Though the days of Blackbeard and Calico Jack sailing the high seas are long gone, those who still feel the pull of treasure hunting are in luck.
Geocaching is the modern-day version of hiding and searching for treasure, but today’s “pirate” has to share where “X” marks the spot by posting online the latitude and longitude of the hiding place. Instead of relying on nautical charts, treasure hunters use their GPS devices.
Geocaching (“geo” for Earth or geography and “cache” for hiding place) started May 3, 2000, and the worldwide Internet-based game that merges modern technology with the outdoors has grown and evolved ever since. Geocaching.com, a popular site for enthusiasts, announced its one millionth active geocache in early March and now has more than 1,040,000 posted.
Even if you’re not familiar with geocaching, you’ve most likely stumbled by or across a cache somewhere in Maine. Have you ever walked through the Bangor City Forest or visited Hunters Beach on Mount Desert Island? Caches are hidden there. You may have sat on a bench in Portland that had a nanocache hidden beneath it or have spotted a camouflaged ammo box hanging in a tree in Orono.
The state’s first cache was placed Jan. 2, 2001 in southern Maine, and today more than 5,500 active caches are spread across every county, according to geocachingmaine.org. They come in a variety of sizes — depending on the cache container — and can fit just about anywhere. Nanocaches, for example, are about the size of the end of your pinkie and are placed in guardrails or behind street signs. Old ammo boxes can be placed in trees, under a pile of logs or beneath a bridge. It’s all up to the ingenuity of the person who hides the cache, and for most seasoned geocachers, the more challenging a hide is, the better.
For Mike Marino of Bangor “it’s the sense of the adventure, the treasure” that draws him to caching. “The attraction is a little bit like ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘[National] Treasure’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’” said Marino who has been geocaching for about a year and a half. “I seem to encounter all kinds of adventure when I’m on the trail,” he said, including a “too friendly bear” and injured people in the woods.
He’s not alone. The thrill is there for many, but there are other reasons people search for treasure.
In the beginning, geocaching was more popular among technology buffs. When the U.S. government turned off the GPS Selective Availability, allowing civilian GPS devices to become more accurate, those who already owned one were the first to test their capabilities.
Then outdoor enthusiasts looking for another reason to explore new areas were drawn to the sport as were people who saw it as a family activity or a way to exercise. As the game evolved, a social aspect developed and with that came competition such as being the first to find a cache or logging the most finds.
When Dave Hodgins of Bangor, one of four advisory board members for geocachingmaine.org, got involved in June 2002, there were 145 caches in the state and a few dozen cachers at best. In June 2004, Rick Towle of Litchfield, who is hiking the Appalachian Trail, created the website as a place for geocaching Mainers to connect. Today the website has more than 2,000 members and is a place for “newbies” to find out what the state has to offer and for everyone to discuss a great cache, emerging technology or changes to the game.
In the past 10 years, geocaching has changed lives. People who never considered the outdoors to be fun have discovered that it can be, and others who were technophobic have taken the time to figure out a GPS.
For Hodgins, who also compiles the Maine statistics for geocachingmaine.org, the game has had an even greater effect. He met his wife, Lee, on Aug. 23, 2003, at a geocaching event in Augusta. It was the state’s second caching event and the first for both. Then in 2008, they eloped while on — you guessed it — a geocaching trip through Vermont.
For the Hodginses, geocaching is about the challenge and the reward of finding a cache — not for the competition — and that’s why Maine is such a special place for caching they say.
“We have such a varied terrain and it’s such a gorgeous state,” Lee said. “We’ve been to so many places in this state that we never would have known about if it were not for geocaching.
“It’s just the diversity. And whatever hobbies you have, whether it’s mountain climbing or swimming or kayaking …, there are caches that will feed into that hobby.”
The couple said they appreciate caches that take them to a beautiful view or teach them something new, and several people in Maine have taken the time to create ones that do just that.
“It’s neat to find an area that doesn’t look like it has much history and then find out that it does,” Dave said. “[To discover that] famous people have slept there or people have traveled over there.”
Dave is one of those people who takes the time to create a unique challenge. He created a multicache in Bangor — a multicache is when one cache leads to another — that is based on the game Battleship.
He said he took a couple of months to ponder how to devise the challenge and almost didn’t go through with it, because he thought it might be too extreme. Since then, people from all over the world have asked his permission to “clone” the idea.
Marino also created a unique caching experience by setting up a cache run, or a power trail. His trail involves 125 caches placed three-quarters of a mile apart. Running about 75 miles along the Stud Mill Road above Orono, the cache run became a nationwide sensation he never expected: It was a different way to play the game.
Marino, who also is one of geocachingmaine.org’s four advisory board members, said he got the idea when a woman wanted to do 100 caches in a day, but she wanted to do them on a bike. With little traffic, the dirt road is an easy place to find caches in the company of wildlife. It has attracted people from all over the U.S. and Canada, he said.
Clearly geocaching is near and dear to the Hodginses’ hearts. They each have a 2-gallon jug filled with items they have found in caches throughout the years, many of which are signature items that identify a geocacher and many of which have had a lot of time and thought put into them.
There is a handmade wooden ladder, a miniature toy boat, geocaching coins, a painted acorn and even a cowardly lion. A hand-carved tree trunk pin came from a cacher out West; a wooden box with “3 piece chicken dinner” written on it opens up to show three kernels of corn; and a small plastic container filled with sand holds a pet rock with googly eyes.
The Hodginses also each have their own items that they leave behind in place of whatever they take, a rule that geocaching enthusiasts follow to keep the game fair and fun.
The respect that geocachers have for the game and for each other keep the game going. Geocachers look out for each other, the Hodginses said, by keeping track of whether a cache is still intact or by posting online if there is barbed wire or other possible dangers in the area around a hide.
Muggles — a term taken from the Harry Potter series to describe nongeocachers — are also something to look out for.
Muggles may be alarmed to see someone lurking around a bridge or to find an ammo box in a residential area. For these reasons, geocachers are conscientious about where they place a cache and how they may look to others while searching for one in a high-muggle-traffic area.
Educating people about geocaching is another way to keep everyone safe, and the more people know about it, the fewer chances there are for a muggle to stumble across a hide and move it or take things from it. Also, if more people get into it, there will be more caches to search for and the competition will intensify.
The Hodginses just wish to share the experience of something they’re passionate about.
“We like it so much that we like to see other people enjoy it as much,” Lee Hodgins said. “And especially for the younger generation coming up: I think it’s so important to get them out in the fresh air and in the world [to] learn skills,” such as how to use a GPS.
There are plenty of chances this weekend for individuals or families new to geocaching to meet enthusiasts and discover what it’s all about.
“We have coordinated quite a statewide event so everyone has a chance to … be a part of the [10th] anniversary,” said Marino.
Maine has five events planned: Today from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in Brewer, from 5 to 10 p.m. in Waterville and from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. in Portland; Sunday, May 2, from 8 to 10 a.m. in Waterville and from 2 to 6 p.m. in Augusta.
“[Geocaching is] very interesting and very fun and very diverse,” said Marino. “If you can’t have fun doing this, then you really can’t have fun doing anything.”