Kids and Nature

Get started geocaching on EarthCache Day

October 14, 2012

Today, it turns out, is the sixth annual “EarthCache Day.” What the heck is that? It’s a natural-sciences-flavored version of geocaching—the increasingly popular practice of using portable GPS devices, or smart phones, to find special hidden boxes or other items hidden by other geocachers.

A good day to start this occasional series of blog posts about geocaching and letterboxing.  In geocaching, someone hides a “cache” consisting of a container, a logbook and perhaps some small objects to trade, then posts the coordinates on the internet, along with a brief description or clue.  Other geocachers get the coordinates and set out to find the cache. In letterboxing, the hider hides a container that includes a rubber stamp and then posts a set of directions on the Internet, and the seekers follow those directions.

Both geocaching and letterboxing are great ways to explore the outdoors, especially for parents with children: They provide structure and focus to a family hike, invite participants to places they might not know about or otherwise visit, provide a fairly accurate assessment of the difficulty of a particular trail, and allow each person to connect to the experience in his or her own way: some like the maps and numbers; some like to be outdoors; some like the challenge of the find; some like the online community that has evolved around both of these activities.

On EarthCache Day, people are looking for caches that have special geologic significance. You can see a list of special Earth Caches in California here, or use the advanced search to search for Earthcaches near your ZIP code (choose “Earthcache” under the “Search for” menu).

In six months of geocaching, one geocaching team, SimDad, has found 24 caches and failed to find 12 caches.  SimDad is a hybrid entity, a nine-year old whose name begins with Sim and his father.  Both of them use that “trail name” when geocaching, and SimDad is both of them most of the time and solo Dad some of the time.

SimDad’s sports-oriented friends and relatives sometimes celebrate SimDad’s success, likening it to a .667 baseball average. This analysis misses the point entirely: although it is gratifying to find a geocache, it is even more pleasurable to look for one, celebrating the finds, enjoying the search and the hike regardless of the outcome, and collecting serendipitous insights about the Bay Area and its environs.

Sim and Dad have two styles of choosing geocaches.  Sim likes to pick a green patch off the family car’s navigation system and head over to a newly found park and then use a geocaching app to locate nearby caches.  Dad is more likely to search a particular region for geocaches ahead of time and select one that sounds good before setting out.

Once Sim selected a park in West Berkeley.  As they approached, Sim “searched for nearby geocaches” and turned one up that was .3 miles away.  At first they imagined that the cache must be hidden on the far corner of the park; and then they thought it must be on the pitchers mound of the adjacent park.  But as they developed a sense of distance and scale, they realized that the cache was nowhere within the parks they had selected.  In the end, they were surprised to return to a familiar place, where they found the cache tucked away among turtles, frogs, snakes, cockroaches, lizards, scorpions and tarantulas.  Live ones.  (Wild Cache, GC2P8YQ)

Dad often trades Sim movies for geocaching.  Dad will allow two hours of sedentary movie watching if Sim agrees to a reasonable time outdoors, or a moderate geocaching hike.

After the movie, they decided to go to the “next closest” geocache, which turned out to be “The Cache on Pooh Corner”.  On the search, they found themselves at the end of a cul-de-sac somewhere between Walnut Creek and Lafayette.

And beyond that lay a staircase that led to a different and previously unknown world.  Stepping out of suburban reality, they found themselves on rolling hills of emerald and gold, with Mount Diablo hovering in the distance.  They had discovered Acalanes Ridge Open Space, managed by the Walnut Creek Department Open Space and Trails division. As with many of their adventures, Sim sprinted (uphill, at length) away from Dad, and found the cache almost immediately.  But the real discovery was how discovering a landscape they had ignored until now.

Next time: How SimDad went spelunking in Oakland; and Why SimDad chose not to walk across the widest highway in existence to reach some wetlands.

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