Streeter and John Bensetler. Photo by: Leif Zurmuhlen
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
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
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.
let’s see where we need to go from here,” says Streeter as
she pulls a handheld Global Positioning System unit out of
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
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 caching.com,
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.
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.”
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.
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 . . .”
the Department of Homeland Security,” interrupts Bensetler.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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,
Streeter tells me that we’re welcome to take something from
the cache—as long we replace it with something else.
by: Leif Zurmuhlen
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
site warned us that the ‘Naked Truth’ cache was more than
just a funny name,” laughs Streeter.
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.
letterboxing, geocaching’s genteel, stamp-collecting
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 www.letterboxing.org 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