Adventure seekers find their way and more with geocaching
By Raoul V. Mowatt
Tribune staff writer
Published September 13, 2002

The Bible tells us, "Seek and you shall find." But after an afternoon of pushing back branches, treading through a foot-deep stream, and puzzling over just where I was with a high-tech divining rod, I can guarantee that's not always the case.

It was my first attempt at geocaching, a hobby for those seeking some direction in their lives.

For the past two years, people have been planting boxes in cities, rural areas, parks and the like. They leave clues about the stashes, including their latitude and longitude, and plant it for people to discover using global positioning system units.

Because I'm not exactly the second coming of Davey Crockett, I decided to partner with someone who actually knows what he's doing.

Kelly Markwell, a 35-year-old information systems specialist, has been geocaching for more than a year. He has found about 90 caches, has hidden about 15 and goes out searching about every weekend. "I'm kind of obsessed," he confesses with a laugh.

But he says the hobby has helped his family bond together. It has also helped him discover new places in the area where he was born. And he says he's lost 25 to 30 pounds through all the hiking.

"It's something that gets me out from in front of my computer," he said.

One thing I didn't understand originally about geocaching was where the sport was in finding something when you've got fancy-schmancy devices giving you coordinates for it.

I quickly found out that the equipment not all that precise.

"This will get you within a football field," Markwell says.

The caches themselves can range in size from the a film canister to a 5-gallon container. Most are salvaged .30-caliber ammunition boxes that become home to a number of items. The person who sets up a cache has a log book for finders to jot down their experiences. Most feature knickknacks that the finders can claim as prizes, but only if they replace what they take with new items.

At his home in Plainfield, Markfield laid out his geocaching weaponry. He has two GPS devices, the one he got when he started that cost about $100 and a newer model with more bells and whistles that costs twice that. He has a compass in case something goes wrong with both. He's got his items to swap with those in caches including a toy motorcycle, a toy car, a tennis ball, and CDs he made of music suitable for geocaching. He's got munchies, water, insect repellent and a whistle to summon help.

I'm thinking, the Boy Scouts have nothing on this guy.

By going on the geocaching website, we found and decided on two sites within Kendall County.

Getting to the coordinates in the first case is fairly simple. After we park, we walk maybe five minutes to a rusting bridge. Once there, I try to follow Markwell's advice: look for things that seem to be out of place.

Neither of us spotted anything obvious. So we started looking in the framework of the bridge, over the side and anywhere else we can think of. Markwell told me there are limits to where it could be because the person who hid the cache rated it has having a difficulty of only two out of five stars.

Trying to peer through cracks between the wood, Markwell periodically got himself dirty by lying on the bridge.

"This is where it becomes like a mind game," Markwell said. The person who left the cache "is trying to outsmart me and I need to see if I can figure out what he's done."

After about 20 minutes, neither of us had any clue where it could be. So we moved onward.

I felt a little deflated that my first geocaching experience was a bust, especially as there were so few places it could have been.

Later, Markwell told me that the site had apparently been "plundered" -- in other words, someone had walked off with the box. That often happens when someone uninvolved with geocaching stumbles on it and doesn't know what to make of it. At other points, it's because someone is just being obnoxious.

Our second search was for the "Best Cache by a Dam Site," or so it was called on the geocaching site.

The wooded area came as a relief on that hot Saturday. Then Markwell told me, "Tall grass like this, ticks love it." Doubts about my future in geocaching suddenly grew.

But we pressed on, even though he had neither pith helmet nor machete in his black backpack.

Shortly after we took a circuitous route to the coordinates, I peered in a hollow tree stump near where the box was supposed to be. "You walked right by it," Markwell said. And there in all its glory was an olive green box with all sorts of hidden treasure.

Among the contents of the box were a cd, a children's book and a log in which cachers were meant to note what they took, what they left and any other thoughts on their experience finding the site.

The quest had ended a success.


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