Selena Rotz is a treasure hunter, and on a recent afternoon she made a good find in the tiny town of Peck.
“This puts me at 333,” said Rotz, who has been into a game called geocaching a little more than a year.
Kansas has more than 12,000 geocaching treasures waiting to be discovered. Sedgwick County alone has 1,700, and there are more than 3 million worldwide.
Geocaching’s treasures, called caches, have all been hidden by other geocachers. The global positioning coordinates to the caches, plus more directions and fun clues, are posted online.
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Hopeful geocachers can enter a location, and a map will show nearby caches. Once a person picks a particular cache to hunt for, they follow arrows, directions and clues to find it. All caches contain a logbook for finders to sign, and some have trinkets or other small treasures.
“There’s so much to like about geocaching,” said Rotz, of Belle Plaine. “Anybody can do it, and there’s not any place you go where you can’t geocache.”
According to geocaching.com, the official site for the game, 191 of the world’s 193 countries have caches, including more than 40 on Antarctica and one on the international space station. That’s a lot of growth, in what’s really a very short history.
Getting people outdoors
Bryan Roth, president and co-founder of Groundspeak, the company that runs the online site and most things geocaching, said the game got its start with improvements in civilian global positioning systems in about 2000. It wasn’t long before people were hiding caches – a box or similar package, often containing a trinket – and posting the GPS coordinates online, with some hints, and challenging friends to find them.
Roth and his partners launched the website in mid-2000 as a place to list, or find, the coordinates.
“We’ve always loved the idea of using technology to get people off their couches and outdoors,” said Roth. “It’s an easy way for people to have fun, together, outside.”
Early growth was steady as participants used hand-held GPS units. Roth said interest exploded when free applications became available for cellphones in about 2010.
“That meant people could play the game with a device that was already in their pocket nearly all of the time,” said Roth. “It took us 10 years to get to 1 million caches listed. Three years later we reached 2 million, and in April we reached 3 million caches.”
He said last year it’s estimated that 7 million people geocached in some part of the world.
Most apps for cellphones are free, as is access to many cache coordinates. Roth’s group charges a $30 annual premium membership, which gives people access to coordinates for all cache locations.
“I spend more for that to go out to dinner, and not even a good dinner,” said Ryan Semmel, an avid geocacher from Manhattan. “At least geocaching helps me get into better shape. That’s not much money for all it provides. This is about as inexpensive of a hobby as you can find.”
Caches may be as small as tiny metal pill tubes, holding just enough paper for finders to log their geocaching handle and date.
Others are larger, like gallon plastic bags wrapped in camouflage tape or metal ammo boxes. Traditional caches contain trinkets, known as swag, an acronym for “stuff we all get.” Most geocachers carry their own swag and swap for something they find in a cache. Many spend a few minutes looking over the log sheet, to see when, and by whom, the cache previously has been found.
Rotz said some caches are easy to see while others take some looking, even once in the immediate area. She’s found them stashed up in trees, tucked behind rocks, and pulled from deep within pipes with a thin piece of wire.
One of Rotz’s favorite caches was a special handmade box that took several minutes to figure how to open.
Sometimes the cache isn’t found, either because it’s too well hidden or it was stolen. Rotz once climbed to near the summit of Pike’s Peak, looking for a cache she never found.
“It was a lot of work … climbing to where it was supposed to be,” she said. “We didn’t find it, but just sitting up there and looking at the view was amazing. One of the things I like best are the places (geocaching) takes me. There are all kinds of great places I would never have seen otherwise.”
Roth said Kansas has long been involved in geocaching. In fact, tiny Mingo, in far western Kansas, is almost a holy land for many who play the game.
“The Mingo cache is the oldest active cache in the entire world,” Roth said of the cache that was created in 2000. “It’s a really big deal in the geocaching community. People travel from all over the globe to come to Mingo, Kansas, to find that one cache. So far it’s been found 5,852 times, and that’s a lot.”
“A lot” would also describe the more than 1,100 geocachers that Semmel said came from across the country to Manhattan last month to participate in a weekend-long mega-caching event called the Midwest Open Geocache Adventure.
Semmel and a crew of volunteers placed about 260 new caches within a 20-mile radius of Manhattan for the event. Those were in addition to the 350 caches already in the area, but some Kansas towns have more.
Kent Volgamore, a Wichitan who has been into geocaching since a few months after the game began, estimated there are 800 caches within Wichita. The town also has some avid geocachers. Volgamore has found about 11,000 caches, but said some local geocachers have found upwards of 50,000. Such numbers take both dedication and a willingness to travel. Many geocachers have both.
To get his more than 4,000 caches, Semmel has geocached in 26 states and six foreign countries. The latter were visited when he was stationed in Germany, during his time in the military.
Susan Turpin, of Scott City, was introduced to the game about six years ago when winds were too high for boating on Cedar Bluff Reservoir during a family gathering. Since then, she and her sister, Rose Gourley, have become “crazy, but only a little bit crazy,” over the game. She tells of taking a cross-country trip in a small plane and forcing time to look for caches at every stop for fuel or food.
With a bit of a layover at a Chicago airport, she and her sister walked three-quarters of a mile, each way, so they could say they’d found a cache in Illinois. Visiting friends in Maryland, they talked their hosts into taking them to search for caches in nearby Pennsylvania and West Virginia so they could add caches from those states to their total.
The sisters were in Manhattan last month to find 200 new caches. This spring they also took a long weekend drive so they could cache in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado in one weekend. It’s obvious the swag, and adding numbers to her total of about 3,500 finds, isn’t the only reason Turpin takes such trips.
During a phone interview, Turpin laughed often as she told of things like car problems, missed turns, stumbles and funny things she and her sister have seen on their many caching trips.
“I guess we do some crazy things for geocaching, but it’s something we enjoy doing and we really enjoy doing it together,” Turpin said. “It’s just so much fun, and so much fun wherever we do it. We really just love it.”
1. Register at geocaching.com.
You’ll need to list an e-mail account and create a handle and a password. Check out the introductory video for more information.
Basic memberships are free. Premium memberships, which offer more caches, are $30.
2. Download a geocaching app on your smartphone for free.
From there, just follow the directions. Eventually the screen will show your current location and dots of all caches in the immediate area. Tap a dot, and you’ll be able to start following arrows, distances, directions and clues.
Since many caches are in grassy or wooded areas, use insect repellant. A spare pen or pencil for signing logbooks can come in handy, as can things like tweezers, pliers and gloves to help open cache containers. If you take swag from a cache, you are expected to replace it, so take along small toys, coins or ink pens to swap for something you find in a cache.