By Joseph Robertia
As Scott Sagraves, of Anchorage, looked up from his handheld GPS unit July 29 afternoon, he realized the coordinates he had been following had brought him to more than just a camouflaged ammunition can containing a register of others who had found it before.
At the edge of the bluff of Kenai Municipal Park, Sagraves was also looking over a hillside bursting in bright pink fireweed blossoms, which ended at the sandy beaches of Cook Inlet and the mouth of the Kenai River. Tiny silhouettes of dip-netters could be seen dotting the shoreline, and, farther in the distance, the snow-capped peaks of the Kenai Mountains could be seen rising into the azure-colored sky.
Sagraves knew the reason this location was selected. It was not for how well the ammo box he was searching for could be squirreled away, but so that he could take in this scenic view, a splendor he would not have seen had he not been geocaching.
“I’m totally addicted, and I have been ever since someone told me there was this worldwide treasure hunt going on. It brought me back to being a kid again,” he said.
Sagraves was one of more than 50 people who came out july 29 for the fourth annual Caching on the Kenai
event. Geocaching, according to the Scott Aleckson, organizer of the local event, is essentially a sophisticated game of hide and seek, with the entire planet being open for the hiding, and anyone of any age being able to seek out the stashed items.
“It is a modernized, high-tech version of an old activity called ‘Letterboxing,’ where an individual would hide a small box somewhere with a log sheet inside and publish clues about where the box is. Others would try to find the box and sign the log when they do. In geocaching, instead of word clues we use the GPS coordinates. So the GPS will bring you to within about 20 feet of the geocache container, but the camouflage or means of hiding the box can be rather elaborate, so many caches still give quite a challenge,” Aleckson said.
From ammo cans to film canisters, medication vials and hide-a-key boxes, caches come in various shapes and sizes, and often are painted to blend in with their surroundings. That challenge is one of Sagraves’ favorite parts of geocaching.
“I love how people can hide something right in front of you with good camouflage. You’ll know you’re in the
right place because of the coordinates, but it can still take you awhile to find it,” he said.
One of the toughest caches Sagraves has ever found was about the size of his pinky nail. Following the coordinates he had come to a manhole with several bolts, and it took him quite awhile to figure out that one of the bolts was fake and actually the cache.
“It looked just like the real thing. There was even some rust painted on it, but when you opened it there was a log sheet inside,” he said.
While that was a small cache, others are comically large, said Dave Stone, of Anchorage.
“I went to one that was a 55-gallon Rubbermaid tote with one of those large poster-board books, like you’d use in presenting at a meeting, for the register. It was pretty creative,” he said.
Stone, like Sagraves, said that he is practically addicted to geocaching. He has traveled around the U.S.
geocaching, being brought to scenic and historical locations. He’s also gone to other countries to find caches, including the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.
Stone said that one of the most memorable caches he’s found wasn’t even the item itself. In Indiana, while searching along the Ohio River, his coordinates led him to a Civil War tomb, which was where the cache was located.
“There are a lot of things like that I never would have seen had the search for a cache not brought me there,” Stone said.
Larry Geordan, of Soldotna, shared similar sentiments.
“I’ve been here since ’95, and I’ve found a lot of places from geocaching that I otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. They’re places you just wouldn’t see driving to and from work, or in your normal travels around town,” Geordan said.
Because of geocaching’s ability to draw people to unique, significant and/or beautiful locations, some tourists sometimes take part in geocaching when visiting a new area.
“We have families who are getting their kids outdoors and use geocaching as a great excuse to go hiking. We have travelers and tourists who have found that geocaches are a secret way to find out all the neat places to visit in an area that you’re traveling through. I have placed 50 caches, myself, and the majority of people who log them are tourists traveling through the state every summer,” Aleckson said.
Caches can be as easy to access as following a wheelchair-accessible path, or they can be strategically placed
in mountains requiring rock-climbing efforts, or even underwater where dive gear is necessary. With the coordinates, caches are given a difficulty ranking, so would-be searchers know what they’re getting into.
“The game has expanded quite a bit over the years to include categories of caches well beyond a box with a log. There are multicaches that require you to go through a trail of two or more waypoints, getting the location of the next point at each one until you finally get to the cache at the end. There are puzzle caches that have the location of the cache hidden in some kind of puzzle that is posted online. Only after you solve the puzzle will you find the real coordinates to the cache,” Aleckson said.
“There is a classification called ‘Earthcache’ that is run through the Geological Society of America. These types don’t have a container at all and the seekers go to a location that has some kind of Earth science lesson. They take measurements, make observations and take photos and have to send the answers to several questions back to the cache owner to get credit for the find,” Aleckson said.
For some, geocaching is just about finding the cache. For others, like Randy Cler, of Wasilla, it is also about being the first to find a cache. While only around 187,000 in the world can claim more than 200 cache finds, Cler has more than 8,700 finds to his credit.
“I got 14 just this morning,” he said. “We picked up a few on the drive down and then went to Homer and out to Nikiski to get a few before this picnic.”
Cler has visited 14 states and gone into Canada to find caches, but he said it’s his first-to-find caches that make him the proudest.
“It’s mania, really,” he said. “My phone is set to let me know when a new cache is put out, and I’m not opposed to going out at midnight, three in the morning or four in the morning. I’ll go whenever I know they’re there.”
While it can be rewarding to be the first one to a cache, it can be tougher than it sounds, since many others want to be first, as well.
“I’ve gone to some in the middle of the night and while still there signing the register, other geocachers were coming up,” he said. “Being first can also sometimes turn into a goose chase, too, so sometimes you go looking, but you’re just the first to find out whoever hid it had their coordinates off.”
According to Aleckson some geocachers like the challenge of building up their “stats,” by finding as many caches as they can, traveling long distances, trying to log a cache in every state or in multiple countries, trying to find a cache on every day of the year, or of every type and difficulty rating.
Aleckson said that he’s not sure how many geocachers are in Alaska, because the number seems to be growing almost daily.
“It’s hard to judge the size of our geocaching community,” he said. “There are maybe a dozen hardcore geocachers, but there are dozens more who do it on a casual basis, and there are always new names showing up on cache logs.”
To learn more about geocaching, visit http://www.geocachealaska.org/education.htm.