I’m blundering about in the woods behind a women’s restroom on Presque Isle. And “woods” is a generous word for where I am. There aren’t any trees, just tangled weeds and vines and prickers scratching my shins. My Chucks sink alarmingly into the soft, almost swampy ground. A black fly bites my ankle. The “Warning: Ticks” sign I passed, the abandoned sausage wrappers at my feet, and the slight odor of rot and other evil in the air force my mind to avoid the obvious thought: I am not in a good place.
Instead I focus on my smart-phone, which shows me I’m not far from my goal. It’s maybe 500 or 600 feet off, straight through this wall of impenetrable creepers in front of me. If I could just push through, maybe the other side would be more open, easier to manage.
I take my bearings. The swampy ground. The evil smell. Those disturbing sausage wrappers. (How did they get here?) It’s hot, almost unbearably so, in the high 80s, and the breeze off the lake doesn’t reach here to the woods behind a women’s restroom. I’m covered with a sheen of thick, tacky sweat. I’m sunburned and slightly hung over from yesterday’s sail and the mandatory drinks at Rum Runners afterward. What must I look like to a passerby, blundering here as I am behind a women’s restroom?
I am not in a good place.
But there, just 500 or 600 feet off is what I’m looking for. Treasure. Hidden on Presque Isle. I’ve biked nearly 10 miles in this heat, following clues all around the peninsula, and here, just a few hundred feet away, is the final goal. I’m so close I can almost smell it.
Or maybe I’m just smelling the emanation from the swamp, the bathroom, the wrappers.
And it isn’t exactly a treasure. Not the kind with pieces of eight or gold doubloons. I’m looking for a geocache -- it’s a part of a treasure-hunting game, in which people use latitude and longitude coordinates to find a hidden object. A cache. A container or plastic bag holding a notebook or sheets of paper—the logbook—and small, collectible items. Windup toys, a bracelet, a flag patch, a fossilized shark’s tooth. Essentially, you use a GPS device or application on your phone to find the coordinates of the cache, which is usually cleverly hidden. Once you find the cache, you sign the logbook and exchange one item in the cache for one that you’ve brought.
I’m on what’s called a “multi-cache” challenge, which means I have to travel to a number of coordinates and gather clues to the final location of the cache. The one I’m on requires me to go to 10 different locations, each one revealing a number of final latitude and longitude. For example, at N 42º 09.300 W 80º 05.377, I have to “add 5 to the 4th digit of the year found on the main structure here,” and use that as the fifth and final digit of the latitudinal coordinate of the cache I’m looking for.
I managed to find all 10 digits this way, biking all over Presque Isle, and writing down the answers of the clues in my little green notebook. And as I blunder about the pricker bushes in the swamp behind a women’s bathroom on a sweltering hot June afternoon, perilously low on supplies (I’ve eaten my two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I packed for lunch), harassed by biting flies, I check my notes again.
Could this be right? Am I in the right place? Knowing the mistakes I made along the way reading my coordinates, handling my phone and its GPS application, I’m not sure. This is only my second time geocaching. The first was with my family, and unbeknownst to me, I was using the wrong format for longitude and latitude on my phone. We ended up wandering around the parking lot of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center for 40 fruitless minutes.
I can’t give up. I’ve found every coordinate so far. (I think.) I have to at least go to the final coordinates. And then I’ll worry about where the cache is.
“They’re everywhere. They’re all over the place,” says Scott Woznicki of the caches. I’m eating lunch with Woznicki and his son, Tyler, who’s 7. We’re at a restaurant at an undisclosed location—undisclosed because I don’t want to bust the cache Scott’s about to reveal. “There’s a cache on the next block, in one of the telephone poles.”
“It’s flat!” chirps Tyler. “It’s made out of duct tape.”
“Kind of a little container, and they shoved it into the crack of the telephone pole,” says Scott. “You have to pull it out and open it up, and then there’s a log to sign.”
Scott Woznicki is the reason I’m writing a story about geocaching. Word got out from a friend of a friend that there was this guy who’s crazy about geocaching, that I should talk to him, and maybe I should write about it. I did, and here we are.
My cache on Presque Isle isn’t the only secret stash on the peninsula, Scott tells me. There are nearly two-dozen more hidden all over the park, in ammo cans, in film canisters, in tiny little plastic bags. And there are hundreds more in Erie. In Frontier Park, in Asbury Woods. All along the Bayfront Connector. And there are thousands more—hundreds of thousands? millions?—all around the world. Wherever you’re likely to go, there are hidden caches. Chances are, there’s one within a block or two of your house. You’ve probably even walked right past a treasure dozens of times. Maybe even right on your street.
There are different kinds of caches, too. Traditional caches are large enough to contain collectible items. And there are “micro-caches,” caches small enough to contain only a few sheets of paper as the logbook. Caches are hidden in different ways, too. Many are fairly easy to find, but some are located on difficult terrain. Like the cache you get to only by rappelling into a Portuguese cave. Or another deep in a Brazilian jungle. There’s even one on the International Space Station. Others are in easily accessible places, but are cleverly hidden. One cache, Scott tells me, is hidden under a Dr. Pepper magnet on a soda vending machine.
There are different kinds of collectibles, too. The most interesting kind are the “travel bugs.” These are small, encoded medallions attached to items that are supposed to travel from cache to cache. Each time a geocacher finds one, she’s supposed to log its location online—that allows people to track the progress of the travel bug. Some of them even have destinations or goals, to travel from one location to another, or to visit a certain number of countries.
Most geocaching is centered around the website, geocaching.com, which has maps and lists of caches. You can simply search on an address or zip code or city name, and see all the caches mapped out in the area. Clicking on a specific cache brings up the cache’s details, its coordinates, description, hints on how to find the cache. Once you find a cache, you log your visit on the website. All of this requires joining the site, but membership is free.
Scott, Tyler, and I had our own geocaching adventure on Presque Isle, different than the one I did the day before. Instead of a long, multi-location search, we drove around the peninsula looking for five different caches. It was even hotter today than it was yesterday, if that were possible. “I keep sweating into my eyes,” said Scott at one point, removing his thick-framed glasses and wiping his face with the arm of his faded Pink Floyd T-shirt. With his close-cropped reddish hair and glasses, he resembles a slightly bedraggled hipster version of Drew Carey. By day, he works in resource management for Verizon, but by night he’s a musician.
He said this at one location—I can’t tell you where—just before he found a particularly well-hidden cache. Tyler and I were poking around a roadside sign, when Scott yelled, “I got it!” We rushed over to see Scott bursting with triumph. He unscrewed the red glass of a roadside reflector and found the micro-cache tucked inside.
“I’m onto that guy!” he said. He gushed about the man who hid the cache—whose tagline I can’t reveal—and whose caches are notoriously difficult to find. “That bastard,” he muttered while signing the log. “I never thought I’d find that one.”
Tyler was an indispensable part of the cache team. He’s tall for his age, with blonde hair, a woven necklace, and missing his two front teeth. He was the sparkplug of the team. The quick one, and with the best eyes. He also peppered our day with the frank and hilarious one-liners of a soon-to-be-first-grader: “Tell him about the cache in the cemetery!” “Dad, he’s writing everything down!” “I’m hungry!” Dad holds the GPS device and reads the clues aloud, but it’s Tyler that most often found the caches.
That was the case during the day’s best challenge, the “Tombstone Rubble.” According to the challenge’s description on geocaching.com, three tombstones were placed by mistake into the riprap rubble at the Bay’s edge. Our job was to find the tombstone of “John Froess,” and use his birth year to find the coordinates of the cache.
At the coordinates given for the stones, Tyler leaped from rock to rock of the riprap by the Bay water and quickly shouted, “I found it!” and sure enough, there was Froess’ stone, a marker of his and his wife Margaret’s life. Using the birth date, Scott quickly calculated the coordinates, where Tyler almost immediately found the cache in the center of a small ring of trees, covered by sticks.
Back at our undisclosed restaurant, Scott tells me he got into geocaching through his brother. “He lives in Indiana, Pa., and came up with his girlfriend last fall,” he explains. “We were thinking of something to do, and he said, you want to go geocaching?”
They looked up caches near Scott’s house and found a bunch in Frontier Park and Asbury Woods. “I was hooked,” he says. For Christmas that year, Scott got his GPS device, and since then he’s collected 118 caches.
Why he loves geocaching so much, he can’t really say. In the army, he always enjoyed the orienteering exercises they did, and he was good at it. But beyond that, who knows? “What do I like about it?” he says. “I don’t know. I guess I’m a scavenger hunt kind of person.”
“Every time we have a Halloween party,” exclaims Tyler, “we do a scavenger hunt!”
Scott laughs. “Yeah, I guess I’m a scavenger hunt kind of person.”
But before I lunch with Scott and Tyler, before even I flounder in the woods behind a women’s bathroom with my final coordinates in hand, I had to gather clues. Here is one leg of that search.
N 42º 08.437 W 80º 08.232. I’m at an undisclosed picnic area. My task: I’m to find a word on a charcoal pit. Only I can’t find the pit. There are three picnic tables, all occupied. One by a young couple with a baby, who is being rocked and sung to by its grandmother. Another by a man eating a solitary lunch. The third by another man who sits atop the table in philosophical posture dumbly mulling the vista of the Bay and Erie beyond.
I rest my bike against a tree and walk in circles staring at my cell phone. Only the grandmother fails to take notice; she’s totally engaged by the child. I see no pit. I do see little park-provided barbecue grills on stands by each table. I inspect them one at a time, crouching low to look at their bottoms. No writing of any kind.
I’m frustrated and confused. This was my first location. Did I get it wrong? It wouldn’t surprise me. For the last 15 minutes I had mixed up the two coordinates, thinking longitude was latitude and vice versa and had breezed past the picnic area, doubling back only when I found my mistake. I could very well be in the wrong spot. I circle the area a second time, a third.
By now, the picnic-goers are wearing worried expressions. What could I possibly be doing? I feel like a spy, a foreign agent with a secret purpose. These people have no clue. To them, I am an eccentric visitor walking aimlessly, communicating mysteriously with my phone, and examining their grills. But I am searching for something, a clue, a treasure. This feeling of having a secret purpose and community in the midst of clueless bystanders is why geocachers refer to people like these as “muggles,” the same term applied to non-magical people by wizards and witches in the Harry Potter books.
“Muggles” are far from harmless to geocachers, however. Some discover a cache by watching geocachers work and plunder or destroy the stashes. Or worse, suspicious of geocachers’ behavior— person! skulking about! placing an odd-shaped package behind the building! in the parking lot! under the bridge!—some even call the police. Geocachers have been arrested under suspicion of being terrorists, and bomb squads have carried out controlled explosions on the mysterious packages. In Midland, Texas, a local sporting goods store was closed for 2 hours and its customers forced to remain inside while the police disassembled a cache container in its parking lot with a bomb-handling robot; the geocacher seen leaving the scene was arrested and charged with being a public nuisance. Three stores were closed when two men in a sedan were seen leaving a small container in the base of a lamp post in an Anaheim parking lot; a dozen vehicles and a hazmat team responding, took 5 hours to determine the container was safe. A cache was detonated at a Wisconsin ballfield; another in a tunnel at UC Santa Cruz; another at a California muffler shop.
Here, I’m not too worried about being obtrusive. I’m not looking for a cache. I won’t be hiding suspicious packages under a picnic table. I’m just looking for a clue.
There! I see the pit! It’s a round, plain concrete cylinder tucked under a bush, obviously long unused. And it looks more like a garbage can than charcoal pit. I say “excuse me” to the man eating his lunch next to it, but he pretends I’m not there as I push aside the weeds and find my word.
The muggles are glad to see me go, just as glad as I am to be leaving.
Latitude and longitude, of course, are the coordinates we use to pinpoint our position on Earth. Latitude, according to Merriam-Webster’s, is the “angular distance north or south from the earth’s equator measured through 90 degrees.” Longitude, more obtusely, is the “angular distance measured on a great circle of reference from the intersection of the adopted zero meridian.” That is, it’s the distance east or west from the invisible line—the “prime meridian”—running north-south right through Greenwich, England. Erie, for example, is 42 degrees north of the equator—N º 42—and 80 west of the prime meridian—W 80º. Degrees of latitude and longitude are divided up into 60 minutes, and those minutes are divided into 60 seconds, allowing coordinates to be very precise.
In the days before satellites, finding latitude and longitude was very difficult. It often involved measuring the angle of the sun at noon, precise clocks, charts full of data, almanacs, and difficult calculations. Longitude was especially difficult to calculate. In fact, it was so difficult that the British government at one time offered cash prizes that amounted to millions of dollars in today’s currency to those that could come up with accurate methods of calculating it. Determining precise coordinates was important to a country whose economy rested on maritime trade and being able to navigate the world’s waterways successfully.
Today, using GPS—the global positioning system—determining precise latitude and longitude to within a few feet of your location on the Earth’s surface is a snap. A handheld GPS device—or cell phone with GPS software—calculates your position by triangulating your distance and direction from a number of orbiting satellites. There’s no skill involved, no calculations to do, no lengthy tables or charts to refer to. Your device simply displays your coordinates to you. And on most modern GPS devices you can enter the coordinates of where you want to go, and the device tells you how far you are from your goal, and even points in the direction you should walk.
As long as you have batteries.
It wasn’t always this simple. Before 2000, the United States purposefully built errors of up to 100 meters into global positioning, ostensibly to prevent terrorists or enemy agents from using GPS to program weapons to hit specific targets. Before 2000—and before satellites—hikers oriented themselves by using map and compass. Hikers would align a compass on a topographical map and could calculate their position by aligning themselves with geographical features in their surrounding landscape, and compare it to their map. It’s called “orienteering,” and you had to be trained how to perform it skillfully. At least skillfully enough to save your life if you’re lost in a wilderness.
The use of map and compass to determine location is still a popular hobby of wilderness enthusiasts. Even today, there are races held that pit runners, mountain bikers, or skiers against one another to navigate a course using only map and compass.
Orienteering is an obvious precursor and influence to geocaching, as is “letterboxing,” a kind of game that found its origins on the 19th-century British moors. Early hikers erected waterproof boxes in remote or hidden spots on the moor. Those that found them would leave letters or cards in the boxes for subsequent hikers, who would take the letters they found and mail them. A variation of the game exists today, revived by a 1998 Smithsonian magazine article about the original game.
Scavenger hunts, mazes, orienteering, mazes, letterboxing: All evidence that people have a fascination with figuring out exactly where they are in relation to the Earth.
N 42º 09.185 W 80º 06.642. The East Pier. I can’t—won’t—tell you which clue I’m looking for. Only let me say how pleasant it is to be here, with the wind fresh off the Bay, sitting in the shade at an ancient picnic table, its boards warped and covered with lichen. It’s more like a fossil of a picnic table than an actual table. I am in love with the table. I eat my lunch. A redwing blackbird perches next to me and glares at my sandwich. What could it have done to this bird? Another alights on my bike tire. It, too, glares.
There’s chop on the Bay. A windsurfer struggles to climb atop his board. A fishing boat plows through the waves in the channel. A mountain biker chats with a couple fishing. The woman’s pole bends. She has a bite! The three peer over the side of the bank down at the water. The man takes the pole, the biker walks away, and the woman sits down. False alarm. A snag, probably.
This was an easy location to find. Things are going well. I’m feeling it. I’m in no hurry. Later, at N 42º 10.106 W 80º 06.293, on a bench by the bike path, I won’t feel so positive. That’s when I realize I copied down a wrong coordinate in my little green notebook, and I have no idea where these “round wooden posts” are that I’m supposed to count. The backside of the peninsula has been brutal. The long, shadeless, and monotonous stretch of road. The uninspired clue locations—a mile marker and a “large rock.” Two nearby tough-guy motorcyclists ogle women bicyclists and text on their iPhones.
Later still, at N 42º 09.949 W 80º 06.837, with the last clue discovered and the coordinates of the cache—which I can’t tell you—figured out, I’m feeling it again, ready to find my treasure.
An older muggle woman seeing me fiddle with my cell phone in the shadow Presque Isle’s lighthouse frowns at my impertinence for squandering a hot summer day in the park on my electronic toy. I smile to myself. She has no idea.
“We need the tonic of wilderness,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Walden, “to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.”
I leave the evil-smelling swampy ground behind my bathroom and walk along the woods’ edge on the road. Sure enough the road bends in the direction I want to go. This is more like it! I should have come this way sooner. And just as I’m congratulating myself on my good sense, I come upon a path cut into the woods to my left. According to my phone, the cache coordinates lie down this path.
I enter the woods, pass the obligatory “Warning: Ticks” sign, and slowly walk down the path, fixed steadily on the phone in front of me. A muggle family whizzes by on their bicycles. The youngest child glares at me as he goes past, reminding me to be discreet when I look for my cache.
I stop. According to the phone, the cache is just a few feet away, in the woods. It’s real woods now, no swamp-ground, no bathroom, no tangled creepers. The trees above form a kind of leafy canopy, providing me with cool shade. There are bushes and underbrush, but not terribly thick, and I push through them easily as I climb a small rise—a tiny knob, really—and stand in a clear, flat area between a tree and a fallen log. I’m spot on at my location.
I look behind the tree, in the surrounding underbrush. Nothing. And what was I expecting, really? To find a cache, a small container in the middle of Presque Isle just by answering a few questions and getting some coordinates? There’s not a chance this thing will work, is there?
And just as I begin to succumb to my gloom and doubt, there in the log I see sticks too carefully arranged to be natural. I push them aside. Just behind them in a nook of the log, I see a green ammo box.
I found the cache.
I’m giddy. I want to yell and jump up and down. I did it! It took several hours of locating various points on the peninsula using nothing but a GPS locator, and I managed to find this spot, this secret spot hidden from most of the world.
I open the can. Inside are toys. A smallish pink teddy bear. A plastic toy. They’re dirty and water damaged. The cache is obviously not waterproof. There’s also a large plastic bag. Inside the bag is a small notebook with damp pages. Names are written here, and dates. The previous visitor was here yesterday! Before that it was a month since anyone had discovered the cache. But there are dozens of names here, stretching back over years, and I imagine people—as happy at their discovery as I am now—here on this little rise in the woods, signing the book.
I turn to the last page and write my name.
Jay Stevens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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