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Caching in

High-Tech Treasure Hunts Across Texas
Written by Andrea Abel. Photographs by Michael Amador.

A cacher at the 2013 Texas Challenge in Port Aransas finds treasure among palm fronds on West Cotter Avenue. The 2014 event takes place in Bastrop. (Photos by Michael Amador)

If my husband, John, buys a gadget, he’s going to use it. Trust me. All the more if the gadget has to do with the outdoors. When the first GPSr (global position system receiver) device entered our home in 2006, I admit that I eyed the gizmo with skepticism, wondering if it would add to general travel claptrap. But the device won me over the first time we used it as a family. On a chilly December vacation to snowy Minnesota, John proposed an outdoor geocaching treasure hunt along a nature trail near his sister’s home. Of course the adults were game. But, the techno-intrigue even pried my sister-in-law’s teenage boys away from various screens and all-day vacation slumber. Our Texas girls—who don’t exactly cotton to cold weather—hiked for more than an hour deciphering clues on the GPS and uncovering the caches with their cousins.

Geocaching is now a part of just about all of our outings, from camping and international vacations to soccer tournaments and running weekend errands.

What exactly is geocaching? It is a high-tech global hunt to find outdoor treasures—called geocaches, caches, or hides—using a GPS device or a GPS-enabled smart phone. The hidden containers can range from the oft-used loaf-of-bread-sized ammo box to micro-caches created out of old film containers or even smaller ones the size of a pencil eraser. Inside a standard geocache will be a logbook or sheets of paper, a writing utensil, and sometimes small trinkets. Caches can be found in congested urban settings or in natural areas like state parks.

A GPS device is essential geocaching gear. After the thrill of locating the geocache, the cacher signs the log with his or her geocaching handle, which is registered on the official geocaching website, www.geocaching.com. Small trinkets often look like those toys included in child-size, fast-food meals, or plastic rings, beads, or coins. Taking a trinket is optional, but the rule of the sport is take a trinket, add a trinket. So, come prepared. Also, writing utensils are apt to disappear or run out of ink. Bring your own just to be safe.

Virtual caches work well in places like national parks that don’t allow physical caches to be placed onsite. These require finding particular coordinates then following instructions to answer a question about the location, taking a photo, or completing some other task, which is then emailed to the cache’s creator.

No matter the type of cache, you must log onto your www.geocaching.com account to get credit for your find. To give an idea of the sport’s magnitude, geocaching.com just recorded the two millionth geocache placed on the planet.

Until recently, John piloted our geocaching adventures, and the rest of us followed, gathering trinkets before a hike, searching under rocks, park benches, logs, and in tree hollows for caches, and testing our knowledge of riddles, trivia, and history. With all the other tasks that go into planning family outings and vacations, I didn’t have time for the additional geocaching prep required to search and download caches.

My smart phone and a geocaching app changed this for me—no extra device to remember; no planning ahead. At least partly. While the app enables me to look for caches on a familiar screen whenever the whim strikes, it won’t work in remote areas with no cell service, and I don’t have an international cell phone plan.

I owe my new “can-do” attitude and enthusiasm toward geocaching to an adrenaline-pumping, convivial mega-event called the Texas Challenge. On a windy April morning, John and I find ourselves at Texas Challenge XI, which is teeming with roughly 600 participants gathered at Port Aransas’ Roberts Point Park. Heart pounding, hand tightly clutching the scorecard, and head swirling with new rules and terminology, I await the start signal for the four-hour competitive geocaching event, hoping to find a respectable number of the 144 caches that the Hide Team surreptitiously stashed under the cover of night throughout Port A’s beaches, parks, neighborhoods, and commercial district.

The Texas Challenge is a three-day extravaganza—held in a different location every year—where cachers of all levels can compete (or not), socialize, browse the latest in trinkets and gear, and swap caching stories. The four-hour Saturday competition is the event’s centerpiece, where teams and individuals vie to score the most points by finding cleverly hidden caches. It’s a terrific way to get acquainted with geocaching surrounded by plenty of friendly, knowledgeable folks eager to get newbies like me hooked on the sport.

The Monty Python-themed human cache on the 2013 Texas Challenge eventually relented. John and I land on the laid-back Central Texas Team by way of geography. Team captain Tom Brotherman, aka Electric Water Boy, explains his two rules for being on the team: “Be reasonably safe and have fun!” Team Southeast Texas, with their hot-pink T-shirts and matching bandanas, engages in an intense-looking strategy meeting, making me think they are a bit more competitive than we are. The crowd is a veritable melting pot of Texans, out-of-state participants, and even international visitors, including families with small kiddos and people of all ages and physical abilities. I marvel at the clever geocaching names, or handles, that cachers devise, like Mrs. Captain Picard and The Caching Dead. Just as diverse are the reasons that attract cachers to the sport: exercise, competition, recreation, and companionship.

Waiting for the official 10 a.m. start, I calm my nerves by seeking tips and advice from fellow cachers. Mrs. Captain Picard advises, “I recommend the ‘stick-poking method’—using a walking stick to poke around for a cache to avoid thorns, stickers, and venomous snake bites.”

We receive some last-minute safety instructions and information about different types of caches, including notoriously difficult-to-find “evil caches,” one of which may or may not be disguised as a rattlesnake, and other entertaining themed human caches. I hear, “Don’t dismantle any sprinkler heads—there are no sprinkler-head caches.” Apparently, clever cachers sometimes assemble hides in non-functioning sprinkler heads along with decoy knobs, dials, utility boxes, plumbing fixtures, road reflectors, artificial plants, and you name it. Creativity counts in this sport!

Before I know it, De Vickery, then the Texas Geocaching Association President, yells, “GO!” into the bullhorn, and by the hundreds we scatter like an exploding firecracker in a flurry of bicycles, electric golf carts, cars, and on-foot hoofers.

Armed with the Texas Challenge cache coordinates downloaded onto John’s GPS unit and our official score-cards, we decide to espouse the “no plan” plan and head to Port Aransas Nature Preserve at Charlie’s Pasture. I wish I had Mrs. Captain Picard’s walking stick to look into the thick undergrowth. We hike the trails, a bit frustrated by our first few unsuccessful attempts to find difficult caches. Later, we realize that we failed to follow a basic caching tenet to look for the “geotrail”—the path made by numerous previous cachers walking through grass or shrubs to the sweet spot.

But then, just then, that pinnacle moment of success arrives. Reading the clues, I find an easy cache tucked into a simulated boulder placed in a garden of rocks and succulents. For a mega-event, caches don’t contain logbooks or trinkets. Each cache contains a uniquely shaped paper punch that corresponds to a specific number on the official scorecard. I relish checking that first punch on my scorecard more than I had anticipated.

We scamper along a boardwalk and soon encounter one of the themed human caches, a man costumed as the Black Knight à la Monty Python. He beckons us to joust with foam swords, and we soon realize that the Black Knight actually is a cache. True to the British comedic character, the knight’s left arm falls off in the sword fight, revealing another paper punch to add to our growing tally!

Find caches and geocaching classes at Texas state parks.Remembering Electric Water Boy’s observation that the previous Texas Challenge winner focused on easy “park and grab” style caches, John and I head toward Port A’s commercial hub and run into the affable caching duo of Michael King, aka Seeker of Seasons, and current TXGA president Brent Kitchens, aka Log Dawgs, who pull up as we are looking for a cache in a parking-lot patch of palms. These guys are cache-savvy and good-natured enough to share tips with us as we follow the same rapid-fire sequence of park-and-grab caches in the commercial district, each time adding a differently shaped hole punch to our card. “Look for something out of the ordinary that can fool a normal person but you would recognize it quickly as a geocacher,” advises Brent, like a slightly different color or texture. “On trees, we look at the base of the tree for piles of bark, leaves, sticks, or debris.  Look up at branches at eye level.”

\A block away, Michael scores an especially tricky find among the chunks of concrete at the base of a formidable dolphin statue: a cache hidden inside a plastic Easter egg covered in concrete. How did he find it? Brent later reports, “We looked for a different color concrete. The concrete had been there for a while, but the cache was a shade different. Also, the concrete chunk had a line down the middle to be able to open the egg. That was a difficult one.” Caching is all in the details.

From there, we head to the beach, encountering along the way a time-travel phone (an interactive cache) that leads us to none other than fully attired Dr. Who and his sonic screwdriver—another cache. We find an easy cache hidden in a pile of oyster shells close to the jetty. But, my favorite cache of the day is a decoy pedestrian crosswalk button fashioned out of a small Thermos with the Aerosmith clue “Walk This Way.”

Four hours is too short for the competition; I am just getting into the groove, and we’ve only covered a fraction of the island. Before I know it, the challenge has ended. But the mega-event is far from over. We grab a bite to eat as the organizers tally each participant’s score, a complicated process where caches are awarded different point values based on difficulty.

Next up is the awards ceremony. The North Texas team lands the top prize—the Golden Ammo Can trophy—and, believe it or not, an 11-year-old walks away with the top individual trophy. Tonight is a beach barbecue bash. Tomorrow morning, cachers will gather for a CITO (cache in trash out), an honored tradition in the geocaching community to leave parks and other caching sites cleaner than when they arrived.

Look for me, aka foodiecacher, and John, aka GeoGaon, at Texas Challenge XII in Bastrop. I’m pretty sure we’re hooked.

 

 

Texas Challenge

The Texas Challenge XII will be held March 22, 2014, in Bastrop (GC1BA88). For more on Port Aransas (the location of the 2013 event), contact the Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce, 361/749-5919 or 800/45-COAST.

Getting Started is Easy:

Plenty of caches can be found nearly within arm’s reach of a parking spot, making geocaching a terrific activity for people of all physical abilities. Be mindful of private property.

Get the basics and watch introductory videos at the official geocaching website. Create a free geocaching handle and account. Caches are identified by their Geocaching Coordinate, or GC.

Texas Geocaching Association (TXGA) is a terrific source for upcoming Texas events and the TXGA Cache of the Week. Register online for access to forums and blogs or to become a member of this all-volunteer organization.

Learn geocaching basics and how to use a GPS receiver unit at a one- to two-hour Geocaching 101 workshop taught at Texas state parks. Equipment provided.

Have a smart phone? Download a free introductory app or the full app for $9.99. There is more than one app out there. Look for the official Geocaching icon.

Hooked and ready to learn more? Subscribe to Texas-based FTF Geocacher magazine.

Texas State Parks Geocaching Challenge

Download the Texas State Parks Geocache Passport to log more than 150 caches hidden specifically for the ongoing geocache challenge in about 90 parks throughout the state. Earn prizes after finding 10, 20, 30 caches or more in this self-paced contest. Texas state parks are great places to begin your geocaching adventure with more than 1,400 geocaches of all sizes and skill levels hidden within their borders.

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