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Geocachers breathe new life into old pastime

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Ducking under branches and hopping over downed logs, Hayley Phillips pushed forward through the woods.

The GPS unit in her hands pointed her in the right direction, counting down the distance to her goal until she should have been standing right over it. Her father, Mitch Phillips, was close behind.

Now the fun began. Hayley, 13, poked into hollowed-out tree stumps, under piles of dead leaves and behind a grouping of rocks looking for her goal.

“Found it,” she shouted, pulling a green ammo box from a half-rotted log.

Hayley and others who love the game of geocaching know that getting to the prize is only half the challenge. The outdoors-based adventure game makes people see their communities in a new way, one in which a prize can be hidden in a log in the woods or attached to a lamppost or behind a row of businesses.

“The treasure isn’t what you find, but the experience of getting it,” Mitch Phillips said. “We don’t do this to get anything in particular, just as a way to get outdoors and have fun.”

Geocaching combines high-tech gadgetry with an old-fashioned scavenger hunt. People use GPS devices to find stockpiles hidden in parks, around schools and behind businesses. Most contain a log book, where people can record their successes.

In Johnson County, more than 800 caches are hidden, including in Franklin’s downtown square, the Suds in downtown Greenwood and around Prince’s Lakes.

Government upgrades to the worldwide satellite positioning system made the technology more accessible to the general public and allowed people to find an exact location, down to a few feet, nearly anywhere on earth.

The center of the game is geocaching.com, a Web site where players can find cache coordinates, record their finds and talk with other enthusiasts. They can track their statistics, down to the county each cache was found in and the most successful day of week to find them.

More than 1.5 million caches are tracked on the site, serving the estimated 5 million geocache enthusiasts around the world.

‘You have to get outside’

Greenwood resident Jeni Smith was introduced to geocaching four years ago. Since she was an avid fan of the outdoors, a friend suggested she try the game.

Smith purchased a basic GPS device and started looking for hidden caches around her home. Her initial attempts didn’t go well.

Her device would get her to the approximate area, but in order to find the hiding place, she had to hunt over the terrain to find what could be as small as a matchbook or aspirin bottle.

“I didn’t find my first 17,” she said. “When they said it was a treasure hunt, I thought it’d be something you’d find in a treasure chest. Obviously, that wasn’t the case.”

The challenge for any beginner is developing “geo-sense,” or the ability to spot potential hiding spots. Piles of leaves that don’t look like they’ve fallen naturally and a stack of sticks that stands out are classic indicators of a hidden cache.

“We can spot a hole in a tree from 80 feet away and just know that’s where it’s hidden,” Smith said.

Geocaching can be done alone. All people need is a GPS device, and they can wander the woods all they want.

But while geocaching provides a chance to get outdoors, many people do it for the sense of community that has emerged around it. Local participants have picnics and gatherings to share stories, team up on finds and connect a face to a digital name.

“The beauty of it is it’s a technological game that makes you get up from behind your computer and meet others,” Smith said. “Most of the planning is done on a computer, but you have to get outside to play it.”

‘Challenge of the hunt’

Smith met Vicki Alden, a Greenfield area player, at an Indianapolis gathering. Since then the two have become friends, teaming up to search for local caches on the weekends.

Alden became involved with the game through a former boyfriend then continued to do it on her own. Though it seemed boring at first, the opportunity to find these hidden caches proved to be a rewarding mission.

“I like the challenge of the hunt — these things are hidden very well or they’re camouflaged. I’m one of those people who enjoy being able to say I found it,” she said.

Technology is the driving force behind the game, and improvements have opened it up to a wide range.

When people had to buy a $150 GPS device, it was a considerable investment to make in something you weren’t even sure you were going to like, Smith said.

But the smartphone has changed the sport, she said. Most phones now have GPS capabilities and can receive e-mails in real time. Most new caches that go up around Greenwood are found for the first time within 15 minutes, Smith said.

“Back in the old days, you didn’t know a cache had been hidden until you went home and checked your e-mail,” she said. “Now they come in real time. As soon as it’s up, you know about it.”

Shared pastime

Mitch Phillips, a self-professed techno-gadget enthusiast, learned about the game from a friend and started investigating it online. But it wasn’t until he bought a smartphone and downloaded the free geocaching program that he started paying closer attention.

One day, as he was driving his daughter home from Center Grove Middle School Central, his phone beeped, indicating a cache was nearby. They decided to take advantage of a nice afternoon and work together to find it and five others.

Since starting six months ago, Mitch and Hayley Phillips have recorded more than 200 finds.

“I have a lot of interest in technology, just like my dad, and this was something we could do together,” Hayley said.

Part of the appeal is the wide range of games within the game, Jeni Smith said. People create puzzles, riddles and competitions to be completed along the hunt.

One of the most recent ones Hayley and Mitch Phillips completed took them along a five-cache trail, including finding caches hidden in a cracked fire hydrant, stuck in a brick wall, and on the grounds of the White River library.

Alden remembers an unusual cache named “Gone Fishing.” The cache was hidden in a length of PVC pipe sunk into the ground. When she unscrewed the top, she found a fishing pole with a hook. She had to try and snag the cache at the bottom with the hook.

“You had to fish for it. It was very clever and gave you something to do once you got there,” she said.

Other people hide trackables in their caches. The specialized game pieces are marked with a logging number, and the first person to hide them can start a Web page devoted entirely to its journey.

People leave instructions for the trackable, allowing it to be moved from one location to the next until it eventually reaches its intended destination.

“It’s kind of like living vicariously through an inanimate object,” Smith said. “I can’t make it to Hawaii, but I can send this little hula girl in a series of caches to be carried there by other people.”

‘It’s pretty cool’

Often, geocachers use the game to bring people to unique areas in the communities, Smith said. The caches might be near a historical marker or a unique landscape such as a waterfall.

“If you were just a casual observer, you wouldn’t know it’s there, unless a cache took you there,” she said.

Smith and Alden recently completed a challenge called “The Journal.”

The creator had hidden a series of clues over 15 miles of park land in central Illinois, and players were expected to decipher codes and figure out puzzles in order to follow the trail.

Smith and her friends climbed down into gorges, splashed through creeks and pushed through the wilderness to meet their goal. One error had them cutting their way through vegetation and required them to backtrack for two hours.

But when the final clue had been solved and they could sign the log recording their names for good, the feeling was unmatched.

“I’m very directionally challenged, so I think it’s pretty cool that I wouldn’t know if I’m going north, south, east or west, but I can still find these caches, that I could find one of these containers the size of an aspirin bottle in the middle of a shelter house in a busy park,” Smith said.


Learn about GPS treasure hunts at an Introduction to Geocaching event.

The public is invited to find out about geocaching at 4 p.m. Sunday at Resurrection Lutheran Church, 445 E. Stop 11 Road, Indianapolis.

The session will include an introductory presentation to explain geocaching to newcomers. Veteran geocachers are encouraged to attend to share their stories and to help serve as guides for newcomers.

After the presentation, participants will form teams and hunt for temporary geocaches hidden specifically for this event. All caches will be within walking distance and will be planned to expose newcomers to a variety of different types of hides.

After hunting for a while, participants will return to the church at 6 p.m. for pizza and sharing stories.

Newcomers are encouraged to bring a GPS receiver if they have one or a smartphone. A handout will be available on how to use a smartphone for geocaching.

An expert may be able to answer questions about GPS receivers.

Information: 919-4058


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