Illustration by Kathy Boake
Amongst a thicket of aspen trees, Jason Frank and his three-year-old son, Matthias, are clearly searching for something. Lifting fallen logs and carefully checking around the bases of the trees, they movemethodically up a slope.
“Muggle,” warns Carly, Matthias’s mom standing several metres away, gently rocking the stroller where six-month-old Heidi sleeps. She has spotted a nearby walker on the paved trail.
The family is hunting for geocaches, or “treasure,” as Matthias calls it.
A ping comes from the Franks’s handheld GPS, letting the family know that they have reached Ground Zero; the treasure is within a couple of metres. Matthias furrows his brow as he earnestly looks. His dad spots it first, and directs the child toward a plastic container, tucked behind a fallen tree.
Geocaching is a real-world game that uses GPS coordinates to pinpoint the location of hidden containers, placed all around the globe by an online community of geocachers. As the location technology is integrated into ever more devices, phones especially, the number of geocaching explorers has grown to more than four million people worldwide.
Bruce Lakusta started geocaching about 10 years ago after buying his wife a GPS receiver for Christmas. The couple are amazed at the number of caches in and around the city – about 5,000 – and that there’s one hidden in almost every neighbourhood.
“It is kind of neat when you realize that there’s all these geocaches in places that you’ve regularly been
to,” Lakusta says.
Recently, Lakusta has been using his iPhone and the Geocaching app by Groundspeak Inc. to track caches. When he and his wife, Elaine, geocache together they’ve found her GPS is no more accurate. “Most of the time, I’ll find the cache before she does,” he says. Lakusta also loves the user-friendliness of the app, saying “I’ll just bring up the app and click ‘find geocaches near here,’ and then it will guide you to it.”
And it’s just as easy with a GPS receiver: Enter your address on geocaching.com, and it plots all the caches near you on a map. Once you’ve found a treasure you wish to hunt, you can either manually enter the coordinates into your device, or download them directly to it.
Geocaches vary in size. They could be as small as a hollowed-out pine cone or large ammo cans. You’ll find them hidden behind everyday street furniture in Churchill Square or under a spruce tree on Groat Road. There’s even one near an old steam tractor by a south-side science park.
From the container the Franks found, Jason takes the logbook – even the smallest caches have one – jotting down the date, his geocaching name and “TFTH” (short for “thanks for the hunt”). When he gets home, he’ll also log their discovery on the website. Their find is just one of the 180,000 caches that are logged on an average day around the world.
Meanwhile, Matthias is contemplating if he’d like any of the trinkets inside the cache. There can be small plastic toys, stickers, mini-flashlights, pretty much anything as long as it’s family-friendly and legal. Matthias decides he’d like to take one of the plastic toys, so Jason, explaining that they have to trade, pulls out a swag bag filled with treasures of their own. After some consideration, Matthias decides which item he’ll give up in the exchange. The new plaything, after boastfully showing it to Carly, is concealed in his jacket’s zippered “treasure pocket.”
Along with the trinkets, some caches also contain a “trackable.” Rod Murray, who has been geocaching since 2010, explains that Trackables are uniquely identified items that are on missions to travel from one cache to another. The journey is logged on the geocaching website each time it’s picked up and dropped off at a cache.
“Some of them have been out there years and years and have been all over the world,” says Murray. They can travel very quickly, especially when a cacher is going on holiday in the next week or so. One trackable, whose journey Murray started in Edmonton, “was in Australia within a very short time.”
Murray has stashed about 65 caches around town, seeing it as a way of giving back to the community. “If no one hides them, then there’s nothing to find,” he says. He also relishes in the exploration geocaching offers. “It’s taken me down so many trails that I didn’t even know existed.”
Jason Frank shuts the container and returns it behind the tree, making sure it’s out of sight from the trail. He marks the cache as “found” on his GPS, and it alerts him of another cache nearby. An arrow on screen points the way. “It’s like a local person saying, ‘Hey, come here and look at this neat piece of park or this view that I’ve discovered,'” he says.
As they approach the next cache, they stop to look around. In the centre of the city, looking for hidden treasure in a park they hadn’t explored before, they’ve discovered another secret.
Jason takes in a perfect view of the city’s skyline. “This is awesome.”
Don’t have GPS? Try Letterboxing
In 1854, rambling man, James Perrott, hid a bottle in a stone cairn beside a hard-to-reach pool in southern England. A guidebook mentioned the cache and soon people swarmed to the site, leaving messages behind for future visitors. The idea went viral and “letterboxes” popped up all over the surrounding moorland, their locations described in terms of natural landmarks, rather than geocaching’s numerical coordinates. With just 24 letterboxes hidden in the Edmonton area, the root of geocaching may not be as popular, but it is simply more accessible. Visit letterboxing.org to find one near you.