The time was roughly 9:30 PM. The sky was clear, and the streets of Brantford were vacant and pitch black: ah, the perfect night for an adventure. My accomplice and I tiptoed towards Alexandra Park, about a 10-minute walk east of the campus, down Colborne or Dalhousie Streets. Cautiously, we began our trek with one goal in mind: geocaching. Every blackened alleyway seemed ominous and every silhouette appeared to belong to the competition. Armed with only a global positioning system (GPS) and a flashlight, we walked over crunching fallen leaves, making our way through downtown Brantford.
Geocaching is often overseen by local conservation groups (in our case, the Grand River Watershed Conservation Authority). The caches are typically hidden in historically or geographically significant areas, forcing their finders to experience or see something they may not have otherwise known about. This factor makes watershed areas like that of the Grand River or historical parks like Alexandra Park perfect Brantford examples of classic geocache locations.
This underground society of treasure hunters has spread across the planet. Geocaching.com reports there are about 1.2 million active “caches” globally. Brantford proves to be a sort of hot spot for the hobby, serving as home to 458 caches within a 10-mile radius of the downtown area. Geocaching’s popularity is on the rise. People have taken part in the pastime for exploratory, celebratory, educational or even monetary reasons.
The fascination with geocaching arose on May 3, 2000, when Dave Ulmer of Portland, Oregon hid some trinkets in the woods: a can of beans, a VHS movie, software CDs, music CDs, a log book, five dollars, a cassette recorder, and a slingshot. He announced coordinates on the USENET newsgroup. His idea was cultivated initially as a way to celebrate the end of GPS signal scrambling preformed by the United States government. This made GPS use convenient for the public.
“I invented the GPS game to both enjoy and demonstrate the capabilities of this new system,” explained Ulmer in our correspondence. His on-the-move lifestyle makes him available only via email. The “father of geocaching” currently spends his days embarking on outdoor adventures and travelling through the Western United States with his motor home and dirt bike.
Apparently, many celebrated with Ulmer: the trinkets were found within 24 hours. The celebration continues, on land and on-line.
Geocaching online forums popped up overnight and currently, at least two major all-encompassing geocache websites exist (www.geocaching.com and www.earthcache.org). Geocaching has also gone mobile with applications and programs for smart phones.
Geocaching has progressed to an informative teaching style. John Vitale, Nipissing University Social Studies Professor, along with Professor Mike McCabe and Instructional Designer, Stephen Tedesco, managed to bring geocaching to education in Brantford. In 2009 they applied for an internal technology and teaching grant for $2000, allowing them to purchase a class set of GPS devices.
“Technology is a real focus for us here at Nipissing,” Vitale says.
Today, Vitale uses geocaching in his social studies class, bringing together elements of geography, math, science, physical activity and history.
Ulmer says he anticipated these kinds of growths from what was once just a hobby: “The possibilities of new geocaching spin-offs and features are almost unlimited.”
Vitale’s class approach to geocaching differs slightly from the conventional cacher’s online database method. The Nipissing students are sent on a sort of scavenger hunt, not for caches registered in the official geocache database, but for those found in Vitale’s own predetermined list of historically or geographically significant places like the Grand River or Victoria Park. Each checkpoint holds clues, leading students to the next stop on their list.
Vitale argues this interdisciplinary approach to social studies will one day be very beneficial to his students’ teaching careers. This provides motivation enough to try the increasingly popular hobby.
“I enjoyed it so much in class; I wanted to see what it was like looking for real caches,” says Lindsey Newton, fourth year Concurrent Education student. “It turned the topic of learning longitude and latitude into something way more fun. It reminded me of treasure hunting.”
Sometimes trekking through nature can lead people to find more than just trinkets. “X” may mark the spot but “$” often sparks the interest.
Caches can consist of content as simple as a log book (a staple within a geocache), as well even money or prizes. Forums on geocache.com report the more difficult to obtain caches have contained small fortunes, some holding up to $1000, while others have housed round trip airline tickets. Ulmer listed the long steep staircase where The Postman was filmed as his most interesting find.
Proper but unwritten geocaching etiquette says a geocacher who is the first-to-find is welcome to take whatever prize the cache contains, but must leave something of equal or greater value. This judgment is up to the geocacher. All geocachers must record their findings, hence the log book left with the cache.
Geocaching has merit, whether for educational advantages, cash value, exploratory or historical purposes. In my case, it was strictly for adventure.
Carefully, we entered the selected cache’s coordinates (which were rated as relatively easy to find), and read the accompanying clues, including hints and historical facts about the location. My associate and I discreetly entered Alexandra Park, as if we were spies. We examined the area thoroughly with a flashlight, stopping only briefly when others walked by, attempting to appear nonchalant. After searching for upwards of an hour in the silence of night, I looked under the barrel of the cannon that faces Colborne Street. Light reflected off of an unknown object. Immediately, excited thoughts flooded my mind: Could it be the geocache? Had I found a million dollars? Was I the first-to-find?
No. The object was just some garbage lurking beneath the cannon.
After all of that, which could have amounted to a great adventure story, I was technically unsuccessful in my first geocaching experience.
Nonetheless, I was not disappointed. I was left with the satisfaction of a new experience – and the challenge of trying again.
I leave it up to you, Laurier Brantford. Find the geocaches, experience something new and, if you’re lucky, stumble across a little extra cash.