Geocaching: A treasure hunt for the digital age
Story by Clayton Hurdle
A global phenomenon wasn’t exactly what David Ulmer was planning when he planted the world’s first geocache on May 3, 2000.
Ulmer, a computer consultant from Oregon, left a black bucket with a pencil and logbook, as well as several “prize” items, in a remote area two miles west of Estacada, Ore. He posted the coordinates on an online forum of GPS enthusiasts and called his idea the “Great American GPS Stash Hunt.” The idea, as stated on geocaching.com, was simple: Hide a container in the woods, note the coordinates and post the coordinates online for others to find.
Before long, the idea had spread across state and national lines. After such national media sources as CNN and the New York Times reported on the hobby, the ranks of geocachers began to grow exponentially. Local and regional geocaching communities began popping up online over the next several years as the fad continued to grow.
One such group is the Alabama Geocachers Association (AGA). On June 9, 2006, “wd4bsu” and “Redneckgal” became the first two AGA members of the online Dixie Cachers forum. Within a week, more than 70 more people from across the state had joined the online community. Ed Manley, known to Dixie Cachers as TheAlabamaRambler, is one of the leaders of the group and joined shortly after the launch of the website.
There are now hundreds of caches in Shelby County and surrounding areas. There are strong concentrations in and around Pelham, Alabaster, Columbiana and Oak Mountain State Park. Tim Straughn, who goes by RoadRoach58 within the geocaching community, is an active geocache hobbyist who owns containers throughout Helena.
“I [own] caches along the Hillsboro Parkway and have five on the rail-trail that starts at the middle school,” Straughn said. “I own all the caches starting with one at the tunnel under Highway 52 all the way to the middle school.”
As simple as this hide-and-seek game may sound, there are several aspects of it that make geocaching compelling and slightly challenging. First and foremost is the stealth and secrecy often involved. There are cachers who are so prone to secrecy within the game that they often don’t reveal themselves as geocachers to anyone, not even fellow cachers.
Stealth is a part of the geocaching game that Straughn said can sometimes cause trouble with the authorities.
“I’m well known to the Helena police department now,” Straughn said lightly. “I’ve been caught snooping around closed businesses and in front of a local church in the wee hours of the morning. I’ve been checked out after a hike because my truck was parked at the civic complex for more than 30 minutes with nothing going on there.”
Most area police departments are at the very least familiar with geocaching, Straughn said.
“You’re on your own if you get caught,” he said. “Just tell the truth, whatever you do. They’ll check it out, and might even want to escort you on a find.”
Another important challenge associated with geocaching is the ownership of caches. Whoever establishes a cache is that cache’s owner, and is expected, according to Straughn, to regularly check up on his or her location in order to maintain the cache. If a cache owner chooses for any reason to relinquish ownership, his or her caches are open to adoption.
“The adoption process is normally engaged when someone is leaving the game,” Straughn said. “Some people [adopt because they] want to keep the caches active, some want the area to repopulate it with new caches. Generally speaking, it helps to keep the older caches around. Older caches with long lives tend to be popular because of their age.”
A manual process, the adoption process begins when a potential adopter approaches the cache owner about taking over a cache.
“If the owner decides it is best to adopt it out, then he can turn the ownership over,” Straughn explained. “If he thinks it won’t be maintained, or just decides to throw the spot up for grabs for someone else to use, then he may archive the cache. Archiving is usually a final act, and some justification has to be given to unarchive it and bring it back.”
A third challenge with geocaching is just that, various challenges designed by cache owners.
“A challenge cache can be something like finding a cache whose name starts with each letter of the alphabet,” Straughn said. “The challenge may or may not have a final stage and log to sign. It may also have a time limit on resolution. Whatever the design of the challenge, if you are the owner, you must have personally completed that challenge.”
The many geocaching styles reach out to all sorts of individuals. Straughn is a grandfather with a day job who caches whenever he finds the time. Other cachers range from college students and families with children to middle-aged and retired people who go on finds with varying levels of regularity.
“I think it is one of the best family activities around and it is a blast for singles as well,” Manley said.
Geocaching is an activity that can be done individually or in pairs or groups. It is important to know when to go caching alone and when to bring someone along, Straughn noted.
“I’ve done a few runs that I really should not have done alone, especially in the summer months,” he said. “[There is] the risk of heat stress or falls, or a host of safety problems associated with outdoor hobbies. Always make sure someone knows where you’re going if they aren’t going with you. It could mean finding you a lot faster if things go badly.”
Regardless of the person, the community of Alabama geocachers is an ever-growing group that welcomes new members with open arms.
“We are always happy to introduce our game to new families,” Manley said.