“We’re looking for treasure, like a treasure box,” Robin Eisenbeis of Cary says, as much for my kids’ benefit as mine. Her husband, Charlie, is walking beside her, looking at his phone; he stops at what seems like an arbitrary spot on the paved trail in Cary’s Bond Park and gestures into the woods. We’re near the geocache, his app tells him. We just need to look for it in the woods.
The forest floor is soggy with recent rain, and my two daughters – Sarah, 4, and Lucy, 2 – scamper just ahead. They dodge patches of muddy leaves and skirt brambles as Charlie glances again at his phone. Sarah spots it in a hollow tree – an ammo canister, army green. Charlie helps her take it out and we open it. Toys! Charlie signs the log while the girls select their treasures: a jeweled plastic ring for Sarah and a rubber frog for Lucy.
Then, in the spirit of geocaching, we leave something. Sarah scribbles a picture with my pen. It goes in the ammo box, and the cache goes back exactly where we found it.
Geocaching started in May 2000, after a change in GPS-related laws made privately owned devices more accurate. Cachers started hiding ammo boxes and sharing their GPS coordinates. With time, it became more complex. Today there are urban caches, magnetic caches stuck to signs or hidden under lamppost skirts, and puzzle caches. And there are about 2.5 million geocaches and 6 million geocachers worldwide. In Bond Park alone, Charlie says, there are some 25 caches.
The world through new eyes
What sets all those geocachers tromping through the woods, searching for hidden ammo boxes? For Charlie, Robin and other local geocachers, it offers a new way to see the world around them – and a new layer to everything from their regular workday commutes to international travel.
“I’ve cached in 11 countries and have taken numerous geocaching road trips around the United States,” says Linda Roberts of Durham. “I’ve even found a geocache at the Taj Mahal.” She started in 2005, innocently enough, because her energetic new lab puppy needed lots of walks. Now this Scout leader takes her Girl Scouts geocaching and plans vacations around the activity. She remembers one expedition with friends that took her across the U.S. and into Canada – and she remembers the customs agent’s priceless response.
“He said, ‘Basically, you drove all the way from North Carolina to Alberta to have dinner in Winnipeg?’” she says. “And we’re like, ‘Kind of.’”
Levels of difficulty
Though Roberts and the Eisenbeises have geocached worldwide – and though there are caches on Easter Island and at the North Pole, Charlie notes – one doesn’t have to leave the Piedmont to hunt for treasure: U.S. 15-501 between Pittsboro and Sanford is lined with them, and urban caches are hidden at shopping centers all over.
Charlie brings us to a Lowes Foods in Cary to demonstrate. In a hole in a brick just behind the store there’s a “nano cache,” smaller than your thumb, disguised under a small concrete plug. Inside is a tiny spool of paper, which Charlie signs with his caching handle before putting it back where he found it.
“That’s one of mine!” Moncure’s Lonnie Drain exclaims when I mention it to him later.
Drain has earned the nickname “Dr. Evil” for hiding difficult caches – many of them underground, in storm drains or up in trees. He isn’t alone in such creativity. A police officer in Fuquay-Varina has a cache requiring the finder to first retrieve a star screwdriver, while a cache in Sugg Park in Holly Springs is opened by a balloon-activated switch. There was one, the Eisenbeises recall, with missing numbers in the 15-digit GPS code. To find these, the cacher had to visit a nearby graveyard and read the last digit on a certain person’s date of death, and so on.
Looking for new things
The Eisenbeises have made similar caches for their children, some even based on homework math problems. As part of their daughter Dorrit’s 9th birthday party, they gave her a container and went into the woods to hide it.
The whole family geocaches together – in addition to Dorrit, now 13, there’s Lydia, 17, Oliver, 19, and their soft coated wheaten terrier, Fender – and everywhere they go they’re looking in hollow stumps, under lampposts and behind shopping centers for little treasure boxes.
Robin says the activity is a great stress release for Charlie, an oncologist, and a fun bonding activity for the family.
“When we’re traveling we’ll pull off the road for a rest stop and there’s a cache hidden nearby,” Charlie says. “We find them every time when we’re on vacation.”
“It makes traveling more fun,” Robin says. “Instead of just going to a destination, you’re looking for things along the way.”
Want to geocache?
What is geocaching: An outdoor hunt for hidden objects using GPS coordinates and other clues posted on a website.
How to start: Visit geocaching.com to create a free account. Download the smart phone app (available for Apple, Google Play or Windows) .
Essential gear: A smart phone or a GPS device. The beginner-level smart phone app is free, though a more advanced app, which includes more challenging caches, costs $9.99.