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June 2011 / Queens Family

Caught emptyhanded

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In January, I discovered that some Queens parents had been geocaching around the neighborhood with their kids, and it sounded like something that would be fun for my family.

But it took a lot of coaxing before I finally worked up the nerve to go on one of these high-tech treasure hunts with my own kid.

Geocaching involves using a Global Positioning System device to find caches, or containers, that have been hidden (but not buried) outdoors. Players then share their experiences online.

Barry, a fellow parent at my daughter’s elementary school, shared how exciting it was for him and his family to follow clues and find all the containers and their treasures.

Barry had downloaded a geocache application to his iPhone that listed all the caches within a certain zip code with clues on how to find them. A few days later, he e-mailed me a photo of his son holding a cache the size of a thimble in the palm of his hand! I couldn’t visualize myself finding something so small anywhere outdoors, much less in a pile of foliage.

Then, a few months later, Barry sent me another e-mail. He had been on a business trip in Los Angeles and, while there, he had gone geocaching.

In one of his caches, he had found a “geobug,” or a tag with a alphabetical and numerical code on it, which can be followed online as it is moved from cache to cache. The geobugs are tracked on maps on the geocache website, which also lists caches all over the world that can be uploaded to GPS programs on iPads, BlackBerries, and Androids.

Barry brought the geobug home to Queens and planned to place it in a cache in the area. On a Saturday in March, Barry and his clan went to Flushing Meadow Park and found three out of the four caches. He said that inside every geocache container, there’s a written log on which you record the date that you found the box. Some of the caches request you take something out of the container and replace it with something of equal value. Placing the geobug in one such cache, Barry later logged its code online, and he and his family watched it move across the map from California to New York.

The way he described the day — walking through the park, trekking through the grass and trees with his nearest and dearest — sounded like they had all enjoyed their explorations. From my perspective, it seemed that no matter how futile it might be to search for something of no value that I may never actually find, geocaching could at least get me and my family outside and exercising when we have nothing better to do.

Barry admitted that, during his family’s outing, some onlookers did gave funny looks. Geocachers call bystanders “muggles,” (for you non-magicians, the word comes from the “Harry Potter” books) and mention in their caches to “beware of muggles.” Not only must geocachers place their caches secretly enough so that the general public can’t find them, but they must also be aware of bystanders — so they don’t question their explorations and call the police.

The following month, while I was on vacation in Florida, I was surfing the applications store on my Android for geocache apps. There were six, so I downloaded a free app with the highest user-approval rating.

For someone who can’t even read a compass, I thought the application was amazing. It had a live Google map that positioned my exact location at that moment, all the nearest caches within a mile, and directions on how to get to each location. There was a compass that provided the coordinates of each cache, and indicated how close I was to standing on the exact latitude and longitude of the container. Most importantly, the application led me to the geocache website, which has instructions on geocaching, and sells gear and containers for exploration.

The website also allows geocachers to create their own accounts and write about their experiences. Geocachers have their own lingo on their logs, which I needed to decipher to understand their comments. For example, DNF means “did not find,” and TFTC stands for “thanks for the cache.” Encouraging other participants to be environmentally aware, geocachers sometimes write “cache in, trash out,” which indicates that they are keeping their exploration areas clean of garbage.

After perusing the list of comments for the nearby caches, I found many of the logs had been written by tourists who were visiting Florida and were happy to explore beautiful areas near their hotels that never would have been listed in a guidebook.

In the end, I chose two caches that had been found and logged in within the past week. Both were in public parks, so if my daughter got impatient, my mother could take her to the playground while I continued to search.

With all this new-found technology at my fingertips, I set off the next day with my family, camera, and Android in tow. One of the caches said that if we found it, we should put something in it. These replaceable objects, called “geoswag,” can be anything of little monetary value, such as coins, key chains, plastic toys, or stickers. For my cache, I brought along a bag of marbles because, figuratively speaking, I was sure I was going to lose mine just by participating in this activity.

The first cache, named “Buttonwood” by its creator, was in a public park where there were signs describing the different trees planted there. The coordinates took us to a sign which described buttonwood trees. After about two minutes of searching, my daughter gave up and decided she wanted to go to the nearby playground instead.

Continuing to comb the area for the next 10 minutes, I searched every buttonwood tree and found nothing. I dropped the bag of marbles under one of the trees, because I felt sorry for anyone else who was going to search fruitlessly for the container. Never again in my life will I forget what a buttonwood tree looks like!

My mother was willing to accompany me on the second cache, because she liked that we had been learning about indigenous vegetation. But during the search for “What a Racquet,” the only knowledge we acquired was about places to play tennis for free.

One of the logs said that the box could be found at the exact coordinates listed for the cache. Again, as my daughter opted for the playground, I paced through the park trying to find the exact coordinates. I ended up across the street from the tennis court, standing in front of an orange traffic-safety cone hiding the tow pull on the front of a boat. Removing the cone, I saw a bunch of tiny wires tied around the tow, but no container.

Exasperated, I returned to New York and told Barry about my experiences. He told me it was hard to find caches, as they are not always exactly at the coordinates, and are hidden in areas that blend in well with their surroundings. Assuring me that I would find my next cache, Barry said he and his family were going geocaching at his son’s birthday party at the Alley Pond Environmental Center.

During the party, the staff gave us a guided tour of the outside area. While the kids and parents walked on the wooden paths around the pond, Barry held up his iPhone and walked through poison ivy, thorn bushes and tall grasses. Prepared to search with him in my long pants and rain boots, I ventured into the treacherous elements with a few other willing families. After 10 minutes of searching under every rock, bush and tree, we came out empty-handed.

Trying to find that elusive hidden treasure, I still go on my geocaching application every day to scout out the neighborhood for caches — in parks, at historical landmarks, or just in a place that is described as: “Go at sunset. The view is beautiful.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever find a cache, but I reassure myself that it’s not about the destination — but rather the journey.

If you’re interested in geocaching, visit www.geocaching.com.

Allison Plitt is a staff writer for Family Publications New York. If you have any ideas you’d like to share with her about resources for families in Queens, please feel free to contact her at allisonplitt@hotmail.com.

Updated 4:23 pm, June 15, 2011
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