Treasure hunting meets tech in geocaching
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — On a sweltering Saturday morning, Connor Russell found some shade near the historic Sandford House’s iron-gated basement.
He’d given up on the family scavenger hunt, opting instead to frolic around the manicured property in Heritage Square, where Union soldiers were said to have quartered during Gen. William T. Sherman’s occupation of Fayetteville.
The Russells were drawn to that particular spot as they chased a geocache — a hidden container discovered by tracking its coordinates using a Global Positioning System (GPS).
Geocaching was born 20 years ago when the geocaching.com website was launched. Then, there were 75 known geocaches in the world. Today, there are more than 3 million.
This activity is especially appealing as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken away many family entertainment options like playgrounds and rec leagues.
“The kids haven’t really had much activity at all since school got out, so it’s terrific to be able to do something as a family and to be able to get out of the house and get some fresh air,” Joey Russell said after uncovering an ammo box filled with notes and small toys behind the Sandford House.
The geo- prefix means Earth, and a cache is a collection that’s hidden away. A geocache can be any type of container — ammo cans are popular in the Fayetteville area — that often holds a notebook so that visitors can log their find and any other note they’d like to share. Some caches hold toys or anything small enough to fit into the container. Players employ a “take something, leave something” philosophy so the box is never emptied.
Sara Carver, who’s hunted geocaches for years with her oldest son, Dylan, said they used to leave keychains from Fort Bragg and postcards from Fayetteville in caches they’d uncover during trips out of state on vacation.
One of their most memorable hunts took them behind a seafood restaurant at the beach. “You have to go during low tide. It looks like a little creek and you can walk across when the tide is out and get to this little hidden area,” Carver said.
“We found sharks’ teeth and really cool shells back there.”
When they found the cache, they left a shark’s tooth inside of it.
“It was a good way to bond,” Carver said of time spent geocaching with Dylan.
“We both enjoyed it, it wasn’t expensive and we could get out and away from screens.”
To get started, cachers log onto geocaching.com or the Geocache app and go to a map of the area they’d like to visit. Then, waypoints where geocaches are located pop onto the screen. Click a point, and you’ll get information about the cache and its GPS coordinates.
Each cache also has a message board, so if the cache is damaged or missing, you can read about that in the comment chain. You can also find hints there if a cache is challenging or hard to find.
The cache at Heritage Square is titled “Trekking through Fayetteville #4.” It’s one of 10 caches in a series that leads hunters through town, uncovering some scenic or historically significant spots they might not have been aware of.
“I’ve lived in Fayetteville practically my whole life and I’m seeing things I never knew about even though I’ve driven past a hundred times,” Russell said.
“It gives you a better feel for the city.”
He enjoyed learning about the history of Heritage Square while his sons, Connor, 5, and Colton, 7, enjoyed a chance to run around outside.
Connor was more interested in hunting lizards than geocaches, but he did bird-dog his way through some shrubs before leaving the find to his dad and older brother.
“We like puzzles and things you have to actively think about,” Russell said. “Colt really got into the whole idea of going on a treasure hunt with clues to follow.
“It wasn’t too hard for their age and they could all participate.”
Even the boys’ mom, Gloria — who was 39 weeks pregnant and would give birth to a girl two days later — was able to enjoy the hunt.
Carver said she and Dylan used to make a game of geocaching.
“We would make it a competition on who could find it first, how many we could find in one day. He would leave trinkets and find trinkets. We enjoyed it when we were traveling,” she said.
Geocaches are often hidden in places that are worth a visit. They might lead you to an especially scenic stretch of a river trail, a nice hike around a lake, or a field with a clear view of skydivers’ favorite landing spots.
Carver kept a geocaching bag in her car with bug spray, gloves, pens, notebooks, Ziploc bags, a flashlight and small trinkets to be left behind.
She and Dylan even trekked into a tunnel to find a cache off Yadkin Road.
She recommends that people be aware of their surroundings when geocaching, especially if you are caching with kids. Some hunts might lead you to dangerous places.
And many cachers take pride in keeping areas around the cache clean, taking a trash bag along on hunts.
“You can go on a little adventure, learn something new,” Carver said. “And you might accidentally learn something in the process of having fun.”