September 19, 2010

Trail & Error: Surprised by treasures of geocaching

By Shannon Bryan
Staff Writer

Geocaching is hiking through the woods in search of something you never lost.

click image to enlarge

Shannon Bryan records her find in a logbook as her geocaching friends look through the cache contents.

Wendy Almeida/Staff Writer


UNLIKE the "anything goes" attitude of the pirate, geocaching has rules. These vary by site, but include things like keeping caches off private property and ensuring the cache location and its contents don't interfere with the surroundings.

FOR MORE more information on geocaching or to get started, check out any of these sites:

It's also a treasure hunt of sorts, even if the so-called treasure is nothing more than the opportunity to say "I was here" in a small logbook.

Less than a decade old, the high-tech hide-and-seek game has lured people into parks, down dirt roads and into well traveled city squares around the world. They're searching for a geocache -- typically a lunchbox-sized container with a logbook inside and sometimes other booty like small trinkets or toys.

The discoveries aren't exactly what the sword-swinging pirates of history were usually after, but geocaching is less about the plunder and more about the pilgrimage.

The ragged-edged treasure map of yesteryear has been replaced by a GPS (global positioning system), which uses satellite technology that's accurate to within 9 feet and doesn't smudge the navigational hints under dirty pirate fingers.

My colleague Wendy Almeida and her two daughters, all well versed in the game, offered to take me on my first geocaching adventure, up the steep inclines of Camden Hills State Park.

Cache locations are listed on a variety of international sites, such as Members are able to set up profiles, post cache locations of their own, gather the coordinates for hidden caches and post their experiences ("Great cache!" Or sometimes, "Did not find.")

Since I'd never toyed with a GPS before, Almeida handed over her device and allowed me to enter in the latitude and longitude coordinates for the half-dozen caches on our list for the day. The technology used by handheld receivers is the same that enables your in-car Garmin to tell you to "turn right in 800 feet," though off-road meandering is less precise. Users are unlikely to hear their receiver whisper among the overlooking trees, "Follow dirt trail to big rock. Turn left."

In my hand, the contraption felt like a clunky cell phone of decades past. I scrolled through the icons on the small screen -- "Mark" and "Tracks" and "Proximity" -- and realized this is what it must feel like when my technology-avoiding father tries to make a phone call with his new BlackBerry, especially when I had to be corrected for holding it upside down.

With our impending destinations entered, we swung our backpacks over our shoulders and started up Megunticook Trail toward the top of the mountain.

On a zigzagging trail, a blend of compass-following and common sense is in order. The GPS may point northwest, while the marked trail bends east. But the trail map indicated we'd end up where we needed to be, so there was no inclination to dive headlong into the woods, especially in a state park where bushwhacking is discouraged.

After a few trail stops to drink some water, I saw the GPS was finally giving distance in feet rather than miles. Onward we clambered, up the steep staircase of rocks leading to the mountain's peak. Finally the trees gave way to open sky and our exhausted legs felt the relief of a flat landing.

The cache we'd fought gravity to find was called Shaping the Hills. Unlike traditional container-based geocaches, Shaping the Hills is an EarthCache. The intent is to locate a unique geological feature rather than a hidden box.

The EarthCache description directed us to glacial striations scarring the rocky top of the mountain. "The passing of the glacier some 22,000 years ago finally shaped the mountains in the park. ... Glacial striations or glacial grooves are scratches or gouges cut into bedrock by process of glacial abrasion."

Sure enough, as the digits on the GPS dropped into the teens, we could see an array of shallow scratches in the rock -- like Mother Nature's scraped knee. I'd been to Mount Megunticook's peak in the past. And I'd spent ample time loitering in the open air, watching specks of boats in Camden Harbor below. I'd followed the dipping and soaring of a hawk in the valley between mountains and I'd let my gaze stretch over the seemingly endless rolling green to the west. But I'd never noticed the lines under my feet, a glacial signature left thousands of years ago when this mountain was draped in ice rather than heavy summer sun.

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