In that stand of saplings. Under the tumble of rocks. Maybe a more amazing place. More about that later.
It’s a geocache (gee-oh-cash).
And finding these modern-day treasure chests is worth more than the hunt, devotees say.
“It gets you outside — gets you exercise. And while your mind can wander while you’re walking, it makes you think, solve puzzles,” says Kevin Venator, 45, a Johnson County geocacher.
Interest is very high in the sport right now, Venator said. “It’s exploding,” he said.
Geocaching has become so popular that cities have had to wrestle with the hobby. If a geocacher looks out of place or suspicious, homeowners might call police. That could result in an altercation.
The practice recently came up at a Leawood City Council meeting. Council members asked their parks and recreation director, Chris Claxton, if they needed to issue a policy or ordinance to regulate the practice.
“No, it doesn’t need to be regulated,” Claxton assured. “Most of the people doing it are naturalists, completely harmless. They’ll even pick up trash around the area,” she told the city council.
A geocache is most often a trinket like a deck of cards, a keyring or a poem. It’s buried in a waterproof container of varying sizes. Many times, the container is a military ammunition can or a plastic kitchen lidded bowl. And once the treasure-hunter finds the geocache, she takes it out and replaces the treasure inside with one of her own. And while she’s at it, she might pick up junk lying around the site. “We call it cache-in, trash-out,” said Venator.
Geocaching begins with a piece of equipment — a handheld GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) unit, which costs anywhere from about $25 to $100, that you buy at a sporting-goods store. Smartphones often have free apps with a GPS. Then the geocacher (that’s you) goes to a website,www.geocaching.com
. You put in an identifier like your ZIP code, which leads the GPS unit to your longitude and latitude. Knowing that, you arrive at a map showing where caches are in your area.
You drive to a location near your intended find, then hit the trails looking for your treasure. Clues come with the location online, so in a simple cache-find, you might be looking for “bright daisies that decorate this cache, secreted in sticks.” Once you find your cache, you note it in a logbook inside the container. And then you put the geocache back exactly where you found it.
Olathe-based Garmin Industries has created its own geocaching website,opencaching.com
, and Garmin runs contests on it with prizes, like $400 GPS units.
A Garmin official can attest to the exercise component of geocaching.
“I take my nephews and nieces on geocaching treasure hunts, and before we know it we’ve hiked 2 1/2 miles,” says Garmin spokeswoman Maddie Estrada.
Overland Park’s arboretum has a how-to program that attracts grandparents, parents and children.
“It gets people out on the trails,” said Charlie Loftus, a volunteer who’s in charge of the arboretum’s geocaching program. “We have 300 acres, with eight different ecosystems, and a geocache for each ecosystem.”
Shawnee Mission Park has about 70 sites, and there are hundreds running alongside Interstate 435, plus hundreds in other parks all over the metro area. This is a worldwide hobby, and an estimated 2 million geocaches are secreted all over the globe.
Some cache treasures are unique to the person who leaves them for the next cacher to find. Venator, for example, leaves uncommon coins.
Sometimes the contest includes burying memorable treasures. “I left a map. A real, paper map once, with directions on how to get to the next geocache. Another time I left a Flash Gordon-type ray gun, and you had to have a special tool to get inside to find out how to get to the next cache,” said Venator.
Now for those more amazing places you can find geocaches. Venator made a cache on an island in the Kansas River, for example.
“And there’s one I created where you have to use a stick to push the cache out of the top of a tree,” he said. “With some, you have to do some climbing. And some of mine require you to use an ultraviolet light to read directions. Some of them play music,” he added.
Lenexa’s geocaching creator, Judy Doty, has won awards for the program she fashioned. And Lenexa resident Rich Holland created an historical geocaching tour of the city, where geocachers can travel to the grave sites of some of Lenexa’s founders and read about the city’s history.
Kansas itself has thousands of geocaches. But one of its caches has a distinction no other one in the world has.
“Out in western Kansas is the world’s oldest continuously functioning geocache. People come from around the world to see it,” said Venator. “It’s in a tiny little town called Mingo.”