Geek Hide and Seek

Scavenger hunts for the high-tech crowd.

By Courtney Nash July 1, 2006 Published in the July 2006 issue of Seattle Met

Jon Stanley finds a canister cached on a cyclone fence.

We’re closing in on the location. It is just 10 or 20 feet ahead, my companion Jon reassures me, checking his handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device again. We slow to a crawl, gravel crunching under our feet. I scan tree trunks and the low scrubby brush at my feet. 

Suddenly Jon shouts, “I see it—there it is!” I start, surprised at how on edge I am. He is pointing 15 feet to our right. Now I see it. I would have walked right by on my own. We scramble up a short path beaten through the bushes: Others have been here before. 

In a hole?

Closing in on a chain-link fence, we see a black plastic canister attached to the fence with zip ties. It is eight inches long and four inches in diameter, about the size of a flashlight. 

“We found it!” I blurt out, thrilled that my first geocaching hunt—a high-tech search using only GPS coordinates and a few cryptic clues to locate a “cache” hidden by someone else—has been a success. 

“Not quite,” Jon says. “We still have to open it.”  

Jon Stanley knows what he’s doing—he’s been geocaching for six years, and has found more than 4,000 caches. Inside the container is a logbook we must sign to prove we were there. Jon inspects the container cautiously. He pulls a long-handled dentist’s mirror and a skinny metal pole the size of a long chopstick from his pack.  

“What is that?” I ask, eyeing the pole. It looks like an unpleasant medical device.

“Just a magnet,” Jon says. He hopes it will trigger something inside the container. He inspects the base of the container with the mirror, discovers a small nut holding it together, and touches it with the magnet. Standing as still as possible, I tilt my head to the side and inhale, waiting to hear gears and motors turning or see smoke start billowing out of the top. Better yet, a beeping timer, straight out of the TV show 24

Beep, boop….beep, boop.

Nothing. After multiple attempts, we can’t get it open. I teeter on the brink of disappointment, feeling momentarily robbed of the penultimate step. But Jon knows there are at least six other caches we can find nearby, and I’d still be back to work by the end of my lunch break.

In a rock?

Wait…work? Lunch break? Shouldn’t we be in a remote jungle, bushwhacking in Peru or climbing mountains in Tibet? In reality we’re in Discovery Park, just a few minutes from downtown Seattle. 

Geocaching, which started in Portland, Oregon, in 2000, has rapidly gained appeal in both remote and urban areas. A cache can be placed by anyone in nearly any public location, and anyone can look up its location online, though, a Seattle-based Web site that is the resource for geocachers worldwide, places certain commonsense restrictions on locations involving forest service, military, and similarly off-limits property. 

Where might you find a cache? Weighted under water, at the bottom of Lake Chelan. Huddled by the Harbor Steps in downtown Seattle. Bundled in a log boom bobbing on Lake Washington. Lurking along the Lummi Island shoreline. Saddled just shy of the Mount Rainier summit. There’s caches of caches in our area, some you might pass by every day. Unless, of course, you know where to look. And once you do, you feel like you’re part of something faintly illicit, like a child playing in a world of fairies and goblins that adults are too dull and dim-witted to see.

In the grass?

In addition to the secret-society buzz surrounding geocaching, an ever-growing community of geocachers layers unique complexity on top of this seemingly simplistic activity. While many caches are easy and straightforward to find, you don’t necessarily just plug the latitude and longitude coordinates of the cache into your GPS and walk right up to it. For example, the cache that stymied us at Discovery Park is one in a series titled Totally Tubular wherein each of the seven different caches, all using tubes made from PVC or similar materials, is a puzzle in and of itself. Some are physical puzzles, and some include brainteasers from the Web site; the answers provide clues to cracking the cache. 

The mixture of technology, puzzle solving, and outdoor activity is the hallmark of geocaching, and the reason why so many find it so addicting. Data geeks and computer freaks thrive on all the ways they can find, sort, and classify caches, creating software and devices specifically for that purpose; outdoor trail devotees now have novel ways of selecting places to visit, rambling routes to follow, and views to admire; and lastly, Type A types can vie for bragging rights over who has found the most caches in the least amount of time, the newest caches first, or caches in the strangest places. 

With more than 7,500 caches in Washington—at least half located around the Seattle metropolitan area—a quick lunch trip like ours or a brief after-work foray could yield multiple finds. The variety in cache location and complexity makes geocaching an ideal activity for families, who plan day trips, camping weekends, even full-fledged vacations around it.

Every cache is an adventure in its own right, whether it is down the street from your house or halfway around the world near a Peace Pagoda in Pokhara, Nepal. Despite his veteran status, Jon Stanley says that “If it is a tricky hide, and you’ve been searching and searching—when you finally find it, there’s a jolt of adrenaline.” That jolt, combined with the gorgeous Northwest locations, rambling journeys, and scenic viewpoints, is the winning formula of geocaching. He admits, “That’s what keeps the junkies like me going.”


Published: July 2008

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