Eric McDonald checks his rear-view mirror one final time before swinging open the driver’s side door of his pickup. Traffic is steady. He slides out and tries to casually scan the street again before making his way to the crosswalk of the intersection at 122nd Avenue East and 144th Street East in Puyallup. Using his handheld GPS and intuition, the 42 year-old is sure he knows where he’s headed. It’s just a matter of making sure that the coast is clear.
A five second gap between cars gives this truck driver just enough time to bend low and sweep, inconspicuously, the base of a fire hydrant. On his first pass, he finds nothing. A second frisk, however, connects his hand with a small box, magnetized and wrapped in camouflaged duct tape. Paydirt. With his find in hand, he makes his way back to the pickup subtly to open the box, sign the enclosed logbook, and record his progress online.
McDonald, known by his Groundspeak username as ECM41, has been geocaching since November 24, 2012. Joined by his daughter, KayLynn, his plucky dog, Gizmo, and roughly nine million past and present geocachers all over the world, Eric has found over 1,000 hidden caches in and around Seattle over the course of last two years. Recently, an injury to the professional auto transport driver’s Achilles required surgery, leaving McDonald temporarily out of work. Geocaching, he says, is a way to keep his mind off of the pain and frustration of rehabilitation after he underwent surgery in April for his injury. “I work out by hiding and seeking geocaches,” McDonald explains. “I bike and walk to caches, and it’s good motivation to stay active and to keep involved in my community.”
Eric Schudiske, social media manager for the Seattle-based hub for caching enthusiasts worldwide, Groundspeak, explains geocaching as “an outdoor adventure where players use a GPS guided app to find cleverly hidden containers around the world.” Eric reports that there are currently over six million geocachers globally, and over 2.4 million containers concealed in meaningful locations in over 185 countries around the world.
The hobby was conceived in May of 2000, when the U.S. military made GPS available to the public. An Oregon man and GPS buff (David Ulmer) posted a set of coordinates on the internet to a container he had placed to be found. Within a day, the cache had been discovered and the find logged online. The rest is history. Within months, Groundspeak founders Jeremy Irish, Bryan Roth and Elias Alvord started their site, geocaching.com, with a mere 75 cache waypoints. Since then the enterprise, headquartered in the Fremont district of Seattle, has grown into the biggest phenomenon hidden right in plain sight.
Cachers of all ages team up or go it alone to find real locations in urban and not-so-urban terrain. Schudiske
believes that part of the reason that caching has exploded in popularity, especially in just recent months, is because it is a very fulfilling experience. “In a completely online, digital world, there’s something oddly fulfilling and reassuring about geocaching. As opposed to having this completely or near-completely digital experience, each logbook that users sign has been held by other people, signed and discovered. It’s a very tactile, physical, tangible experience.”
This spirit of discovery can manifest in some delightfully creative, individual ways, as veteran cacher minstrale shares. “You have college students, young families, retired couples, entrepreneurs, scientists, soldiers, craftsmen — you name it!— and they all bring their perspectives, talents, and quirks to their hides, enriching the experience for us all. The puzzles can give you fits, the camo can drive you to distraction, and the people who perpetrate them actually like it when you call them evil. But they’re some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.”
“I enjoy geocaching because people usually hide caches in places that are special to them. Expansive views of the Sound, picturesque lighthouses, bubbling geysers, backcountry treks, remote bridges, unusual artwork, intimate spaces — there’s even one on the space station!”
Some of the places that cachers deem special and noteworthy are just downright fascinating. Seattle’s gum wall, for example, contains an expertly hidden geocache (from majorbonnet, GC24H25). There is a hide called Gnome Island by cacher gnome_village in British Columbia (GC15R2M), which can be reached by a short boat trip and hike, that contains a hidden sanctuary for lawn gnomes. A cache in Brazil, placed during the filming of Planet of the Apes in 2001 by Project_APE (GCC67), has been found by less than 200 different geocachers in its twelve-year lifespan, and is located in a state park betwixt waterfalls and endangered wildlife in Sao Paulo.
The hobby could be described, lovingly, as an obsession by fanatics such as EMC41 (who at the time of this writing had logged 1,028 finds) and minstrale (a user who has logged 1,692 caches since April 2009), of Washington. At present, the geocacher with the most finds logged is user Alamogul of California, who has recorded a whopping 104,020 finds and counting.
To begin caching today, users can visit www.geocaching.com. Here, cachers can find all the information necessary to sign up for an account, as well as to get started using Groundspeak’s approved apps and GPS tools.
By Mariah Beckman