Kids and Nature

Geocaching in Oakland

December 1, 2012

This is part of an occasional series of posts about the geocaching adventures of Bay Nature intern Paul Epstein and his son.

SimDad went geocaching in Oakland.  One of their objectives was the Dimond Park Creek Cache (GC268RE).  The brief description included a cryptic clue, “[Overhead & Underground] Be prepared to go spelunking. If you’re careful, you shouldn’t get wet (as long as it hasn’t rained for the last few days).”

Sim had never been spelunking, though he certainly had wriggled his way through the chasms of Indian Rock Park in Berkeley.  Dad had gone spelunking long ago, chest deep in mud somewhere underneath the ground in the gold country.  This was still an adventure he recommended to teens and families with teens, though reportedly the mud had diminished as the globe warmed.  Neither one could imagine how they might find caves in an otherwise tame park, surrounded by grid-like residential neighborhoods.

Following the suggestions of those who had gone before, they brought a flashlight, a large, bright confidence-building baton-style flashlight.  They worked their way toward the coordinates, which seemed to lie on the edge of the park.  At this point, Dad imagined that they would get to a sloped hillside or embankment, and work their way into subterranean Oakland.  He supposed that the coordinates didn’t indicate the cache, so much as the entrance to the hidden lair.  Sim was entirely baffled.

When they arrived at the coordinates, they found neither hill, nor embankment, nor staircase.  They were in the middle of a grassy field, trying not to interfere with a group of teens playing Ultimate.  They slowly turned around in a full circle, trying to see what they had missed.  About two hundred feet away, Dad spotted Sausal Creek, trickling stealthily through the park.  But then it vanished.  It never reached their location.  The solution came to him in a flash. Sim – we’re standing right on top of the cache.  Follow me. 

They examined the creek and noted that it dipped underground in a massive culvert, running directly underneath the grassy field, straight in the direction they’d been standing.  There were rough paths down to the water level.  They stood, framed by the circular maw of the culvert.  Do you want to go in there Sim?  Do you?  Sure, let’s do it.  But if it gets unsafe, or too scary, let’s leave.  OK. 

At first, Dad led the way.  But Sim’s shaky work with the flashlight made Dad dizzy and seasick, so they switched.  Sim spotted a scary graffito of a skeleton, so they switched again.  Dad walked directly through a spider web, thus validating the maxim, “The only way to truly know a man’s character is to watch him walk through a spider web unawares.”  They had gone 25 feet, Sim with his croc-encased feet right in the water, Dad straddling the stream.  Checking the GPS, they noted that it didn’t work there.  They had to either search the entire tunnel, or estimate very accurately where they had been standing before.

Eventually, the spiders, the cramped conditions, the scary painting and the deep darkness motivated SimDad to retreat.  They posted a note: didn’t find the cache.  But we know where to look.  And Dad added it to his “return some day” list.

As they left, Dad reflected on culverts and creeks, a hot and very local topic.  This experience really brought the issue into kinesthetic awareness.  They had touched the darkness and chosen to leave.  And, they had had a truly glorious “not safe” moment.  In modern society, most kid-approved activities are either safe, or bound by extensive waivers.  This was not “unsafe”, but for a brief moment, SimDad experienced the “wild” – being in a situation of unknowns, out of apparent control.

Epilogue: A few weeks later, SimDad (and a couple hundred other people) arrived at the same location to observe Tashlich, an annual Jewish ritual associated with the High Holidays, in which the celebrant throws a piece of bread into a live body of water, symbolizing the casting off of sins.  One of the officiating rabbis, apparently a Friend of Sausal Creek, emphasized that while everyone should complete the ritual, and everyone should acknowledge, respect and enjoy the creek, it was actually not healthy for the creek to be loaded with two hundred soggy bread sponges.  He urged the congregation to complete tashlich with a minute speck of bread, and assured them that this was approved by the Talmud.

As the congregation gathered round the creek, eyebrows shot up as Sim led a band of kids down the embankment to the entrance of the culvert.  None of the other parents could imagine that their kids would want to, or would ever, wander into a stream culvert.  Sim already had.

Next time: The mystery of the marshes.

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