.

We find our first cache, a film canister, wedged in the base of a tree. Inside the tiny container is a laminated slip of paper bearing another set of coordinates. Streeter enters the new coordinates into her GPS unit, and covers the canister up with bark.

Along the way to the next cache, the couple stops periodically to pick up various pieces of trash. They insist that cleaning up the playing field is a part of the game that geocachers pride themselves on.

“People might think that we’re leaving junk around, but we’re actually cleaning up the place while we do this,” she says.

Last April, Streeter organized a “Cache In, Trash Out” event for local geocachers at the Peebles Island State Park in Waterford. After explaining the game to park officials, the city provided participants with garbage bags so that they could dispose of litter around the park while hunting for a cache Streeter had hidden in the area.

On this day, however, things are not so simple. After nearly 45 minutes of searching through tall weeds and a fog of mosquitoes (“The site said that this one was going to be buggy,” shrugs Streeter), Bensetler finally discovers the last part of the day’s cache—an ammunition box—wedged underneath the exposed roots of a tree. Opening the cache reveals a cornucopia of little gadgets and prizes that includes, among other things, mosquito netting.

Streeter tells me that we’re welcome to take something from the cache—as long we replace it with something else.

Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen

“The general rule is, if you take something, you should leave something of equal value,” she says, opening the backpack around Bensetler’s shoulders to reveal a variety of dollar-store toys, stickers and other random gadgets. When geocachers log a found cache into the Web site, there’s often a report of what items were taken and what items were dropped off.

Bensetler takes a poker chip from the box, replacing it with a pair of plastic scuba-diver figures. The cache is full of assorted prizes adorned with military motifs, so the divers fit in perfectly. He replaces the box, shoving it back under the roots of the tree, careful to disturb as little of the ground around it as possible.

“Sometimes, when you’re the first to find a cache, there’s a reward,” says Streeter, who confesses to once having gone out after midnight to find a cache that was placed earlier in the evening. “The best stuff is usually there for the first finder. Mostly though, it’s just a status symbol to find a cache before anyone else.”

Several months ago, Tom “Rusty” Brant, a local geocacher notorious for setting up creative hiding spots, rewarded Streeter and Bensetler with a set of expensive two-way radios for being the first to finish one of the multi-part caches he arranged. The hunt, according to Streeter, lasted nearly two months.

Yet, among all of the kitschy toys and gadgets to be found in picked-over caches, there’s always a chance that a slightly more interactive prize might await the intrepid geocacher.

“This is a Sammy Sosa bobblehead that’s trying to visit all of the cities with Major League Baseball teams,” she says, pulling one of the small, spring-loaded statues out of the backpack. Attached to the statue is a Travel Bug—a short, metal chain that resembles a dog tag—and information about the Bug’s intended destinations.

Travel Bugs first came into existence several years ago as a type of “mobile cache.” Each Bug is stamped with a six-digit number that, once registered, allows the Bug’s owner to track its movements on the geocaching Web site. When a Bug is discovered in a cache, it is scooped up and deposited in the next appropriate cache, thereby traveling from place to place. Geocachers are required to report the picking up and dropping off of each Bug they encounter.

While some Bugs’ journeys are of the more aimless variety, Bugs like the Sammy Sosa bobblehead are a bit more demanding upon their carriers.

“When we were over in Ireland, I set up a Barney Gumble Travel Bug that wants to travel from pub to pub,” laughs Bensetler. According to Bensetler, the statue of the beer-swilling Simpsons character is currently making the rounds of England’s watering holes.

Among some of the more colorful Travel Bugs found around the region is a small container labeled “Uncle Elwyn’s Ashes” that instructs its carriers to deposit some of its contents in each of the 50 states. Also making its rounds is a patch from last year’s local Geocacher Picnic, sent out a year ago by Brant, the organizer of the event, with instructions to make it back here before the annual picnic this weekend in Thacher Park. After traveling around the Northeast United States, the patch recently completed its journey in a Niskayuna cache and is now awaiting the upcoming festivities.

Despite all of the competition, cleverness and camaraderie, however, the lure of geocaching is, for many participants, quite simple. Over the course of our adventure together, the couple waxed poetic—and humorous—about many of the places they’d been while geocaching.

“The site warned us that the ‘Naked Truth’ cache was more than just a funny name,” laughs Streeter.

“And sure enough, there they were—naked people,” smirks Bensetler as he describes the cache that brought them to one of Vermont’s nude bathing areas.

From scenic whirlpools in Maine to sheep pastures in Ireland, finding more than 200 caches has brought them to places that, as Bensetler observed in the beginning of our journey, they might never have known existed. And just as any geocacher probably will tell you, the game is not so much about a love for nature or gadgetry or what lies within metal ammo boxes and Tupperware containers, but rather about the journey from here to there and what can be seen from the mountaintops and forest paths along the way.

You Were Here

Meet letterboxing, geocaching’s genteel, stamp-collecting grandad

Before there was any such thing as a GPS to treasure hunt with, there was letterboxing. Like geocaching, letterboxing is basically a search for a container in the middle of nowhere—or even in the middle of a bustling somewhere. Box hunters follow a clue to find a letterbox, with or without directions, in a process not dissimilar to a treasure hunt. The treasure inside the letterbox, however, is a notebook and the box’s signature stamp. The intrepid box hunter also has a notebook and his/her own personalized, usually self-designed stamp. Not just any stamp will do; each one is to be unique to the individual as well as to a box’s location or an event it commemorates. Upon locating a letterbox, the box and hunter exchange stamps in each other’s notebooks.

Letterboxing, according to tradition, began in 1854 when a man left a card in a jar along the banks of a pond in Dartmoor National Park in southern England. From those odd beginnings evolved a tradition of visitors to the spot doing the same. The jar became a box, eventually a log book was introduced, and soon, other boxes sprang up in the park. Today, Dartmoor is still the Mecca of letterboxing, boasting well over 10,000 boxes, and after Smithsonian Magazine published a piece on the pastime in 1998, the hobby took off in earnest stateside.

The Web site is where North American letterboxers post and search for clues or information about letterboxing on this side of the pond. By its count, there are thousands of boxes stashed in this hemisphere and 300 letterboxes hidden across New York state. With names like “NY State Muffin Thruway Series #5” and “Final Exam,” they lurk in parking lots, behind secret rock doors, in trees; the possibilities are seemingly endless for locations and for occasions to hide one. (One fellow in western New York proposed to his now-bride via a letterbox.)

If you choose to try the lo-fi version of geocaching a few times, your reward will be a personal notebook that looks something like an orienteering passport, and a good excuse to spend time outdoors visiting new places.

—Ashley Hahn

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