The First State's geocaching community uses satellite technology and a little know-how for a fun and fascinating hobby.
Although they’ve not discovered lost cities or uncovered the tombs of long-dead pharaohs, Delaware’s treasure hunters can be a pretty adventuresome lot.
They’re not after gold and silver. They’re on a quest, seeking the thrill of the hunt – and they’re looking right in our backyards.
These modern-day explorers are geocachers, everyday folk who use modern technology to find objects others have hidden.
“I heard about geocaching in 2009 when a friend who was a Boy Scout leader mentioned it to me,” said Christine McKinney of Bear. “I found my first geocache only two miles from my house. I was hooked!”
The word “geocache” is a portmanteau, combining “geography” and “cache,” i.e., a place to store supplies. It has come to mean a real-world treasure-hunting game. The players use satellites GPS receivers to locate a set of coordinates on the globe and then try to find a purposely hidden object nearby.
The game gained some local notoriety recently when a particular geocache – a plastic prescription bill bottle wrapped in camouflage duct tape – caused a brief suspicious object scare at Dover’s Schutte Park.
Most don’t cause that kind of excitement, unless you happen to be a geocacher yourself.
“Delaware has quite a few nice geocaches, including some in Brecknock Park and the St. Jones Reserve,” noted Dover’s Dominic Morrell.
They’re all family friendly and finding them can make for a great afternoon of enjoyable adventure, he said.
And there’s really no physical value to geocaches, which can take the form of everything from the Schutte Park pill container to a stylized cartoon ladybug, Morrell added: their real worth is the fun finding them.
“Many caches take you to some very nice places, but others are very interesting in the manner in which they’re hidden,” he said. A good example is a cache in the Felton area, where the key to solving the puzzle is locating a particular tree.
“A rope is tied to the bottom branches, and when you untie the knot, the cache is lowered out of the tree,” Morrell said.
Morrell has found more than 700 geocaches since taking up the hobby in February 2013.
‘Not the find, but the journey’
Geocaching start until 2000, when geopositioning satellites, previously used only in military applications, were opened up for civilian use.
It was a watershed moment, said Christy Weckner, a spokeswoman for Groundspeak, a Seattle-based company that runs the geocaching.com website.
The hobby took off when a man in Oregon hid a container, posted the coordinates on the Internet, and challenged people to find it, Weckner said.
“Someone did, three days later,” she said.
The idea blossomed when Jeremy Irish, president of Groundspeak, had the thought of listing coordinates online.
“It just started as a listing, but it grew and grew,” Weckner said.
There were 75 listings in the first year; as of 2015, there are more than 2.6 million caches worldwide. The United States and Germany have the greatest number, she said.
But finding a cache is not as simple as checking a website, and putting coordinates into a cell phone app or commercially-available GPS receiver, she said.
Weckner is a dedicated geocacher. “You don’t just go to a location and immediately find one,” she said. “You have to look around for it. Sometimes you have to solve puzzles.”
“The fun is not just the find but the journey to it,” she said. “Looking for a geocache takes you to places where you’ve maybe had no idea about what’s there.”
Camden’s Joyce Ford, who learned about geocaching four years ago, couldn’t agree more.
“I’ve been to so many places just in Delaware that I never knew existed before,” she said. According to Groundspeak, there are more than 2,900 geocaches in the First State and 471 in Kent County alone.
In addition to geocaching here, Ford has found more than 1,900 caches in six other states and New York, where she took part in a daylong hunt in Central Park.
“It was called ‘Bridges and Arches,’ where you had to visit each arch and each bridge in Central Park,” she said. “You got clues and had to do a math problem to get the coordinates that led you to the geocache.”
The reward was a collectible coin, similar to challenge coins handed out by members of the military – and a little bit more, Ford said.
“You get a smiling face and the right to brag,” she said.
Finding a geocache may be easy or hard, depending on location and the clues left for the discoverer to cipher out.
Beginners may get started by going to geocaching.com, creating an account and then entering location information, such as a ZIP code, for where they want to start.
For the Dover area, the website lists 240 results, showing the cache’s location with information that is entered into a GPS or a phone app.
The website gives clues as to the size of the cache, how difficult it is to find and information about the terrain.
The geocacher then goes to the site and hunts for the prize. They’re not always obvious and often deductive reasoning and careful observations are required, Weckner said.
“Sometimes it’s pretty straightforward, sometimes it’s not,” she said. “Some caches can be pretty creative, where you have to solve puzzles and put things together.”
Geocaches come in all sizes and shapes, and the caches themselves always contain some sort of log, allowing the finder to record his or her find, usually using their online nickname, such as “NatetheGreat” or “BenandJayne.” After finding one, the geocacher posts an online update and moves on to the next.
In addition to the log book, some caches contain trinkets and souvenirs; in these cases the finder is asked to replace it with something of similar value.
Although geocaching sometimes is compared to hunting for pirate treasure, geocaches are not buried. The rules allow them to be hidden, but in such a way they’re accessible, Weckner said. Some may be at the base of a tree in the woods, underneath a set of stairs or, as in Felton, hanging in a tree.
Clues to Dover-area geocaches include descriptions such as “ice cream to wood stoves” (Byler’s Store) and “saluting the fallen” (Sharon Hills Memorial Park).
All caches are put into place by fellow geocachers, Weckner said, and there are some ground rules for assembling one.
“We encourage people to used clearly marked containers, so there’s no question about what it is,” she said. “We also require people to get permission from landowners because of trespassing issues.” Local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders, such as fire departments, also should be told, she said.
Geocaching also can be a social activity, Weckner said, with family members and friends taking part. In one case she’s aware of, a man hid an engagement ring in a geocache for his girlfriend to find, she said. Others hold geocaching parties. Some searches are organized around significant historic or geological sites.
Weckner once took part in a hunt in Hawaii. “It was just beautiful,” she said. “The area going out to the cache was very rocky, and it was a place I’d never have gone otherwise.”
McKinney, whose nickname is “Tabbikat,” has been to Yellowstone National Park, the Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, Tombstone, Ariz., and Louisville.
She seconds Weckner’s observations.
“What I love about geocaching is all of the places I’d never have seen if it wasn’t for caching,” she said. “I love that it’s a hobby that everyone can do and one that gets people outdoors.”
McKinney traveled to Boonsboro, Md., in May for GeoWoodstock XIII, an annual convention of geocachers that brought in more than 4,000 people from all over the world.
“When you see that many geocachers in one spot, you know you’re part of something pretty amazing,” she said.
A Geocaching Trail
Delaware has its own official geocaching trail, sponsored by its tourism office. It features 50 caches throughout the state. As soon as the trail got started the folks at Kent County Tourism decided to follow suit, said Executive Director Cindy Small.
“They had a vision to create a number of trails around popular Delaware assets or activities,” Small said. “When they told us they were going to launch this trail, we thought it would be a cool idea.”
Kent County Tourism decided to place caches in significant locales to bring tourists to the central part of the state.
“It’s a multi-themed trail that has proven popular with Boy Scouts, retirees, couples and families with children,” Small said. “We’ve seen all types of people showing up.”
One cache is directly outside the tourism office on U.S. Route 13, Small said. It contains information about Kent County destinations. It is popular enough the cache has to be constantly replenished.
People from Arkansas to California and from as far away as Australia have visited, she said.
The Schutte Park geocache
While geocaching is fun, the caches can raise concerns for those who don’t know what they are.
On July 11, a Schutte Park staff member discovered an object under a bench and, out of an abundance of caution, called Dover police.
The state police explosives unit quickly determined the cache was harmless, but the event showed that individuals who place caches need to let authorities know about them, said Dover Police Department spokesman Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman.
That was not the case this time, he said.
“It comes down to common sense,” Hoffman said, noting the pill bottle wrapped in camouflage duct tape didn’t have any identification as a cache.
“The thing mimicked a small pipe bomb,” he said. “We don’t want to cause alarm in communities and recreation areas for something that’s essentially a hide-and-seek game.”
Anyone placing a cache should be aware of heightened security issues, Hoffman said.
“We understand that this is a recreational activity and that’s great,” he said. “But individuals need to develop these things in a manner so they don’t appear suspicious.”
Hoffman said no charges were contemplated and the pill bottle would be destroyed.