Geocaching: Feel Like an Archaeologist

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«It’s funny to find a review in Czech, left by one of the players, in a Russian geocache which has a description in English»

Finding a geocache in the forest

When I was little, in addition to going on covert outings to the roof of the adjacent nine-story building, for which we would be punished and condemned to going without ice cream for a month, our favorite pastime was a game called “Secrets.” We would place a candy wrapper under a shard of a glass bottle and would then bury this treasure. After we were done, our enemies would have to find all the hidden stashes. I remember that we even drew special maps, which were used to search for these caches. Honestly, this game taught me more about orienteering and mapping than all the school geography lessons put together!

I wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to tell me that one of my childhood friends had moved to America, somewhere in the neighborhood of Portland, had become ​​friends there with a guy named Dave Ulmer and, while having a nostalgic moment about happy childhood hours spent digging out the “secrets,” had given him the idea of ​​a network game called “geocaching.” The point of this game was simple: to get a GPS-device, which, in the year 2000, was only starting to become popular, bury a few things, of the sort usually sold at garage sales, in the neighbor’s garden, put the coordinates on the Internet and happily watch crowds of latter-day archaeologists trample the cabbage beds of the pernicious old man whose ill-mannered dog had ruined your favorite lawn the week before. And since you can watch it infinitely, just like watching fire burning or water flowing, to avoid interrupting the process, you could hide new treasures in the same place, once the old ones were found.

In 13 years, the geocaching fever has spread over all the continents and the total number of geocaches long ago exceeded eight figure numbers – there are more than 2 million of them on just the largest geocaching portal, geocashing.com! Resembling joyful ‘possums, geocachers started exploring forests and fields, and most of the more or less famous mountain peaks – from Everest to Mont Blanc – leaving evidence of their presence everywhere. The fact that treasure hunters were ruining pristine natural beauty had disappointed the game’s founding father so much that he renounced his creation, which, however, quickly acquired foster parents. Ulmer’s idea was picked up by ​​Jeremy Irish, founder of Groundspeak – the biggest geocaching platform in the world. He was also the one who introduced the game to treasure hunters outside the United States. The three most active countries to date include the United States, Germany and the Czech Republic.
Many educational institutions, especially those which do not mind informal methods of teaching, started using this game for teaching purposes. For example, teachers can organize a geocaching quest on a topic such as “Architectural monuments of the city.” The idea is also being used by many entertainment agencies involved in corporate events, team building and so forth. Let’s try to understand a little of the geocaching terminology. The main word in the glossary of any player is the geocache. It may also be called simply a cache or a stash.

Geocaches are classified according to a huge number of features: depending on the location – urban/natural stash, depending on accessibility – for example, a bumper stash (which is easy to get close to by car), depending on the age of the audience – children/adults. Traditionally, most geocachers divide geocaches into 3 groups: the traditional, the turn-based and the virtual.

Traditional geocaches, as you may have already guessed, are hidden in the exact place indicated by the coordinates on the gaming portal. Step by step, caches will lead you in circles around the treasure, sending you from one cache to another, where you will only find notes containing the coordinates of the next destination. Some players manage to create such challenging quests that “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown is, by comparison, a simple manual on how to cook a soft-boiled egg. A virtual geocache is about discovering a location rather than a container. To find its author’s stash, you need to follow the indicated coordinates where you will then have to find a tricky hint, which will point the way to the treasure.

The next words, which should be part of the vocabulary of any novice geocacher, are associated with purely technical details: container (a container where the “treasure” is placed), silica gel (a substance that absorbs moisture to prevent the “treasure” from being ruined, for example when buried in the ground), zip-lock (a hermetically sealed bag, about the size of a notepad), travel bug (an item that is placed in a cache and has instructions to travel to other caches, it can’t be simply removed and kept).

Finally, another important vocabulary grouping contains words which directly describe the active gaming process. For example, “to boar” means to dig, to turn over logs, etc. in a small area of land in an attempt to find the treasure. The players tend to dislike this kind of behavior, because “boars” ruin the terrain to unmask the stash. “Muggles” are strangers who interfere in the geocacher’s search. “Following the arrow” means to follow the GPS-device, ignoring other ways of exploring the terrain.

Who among us has not dreamed of digging out a mammoth skull, a sliver of Noah’s ark, or, at worst, a philosopher’s stone, in the backyard of our summer cottage? To study the actual science of archaeology in a specialized institution would be tedious, long and nearly hopeless, as there is only one chance in a million to find Atlantis. While seeking Atlantis, you are all too likely to dig out a dusty pile of shards. Geocaching is a real-life stalker-pirate-archaeological romance: treasures, maps, traveling, communicating with people from different cities and even countries! In Europe, for example, it is normal practice to take off to a neighboring country in search of buried relics. The beauty of the game is that, even if someone beats you and digs out the “treasures” before you get there, you will still get your share, and, who knows, maybe that exact penknife or lighter, left by an unknown treasure hunter from another part of the world, that was missing from your vast collection of penknives and lighters?

Photo: Shutterstock

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