Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Geocaching at the World Bird Sanctuary

Did you know you can go geocaching at World Bird Sanctuary?  

We didn't.  But you can.  So we decided to find out more about it!
Young guests learning about geocaching at a recent WBS National Trails Day event
Tom Wolpert from the St. Louis Area Geogachers Association tells us what it's all about.
"Geocaching is a high-tech treasure or scavenger hunt which uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to locate hidden containers.  Geocachers like to joke that we use billion dollar defense satellite systems to hunt Tupperware® in the woods.

At midnight on May 2, the government did away with Selective Availability, which limited the accuracy of the civilian GPS signal to about 200 feet.  Without Selective Availability, accuracy improved to about 20 feet.  The next day, geocaching started.  Dave Ulmer, a GPS enthusiast, decided to see just how well the system worked.  He stocked a plastic bucket with trade items and a notebook, hid it in the woods, posted the coordinates – the latitude and longitude – on the Internet, and invited fellow enthusiasts to use their GPS receivers to find the bucket.  The rules were simple:  “Take some stuff, leave some stuff!  Record it all in the logbook.  Have fun!”  Although there have been a lot of embellishments over the years, that’s still the way the basic game is played today.

Virtually anyone can go geocaching, although very small children may need some help from mom and dad.  Geocaches (and geocachers) are everywhere.  There are over 1.4 million caches – and over 5 million geocachers – worldwide.  There are caches on every continent, including Antarctica.  In fact, there are about 480 geocaches within a 10 mile radius of the World Bird Sanctuary!  There are caches which require long hikes, caches within a few steps of parking, and caches which are wheelchair-accessible.  There are caches which are very easy to find and others which might require an extensive search.  Each cache has difficulty and terrain ratings on a scale of one to five.  This makes it easy to choose caches that fit your abilities and the circumstances.

In order to go geocaching, you need an inexpensive handheld GPS receiver. Low-end models, such as the Garmin eTrex H, sell for $85 to $100.  They are available online, at sporting goods stores such as REI, Bass Pro Shops, Cabela’s, and big-box retailers such as Walmart. In areas with good celphone coverage, you can also use a GPS-enabled smartphone with an inexpensive geocaching application.  You also need occasional access to the Internet and a free membership at the central geocaching web site, www.geocaching.com.  Other than that, it’s just a matter of batteries for the GPS receiver and gas for the “cachemobile.” 

Once you have your free membership at geocaching.com, you can get started.  From the web site you can search for geocaches by, among other things, zip code or street address.  This shows you a list of geocaches in order of increasing distance from that location.  For each cache, you can see the distance, cache name, and the difficulty and terrain ratings.  You can also see the date that the cache was last found and the number of geocachers who named the cache as one of their favorites.   If you’re a visual kind of person, you can also view the list in Google Maps.  Either way, when you see a cache that looks interesting, you can click on it to see the cache page, which contains all the details.

On the cache page, you’ll find the coordinates – the latitude and longitude – of the cache.  You’ll also get other information, such as the story behind the cache, the container size and type, and perhaps a hint to help you find it.  You can also see log entries from all the geocachers who have hunted this cache in the past.  There might even be pictures to go along with the logs!  You can even get driving directions.

If you decide to hunt the cache, you must put the coordinates into your GPS.  (If you are using a smartphone, you use the geocaching application to look up the cache right on your phone.)  If the cache is complicated, you may also want to print out the cache page – or at least jot down relevant information, including the hint.  As you get more involved with the game, you will learn to send coordinates directly to your GPS receiver through a connection to your computer.  More expensive handheld GPS receivers can do paperless caching.  That is, you can load all the cache information – description, difficulty/terrain, size, hints, and even logs – right onto the GPS unit.  Such units can hold information for thousands of caches at the same time.

Geocaches come in all shapes and sizes.  Each cache has a listed size ranging from large (a five gallon bucket, a pickup truck toolbox, or even a car) to micro (a 35mm film canister, a waterproof matchbox, or a magnetic container the size of your pinky fingernail).  Regular-sized caches are usually about the size of a one- or two-quart food storage container.  Small caches are about the size of a sandwich storage container.  In most cases, the cache page will tell you about the container.

There are several different types of caches.  For a traditional cache, the container is located at the listed coordinates.  A multi-cache involves multiple stages, each of which has information which leads you to the next stage and ultimately to the final, where you will find the container.  There are also puzzle caches which require you to solve a creative puzzle in order to get the final coordinates.  To start with, you’ll probably want to stick to traditional caches, regular or larger containers, and low difficulty and terrain ratings.
Stealth and nonchalance are often required while geocaching in public places
Many caches are located in crowded public places.  Stealth is required while you’re hunting the cache!  We’ve all pretended that our GPS receiver is a cell phone or camera…  And we spend a lot of time pretending to tie our shoes while we’re looking under things!  Part of the fun is keeping the game a secret from the muggles – those who don’t play the game.  There’s a practical aspect to that as well – it keeps the caches themselves safe.

Once you find the container, you should always sign the log.  If the log is large enough, you might also want to leave a comment about your experience finding the cache.  If the cache is large enough to contain trade items, you’re free to take something and leave something of equal or greater value.  Geocaching is family-friendly.  Most trade items are small toys or trinkets which appeal to children.  Think cereal box toys, happy meal toys, or party favors here.  When you get back to your computer, log your find on the central web site.  The cache owner likes to hear about your experience!

Speaking of cache owners, where do all these caches come from?  Other geocachers hide them.  Once you get the hang of the game, you’ll likely get the urge to hide some of your own.  SLAGA recommends that you find at least 50 before you hide one.  That way, you’ll have a feel for what makes a good cache.  There are a few rules for hiding caches.  You can find them on geocaching.com. One of the most important is to follow land manager guidelines for placing caches and obtain permission if required.  In addition, a volunteer reviewer looks over each new cache before it is published.  The reviewer will help you follow the rules and may even give you feedback for improving your cache.

Cache ownership is a long-term relationship.  Once you hide a cache, you’re responsible for checking on it periodically.  You have to make sure the container is in good shape, keep it stocked with trade items, replace the log if it gets full, and so forth.  If something happens to the cache, it’s your responsibility to pick up the container and archive the cache so that it’s no longer available to be hunted.

Like all social pursuits, geocaching has its share of informal rules and etiquette.  Do not trespass.  Observe all local regulations, such as park operating hours.  Geocachers respect the environment in which they play. Do your best to “leave no trace” when you go geocaching.   If the area requires stealth, do your best to keep the hunt and the container location secret from muggles in the area.  Always leave the container and the surrounding area as you found it.  Make sure the container is tightly closed.  If you trade, trade even or up.   Geocaching is family-friendly, so don’t leave anything which is not child-friendly (or which would be dangerous in the hands of a child) in a cache.  If you find something like that, remove it (no trade required).  Always sign the log.  Always log your find (or your “did not find”) on the geocaching.com web site.  And say something about your experience in the hunt.  The owner gets an e-mail when you log the cache online – and he or she wants to know that people are having fun hunting the cache.  If there’s something wrong (container is broken, contents are wet, or whatever), the owner wants to hear about that as well.  Don’t include anything in your log that would spoil the hunt for others.

For someone who’s new to the game, there’s a lot of introductory information – including videos – on the geocaching.com web site.  There is also a local geocaching club, the St. Louis Area Geocachers Association (SLAGA).  SLAGA does periodic introductions to geocaching in a number of venues.  Twice a year, they offer a formal Geocaching 101 class in conjunction with St. Louis County Parks.  They also do introductory activities at public events such as Park Palooza, Get Out and Play Days at Missouri State Parks, and Outdoor Expo events sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation.  SLAGA also holds social events such as picnics and informal “meet and greets” which are open to the public.  To find out what’s coming up, see the calendar on the SLAGA web site at www.slaga.org."

Submitted by Catherine Redfern, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Fundraiser

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