Imagine being in the middle of absolutely nowhere—the end of a long hike, the top of a mountain or on an exploration of some off-the-trail secret spot—and suddenly encountering unexpected signs of another human being.
Maybe it's a film canister tucked inside a hollow stump or a coffee can hidden among a pile of rocks, a quick inspection of which reveals that the item was hidden deliberately, so that backcountry recreationists could find and enjoy it.
That item is part of a game called "geocaching," an international outdoor treasure hunt in which people use GPS devices to find hidden items.
The game has taken off since the first cache was hidden in 2000 near Beavercreek, Ore., as a way to test the accuracy of the newly improved civilian GPS signal.
According to www.geocaching.com, the nation's top site for geocachers, there are currently 5 million people throughout the world who use the clues on the site as well as GPS coordinates to navigate to a certain location and then attempt to uncover a cache.
Caches are normally weatherproof containers of varying size that contain a logbook where finders sign in. Most caches also include small items that finders can take and collect. The rules are simple: Sign the book, take an item, leave an item of similar or greater value in its place and leave the cache exactly as it was found.
Ellen Mandeville, a Hailey resident, mom and writer, said she has been geocaching for three years. After receiving a GPS from her husband for Christmas, Mandeville found herself at home with her two children, looking for something to do.
"I thought, we should go do something—we should find a geocache!" she said. "Who doesn't like a treasure hunt?"
That first hunt led Mandeville and her children—Jessica, then 6, and David, then 3—out Indian Springs to a cache called the Indian Creek Corral Cache.
Mandeville said that despite winds so strong that the snow was blowing sideways and a hike long enough to tire the kids, once they found the cache, it was all worth it.
"It's a really great way to get out," she said. "I never would have been out there if it wasn't for a cache."
Now, the BLM is taking advantage of this trend in an attempt to encourage more people to visit public lands.
Krista Berumen, spokeswoman for the state BLM in Boise, said geocaches can provide an incentive for people to explore public lands and areas where they wouldn't ordinarily go.
"We can tell people about these sites, but this gives them an incentive," she said. "We were just looking for a way to get people outside and highlight some of our public lands."
The BLM has two components to its geocaching program, one on a state level and one at the district level. Each BLM district in Idaho contains five caches, four of which are district-designated and one of which is state-designated.
Finders may download what the BLM is calling an electronic passport book, and then enter the code provided on the container in that passport through an electronic stamp. Once the geocacher has found four district caches, he or she can redeem the stamp for prizes such as a fold-up Frisbee Flyer or an iron lapel pin with the BLM geocaching logo.
Finders that travel throughout the state and find all four state caches can earn a commemorative medallion.
"It's kind of cool, actually," said Heather Tiel-Nelson, spokeswoman for the Twin Falls District BLM.
Tiel-Nelson said she had never participated in geocaching before the start of the program, but now she's hooked.
"It was fun just for me to go out and place these!" she said.
The district caches were mostly placed in areas with existing interpretive signs and literature, Tiel-Nelson said, due to the district's budget restrictions. However, she said, a few are placed in more "primitive" areas.
Location was key to choosing the state sites, Berumen said.
"It seems like a lot of the caches we placed, we tried to pick places that were scenic," she said. "It's really a location that people said they may never have gone to without the cache. That's one of the greatest benefits."
Berumen has worked extensively with local Idaho geocachers to determine what they consider a "desirable" cache, what draws them to visit one cache over another. Berumen said the geocachers tend to enjoy scenic locations that require a short hike, but often the cache itself can draw in a dedicated finder.
"One of the biggest things is the type of items you have in the caches," she said.
Many geocaches contain "trackables," items that are etched with a unique code that can be used to track its location as geocachers move it around the world. Some trackables come with goals that may request the finder to take it to a certain location, such as a foreign country.
Mandeville said each of her children has a trackable that he or she watches. Though David's has been stolen after travelling to the East Coast, Jessica's made it to British Columbia before heading to Southern California.
"It's fun, because you can look up [the track] on Google Earth and show the kids," Mandeville said.
Berumen said she loves the idea of trackable items and hopes to include them in future BLM caches.
"Your message gets moved all over [with trackable items]," she said. "That sounded to me like one of the biggest incentives for caches."
Often, however, the items are less technologically oriented. According to posts on www.geocaching.com, where cachers document hidden treasure and post coordinates for others to find, many local caches contain items such as stickers, key chains and commemorative golf balls.
Tiel-Nelson said the district caches do not yet contain the kind of eclectic collection most freelance caches do. The caches contain waterproof logbooks, literature about taking care of public lands and a likeness of BLM mascot Seymour the Antelope.
Finders should take a picture of themselves with Seymour and email it to the district, Tiel-Nelson said.
Coordinates for the caches are posted on the BLM's website, and can be plugged into GPS devices or smartphones with a GPS application. Because many caches are so small, www.geocaching.com warns that the coordinates can only get a finder so close to the item. Cachers may have to search the area thoroughly, looking for everything from hollow stumps to fake rocks in order to find the cache.
Connecting with the geocaching movement has been excellent for the district, Berumen said, allowing people to connect with public lands on a deeper level.
Mandeville said she certainly has noticed a connection to the land among the geocaching community, who tend to be eco-conscious.
"It's a really need way to interact with our surroundings," she said, adding with a laugh, "It's using a $4 billion surveillance system to find Tupperware in the woods."
But, she said, the real draw is feeling connected to other geocachers through what they leave, even if they never meet in person.
"It's finding little treasures put out by people just like us," she said.
Katherine Wutz: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rules of the Cache
- Sign the logbook. Half of the fun of finding the cache is seeing who was there before.
- Finders don't have to take an item, but if they do, they are honor-bound to leave an item of a greater or equal value. Items don't have to be valuable, but can include small toys, buttons, foreign coins, origami and other trinkets. Large caches may contain DVDs, books or any other item that will fit in the container.
- Do not leave explosives, drugs, alcohol, firearms or other illegal or restricted material in the caches. While leaving a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue may seem like a karmic gift to the next finder, geocaching is a popular pastime for teens and families as well.
- Do not leave food or other heavily scented items in the cache. This rule prevents the cache from being discovered and chewed through by hungry animals looking for a snack.
- Put the cache back exactly as it was found. Remember, finders are relying on already-listed coordinates and hints established by the original hider. If the cache is moved, it may prevent future cachers from locating the prize.
- Be discreet. Part of the fun of geocaching is keeping the pastime secret from "muggles," or the uninitiated who may ruin a good cache for cachers.
Caches in the valley
A quick search of the area on www.geocaching.com shows hundreds of caches, ranging from traditional beginner caches to more advanced finds. Here are some to start with, ranging from easy to more difficult:
- Hemingway Memorial Cache, N 43 42.724 W 114 20.417. Hidden in 2002. The hiders say this cache is near the Hemingway Memorial on Trail Creek Road. Finders should be able to locate it without crossing the creek.
- Boulder Mountain Mountain Goats Cache, N 43 49.292 W 114 32.705. Hidden in 2005. It's a quarter-mile hike to the cache site, which must be done in snowshoes or cross-country skis in the depth of winter (maybe not this one).
- The Real Gimlet Cache, N 43 36.269 W 114 21.012. Hidden in 2004. Turn east on East Fork Road and park near the bike path, says the hider. The description on geocaching.com elaborates on this site's historical significance.
- Snortin' Norton Cache, N 43 43.827 W 114 37.943. Hidden in 2010. This cache is near the Norton Lake Trailhead, but can't be seen from the road. Look for a small plastic peanut butter container near a large number of stumps.