The app, Geocaching, tells me I am 75 feet away from my destination. A Washington Park hillside, covered in dense ivy and prickly blackberry vines, blocks my way. Will I have to scale it? No — this cache’s description says no bushwhacking is necessary to reach where I am headed. Sure enough, I find a narrow trail snaking through the ivy, going up toward a twisted tree. My phone buzzes. This must be the place. I reach into the hollow tree and, sure enough, pull out a metal jar containing an assortment of random items: a golf ball, pencil, bottle cap, etc. I put in a $2 bill from Singapore, a reminder of when travel was easier, and place the jar back into the tree for the next searcher to find. Opening the app on my phone, I enter the cache’s number into my log.
This activity is called geocaching, a combination of modern technology and old-fashioned treasure-hunting. As a geographically-based activity, it involves using a dedicated mapping app to search for GPS-equipped containers hidden in public areas. The finder of a geocache is expected to leave a small item in the cache as a reminder to future discoverers that they were there, and take something from the cache if they want.
Like maraschino cherries, veggie burgers and the computer mouse, geocaching is an Oregon invention that has since gone global. The first geocache was placed by the side of a road in Beavercreek, Oregon — about 20 miles south of downtown Portland — in the year 2000. It was a bucket containing books, maps, a slingshot and a can of beans. Instructions on how to find it were posted to a Usenet forum dedicated to mapping software. The idea quickly caught on among mapping geeks and outdoor buffs alike, and today, there are geocaches on every continent, including Antarctica. Until 2017, there was even one aboard the International Space Station.
The geocaching community is rich in jargon. Caches are often described by the size of the container, which can range from “nano” (about the size of a pack of gum) to “gigantic” (usually a five-gallon bucket). Even larger caches, such as entire shipping containers, have been used on occasion to hide something especially big. Such a large geocache would be able to hold a lot of “swag,” the geocacher term for the random souvenirs they leave in caches.
Geocaches are usually given clever, punny nicknames, though they often have little to do with the location or contents of the actual cache. For instance, the one I found in Washington Park was called “Iraq the Casbah,” a reference, I guess, to the Clash song “Rock the Casbah.” Other times, a geocache’s nickname can provide a clue to its location. One of the two known geocaches on the Lewis & Clark campus is dubbed “Lift Up Thine Eyes,” hinting at its location being a sturdy tree branch.
Geocaches have caused controversy among “Muggles”, the geocacher term for people who do not partake in the activity. Caches have been mistaken for drug stashes before, and local governments have been concerned that geocaching encourages littering and trespassing. However, geocaches are placed in public locations and geocachers follow “leave no trace” ethics, other than the swag they leave. In 2012, Disneyland was evacuated due to a bomb scare; the “bomb” turned out to be a geocache.
But there was also a time when a geocache saved Muggles’ lives, and fittingly, it occurred in geocaching’s birthplace of Oregon. In 2008, two hikers were stranded on Mount Hood. After spending the night in an ice cave, the hikers discovered a geocache which allowed them to transmit their location. This allowed searchers to find them only 13 hours after they were reported missing.
Whether you do it alone or with friends, geocaching is an excellent COVID-safe outdoor activity. Some of the most widely used geocaching apps include Geocaching (sometimes called the “official” geocaching app, though geocaching is an activity rather than a brand and no individual owns it), C:Geo, Cachly, and for people who wish to place new caches, Geocache Placer for Android. Fire up an app, find a cache, check out the swag and look out for Muggles.