On an overcast afternoon, my wife, my 4-year-old son, and I, along with another family, find ourselves on a tiny rock island on the edge of Washington's Puget Sound, staring into berry brambles and chuckholes, picking up logs, and kicking leaf piles. We're on a high-tech treasure hunt, searching for a watertight plastic container stuffed with toys, trinkets, and assorted tchotchkes. Our handheld, cell phone-size GPS unit tells us it should be right...about...here!
But we haven't found it yet.
We're indulging in the relatively new sport of geocaching: using a GPS device to find a cache stashed by someone else. Enabled by the U.S. Department of Defense's decision to discontinue scrambling GPS signals, geocaching has exploded in popularity. In just three years, enthusiasts stashed more than 58,000 caches in 177 countries.
Geocaching appeals to people's instinct for exploration, says Jeremy Irish, who founded the pastime's popular website, www.geocaching.com, about four years ago. The site is the sport's bible, dictionary, and atlas all in one.
"We're all explorers who want to discover something new, and what has always frustrated me is that you can't really do that anymore ― these days, people even climb Mt. Everest on their vacations," Irish says. "What you have to do is create your own adventures, and geocaching is a great way of doing that."
Hiking to find hot wheels
Every great adventure requires planning, and geocaching is no exception. With my friend's GPS unit in hand, we go to the geocaching website and enter the zip code for the town nearest Deception Pass State Park, a scenic area close to home.
On the website we find clues as to exactly where we'll find the booty we seek (under a log) and, most important, the exact coordinates of the cache's longitude and latitude. These we plug into my friend's GPS unit, which will pick up signals from satellites 12,500 miles overhead and lead us straight to the Deception cache.
Back on the overgrown, glacier-scrubbed rock island, beneath the 180-foot steel trusses that support Deception Pass Bridge, we start to close in on the prize. After we've hiked about 1/2 mile, the GPS unit tells us we're within a yard of our goal.
My friend's wife Jessica spots it first: a corner of a Rubbermaid container poking out from under a log tangled in some salal. "Why don't you check under that log?" she says, deftly guiding the boys so they can discover it themselves.
When they do, they scream and squeal with delight. Inside the container, we find Hot Wheels cars, an oversize plastic penny, a miniature baseball, a yo-yo, a deck of cards, a cassette tape of the Police, and more.
We also find a Travel Bug, a small stuffed rabbit with a tracking tag that enables geocachers to track its progress online as it makes its way from cache to cache. This one, called Baltimore Bunny, started in Maryland and, by the time we discover it, traveled throughout the Northeast before making its way to California and then Washington.
In keeping with geocaching's protocol ― which states that finders can be keepers as long as they leave one new object for each one they take ― my son, Baker, takes a balloon and leaves a toy horse. His friend Kai takes the oversize penny and leaves a toy locomotive.
Finally, in a logbook that's also stashed in the cache, we detail what we've seen, what we've taken, and what we've left. Then we seal up the container, place it back where we found it, and leave it for the next lucky seeker.
All you need is access to the Internet, a map, and a GPS unit. Fancy units include internal electronic map databases and can cost as much as $500. A good entry-level one lacks map databases but displays coordinates that can be used in conjunction with paper maps. Try Garmin's Geko 101 ($113; 800/ 800-1020).
Call the public park or private lands you plan to visit before heading out in order to obtain authorization to leave a cache there. While the National Park Service does not allow geocaching on any of its lands, other parks have their own policies on this form of recreation. Washington's Deception Pass State Park stipulates that geocachers are not permitted to hide objects off-trail or below ground (no beating back of brush or digging is allowed).
Throughout the West, several geocaching clubs and organizations are set up to help beginners learn the ropes. Visit www.geocaching.com for additional resources.
Central Oregon Geocaching