A treasure hunt, the high-tech way

Geocaching is family fun, but it requires various skills and provides unexpected rewards.

"Where is it?" That refrain echoed in two places – from the golfers on the course below us and from our group on the ridge above them. The golfers were looking for a ball that a duffer in their party had sliced into some adjacent brush.

But our party of eight – my husband and I, our two sons, two friends, one of their sons, and a dog named Betsy – was searching for something entirely different. We knew we were getting close ... our little instrument told us so. The adults in our group eyed the area, while the two youngest boys im­mediately honed in on a nearby fence post.

"We found it!" they shouted triumphantly.

Our quest was not for a round white orb. No, we were hunting for something far more eclectic and concealed – a geocache.

Earlier that week, my family had logged onto www.geocaching.com (the official geocaching website) and selected some caches to hunt on Saturday.

We posted an invitation in the chat room for others to join us, and on the appointed day, we met up with them near the site of our first cache.

Using a handheld global positioning system (GPS) device, we let the signal guide us to the coordinates of the cache. These brought us within a nine-foot radius of the cache, so we still had to actively search the nearby terrain to locate our first treasure.

This cache yielded some trinkets as well as the usual sign-in log. Most caches have items of nominal value, similar to things you would find at a 99-cent store.

Geocaching operates on an honor system. A cardinal rule dictates that if you remove an item, you must replace it with something else. The vast majority of caches also contain a log for the finders to sign.

This day's adventures were simple geocaches, not the more coveted "First-to-Finds." Those – referred to as FTF's in geocaching jargon – usually yield items of greater value, but are also harder to come by. Competition to acquire them is fierce, not only because of the upgraded booty, but also because the finder can then lay claim to the bragging rights that FTF's command.

Our day's adventure began at 9 a.m. in an upscale, gated development with a pedestrian easement. This allowed us access to the open-space preserve that began at the end of the street. The trail, initially flat and parallel to a golf course, quickly rose in elevation.

After a 15-minute trek, we were rewarded with panoramic views of the course and the valley below. The golfers we had initially encountered became mere blips in the 180-degree vista we now enjoyed.

We continued onward, eyeing a lone chimney 500 feet ahead – the remnant of a homestead from decades ago. Taking a side trail off the main path, we descended an embankment thick with brush to get to it. The two boys in our party demonstrated their caching prowess by ferreting out a cache stealthily hidden among the cinder blocks.

Then we set forth on the last leg of our journey. This cache was named "Honey and Water Don't Mix," which seemed a peculiar name until we arrived at a large eucalyptus tree adjacent to an old watering trough.

From this vantage point, we could see a bee farm in the clearing below us – and the meaning of the cache's name became clear.

Neither of this day's caches was in­ordinately difficult to find. Like Moses in the reeds, a little bending back of the brush was usually all that was necessary to reveal the bounty we sought.

Taking a break to enjoy the scenery, we thought about what drew our family to this form of recreation. Karen Larson, a veteran cacher who was with us that day, extolled the benefits of geocaching: "As a single person, it allowed me to expand my circle of friends. I had to grow and learn new things (like how to use a GPS). It also helped me get back in shape while fighting a chronic illness."

I reflected upon the fact that geocaching is truly a thinking-person's sport. Yes, intelligence helps (MENSA membership not required), but in reality there are three traits necessary for successful caching: deductive reasoning skills, excellent problem-solving ability, and tenacity (which is often why kids make such great cachers.)

As our morning's adventure drew to a close, we made our way back down the mountain. It was nice knowing where we were going, but the return trip was lackluster in comparison with our ascent in quest for treasure.

What is it about the uncertainty and anticipation of seeking an enigmatic cache that draws people of all backgrounds to this activity?

In many ways, geocaching mirrors our daily lives. While we can sometimes find pleasure in the routine, pure unadulterated joy is often more elusive. Geocachers are able to take risks, break through boundaries, and reach new pinnacles of personal achievement.

Each newly discovered cache is a celebration of fortitude, determination, and resolve.

Sherlock Holmes would no doubt have excelled at geocaching. I can image him – GPS in hand – scouring the moors around the Baskerville estate in search of an elusive clue-in-a-cache.

For the rest of us, however, we need but remember that in the realm of geocaching, the whole world truly is our oyster and every cache, a waiting-to-be-discovered pearl.

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