Modern Treasure Hunting Geocaching

by Crai S. Bower | Photo © Groiundspeak

My father showed me a sycamore tree on a visit to Ohio when I was eleven years old. The tree’s fabulous trunk formed a perfect letter cache for young lovers, he explained. As we peered into the specimen’s bifurcated trunk, my curiosity piqued, but we found nothing but a few discarded acorn shells. Fast forward four decades and I find myself once more probing arboreal recesses, this time on a family geocaching adventure to Oregon.

“Nope, nothing in this one but a plastic box,” my eleven year old calls out as we walk through a small field just steps from the Barlow Trail Roadhouse in the community of Zig Zag where we just finished breakfast. We use the geocaching.com app to follow our phone’s GPS to within 100 feet, where we receive the digital hint, “Stumped Yet?” 

“That’s it!” my fourteen-year old son shouts from a few stumps away, running over to claim the cache from his younger brother. We each sign the logbook that’s located inside the box along with an odd assortment of trinkets, part of the “take one – leave one” tradition that adds intrigue to the sport.

What began as a “Do we have to do this?” whine from my children instantly transformed into a “Please can we find another one?!” plea.

Geocaching is like that: an outdoor novelty that quickly becomes obsession. It engages kids with its use of technology and easy-to-use apps, much to the pleasure of parents who have finally found an activity where familiar complaints never materialize. My youngest son loves sleuthing through the woods for this hidden box or that buried canister. My oldest quickly created his own user ID and began logging entries, locating caches and reading up on the history of specific treasure troves.

But geocaching is hardly just a kid’s sport. Adults plan their vacations around geocaching, some covering thousands of miles and discovering 10,000 caches or more that they illustrate in their blogs. Most of these hardcore “cachers” eventually end up right here not far from Welches along the Barlow Trail in Mt. Hood territory (mthoodterritory.com).

But it isn’t this famous final segment of the Oregon Trail that draws the devoted ditch divers, it’s what awaits at N 45˚ 17.460’ W 122˚ 24.800’ W: The “Original Stash.” Placed here by local David Ulmer on May 3rd, 2000, the location is marked today with the “Original Stash Tribute Plaque.” This is where geocaching began.

A look into the virtual logbook reveals that geocachers from as far away as Asia have hunted down this tiny piece of earth about forty minutes southeast of Portland. Today, more than two million geocaches in 184 of 193 countries, including Afghanistan (304) and Cuba (64) contain the nuggets, but only one cache claims Original Stash status.

We form our geocaching base camp at The Resort at the Mountain (TheResort.com), equidistant between Original Stash and the Eliot Glacier Earthcache located via a strenuous hike to Mount Hood’s largest glacier. Almost 250 caches can be found within a few miles of Welches, including more than 100 treasures spread out every tenth of a mile on Lolo Pass Road.  The Lolo Pass caches form a “Series,” another subgroup of finds where each cache contains a vital clue to the next discovery. Miss one and you just might strike out of the series. Completing a series often results in acquisition of a coin to commemorate the achievement. Like every component in geocaching, the honor system is self-regulated.

“There are so many ways to play that I admit I’ve become a little obsessed,” says Mary Pellegrini, proprietor of the Old Parkdale Inn Bed and Breakfast (hoodriverlodging.com)with more than 5,000 geocache finds in her logbook. “Last night we went to Portland for the Keith Urban concert. We arrived early so I thought, what the heck, why not see if there were any caches near the Moda Center. Sure enough, we found one within a hundred yards of where we’d been standing.”

Like most aficionados, Mary prefers her geocaches to be diverse and complex, like a really good jigsaw or crossword puzzle. Her favorites among the Parkdale area’s 615 caches, besides the one she created in her garden’s birdhouse, include the Cemetery Caches (a series where finding all twenty-five leads to a bonus cache) and Circle of Stones that contains an actual stone with a hidden screw top. She’d traveled more than two hours just the day before to locate a “First,” as in first discovery, without success.

“We were close but just couldn’t locate it,” she says. “I think we’ll head back there this afternoon.” (She later emailed me to say she’d returned with success but, alas, she was the second person to find it.)

“You really can’t stop once you get into it,” the innkeeper muses. “It’s the first thing I do when I land somewhere, visit my children on the east coast or go for a grocery drive into Hood River” (an irresistible city with 622 geocaches).”

Mary also loves “travel bugs,” those aforementioned trinkets that we found in our first geocache in Welches. Each bug contains a specific number that can be logged when it is found. “You can watch the bugs literally skip from cache to cache,” Mary explains. “My farthest bug was last logged outside of Cleveland, Ohio [741 caches]. I’m still waiting for my first international bug.”

Mary didn’t know geocaching existed when she retired twelve years ago with her husband Steve to become an innkeeper in the shadow of Mt. Hood. A guest told her about it and she was hooked, only later discovering she lived in the epicenter of the sport. She’s geocached all over the state, including hot spots Eugene (845 geocaches), Bend (703 geocaches) and Ashland (436 geocaches). Portland (4,033 geocaches) may possess more than any other city in the world. Several areas also offer geocaching guided tours.

“There really isn’t anywhere you can go in Oregon without finding them,” she tells us, then insists we pause in the Columbia River Gorge where “there is at least one cache near every waterfall, but they can be hard to find especially because the GPS doesn’t always work so well.”

My dad, who traveled with a library of Roger Tory Peterson field guides, would have loved geocaching, an opportunity to take nature exploration one step further. As a parent, the sport provides an ideal blend of outdoor intrigue and good spirited competition to lure my kids off their devices. Personally, it’s cool to find a little treasure that someone else has taken the time to plant for my discovery.

Mary is right, of course: You never have to go far in the Northwest. My app is telling me there’s a geocache called “Blindleader” waiting for me 142-feet east of my Seattle residence. I wonder if I’ll need a hint to find it?