Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 1:30 am
By ERIN HEFFERNAN
It was the idea of a treasure hunt that got me. It sent me exploring through a hidden nature preserve and had me searching headstones at Old City Cemetery, thinking about legends of buried treasure all the way.
I was geocaching — learning to play the game that now has more than 6 million participants using GPS coordinates to hunt for hidden containers. All you need is a smartphone or other GPS device to search for caches hidden with clues from other players.
I knew that Galveston, with all its history and natural spaces, would be a prime spot to pick up the hobby.
So I set out on the hunt.
I started by going to geocaching.com, the largest website to post caches and find coordinates. The website, launched in 2000, claims more than 2.5 million active caches registered around the world. Anyone can register a cache on the website and post the coordinates and hints to help players find it. Most have logs to track the names and dates of finds and some have small trinkets that players exchange.
There are more than 40 geocaches on the island now that have been found by hundreds of people. They are placed near parks, historical homes and, strangely common in geocaching, cemeteries. The containers have already been found by families, tourists and locals, who then post about their find on the cache’s page online. Some logs I found are filled with signatures and dates stretching back years.
All kinds making finds
“You get all types geocaching,” Bert Marshall, the Southeast Texas representative for the Texas Geocaching Association, told me when I called to ask about the hobby. “They could be a truck driver, a mom from the suburbs or a rocket scientist for NASA,” he said. “I’ve met all of those people geocaching.”
Marshall has been geocaching for 11 years and is well known among local cachers for organizing events and posting videos of his searches under the name BaytownBert.
He has logged more than 5,000 finds and often goes on long journeys for some of the most difficult caches requiring solutions to complicated puzzles or walking into the deep woods. He’s found caches hidden by secret codes or requiring you to scale a 15-foot tree.
I was not about to scale a tree. So instead, I started with the very basics — trailing 6-year-olds at Galveston Island State Park’s Geocaching 101 class. It’s an easy and welcoming introduction to the hobby.
A trend appears
The workshop started after parks departments across the country caught on to the geocaching trend and Texas Parks and Wildlife stashed caches in every state park.
“It’s a way of getting some younger people that are into technology to come out to the parks,” Lisa Reznicek, a park interpreter who runs the geocaching workshop, said. “We’ve noticed that the average age of some of our educational events tends to be older people, so this is something that would bring someone different to the park and get the younger people into their phones out into nature.”
Reznicek’s workshop is good for families with young kids and people looking for help getting started with the technology involved in geocaching.
Reznicek takes the workshop around the nature center for a few simple finds.
The young kids lit up when they found the hiding spots — even if the trinket inside was an odd choice: a single baby’s sock.
The state parks re-hide geocaches every year as part of a program called the Geocache Challenge.
“At the start of the challenge, we’ll get people lining up to be the first to find them and then it’s a race,” Reznicek said. “The caches usually just take care of themselves; we’ll just send someone once in a while to check that it’s still there.”
Galveston Island State Park has three caches. They include trivia about the park and lead you to some lovely spots — which I won’t spoil.
The search for Lafitte’s booty
I knew I had found my second mission in learning to geocache when I saw a cache on Galveston’s West End called Lafitte’s Booty. The reference to the pirate rumored to have left behind enough treasure in this area to “ransom a nation” won me over instantly.
The cache took me to the Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve. I would never have discovered the lovely walking paths and bird-watching stations of the preserve if I had not set out to find the two caches hidden there.
For my last cache of the day, I went to Old City Cemetery — the sort of place that I drive by every day, but never actually visit. Geocaching gave me a reason and a mission to explore the interesting headstones dating back to before the 1900 Storm. I ended up at the grave of George Childress, author of the Texas Declaration of Independence, who committed suicide.
At each cache, I left behind my geocaching name, DailyNewsErin, the date and a trinket — a fake mustache. When I remembered, I logged onto geocaching.com and read the notes from the people who had found the cache before and left a message logging my find.
I went home feeling accomplished and with the sense that I knew the island just a little better.
So will I now become a loyal geocacher?
The most dedicated geocachers seek more than a nice day learning more about the places they live. As my geocaching guru, BaytownBert, put it — “It’s a game of statistics and getting finds is a point of pride for a lot of people. It becomes a sort of nerdy game of topping yourself.”
Marshall said that die-hard geocachers like to build their stats, finding increasingly complicated caches sometimes known as “evil hides” and rushing to be the first to find, FTF in the lingo, a cache.
I’m happy strolling along, finding new places and challenging myself a little more every time. But most of all, I love that small rush that comes from the hunt.
Contact reporter Erin Heffernan at 409-683-5237 or firstname.lastname@example.org