21st-century treasure hunt

New hobby ‘caches in’ on high-tech hide-and-seek

BEAR WITH IT Ken Sobon, who hid the Bear’s Lair cache, is surprised at how quickly people rush out to find a new cache. “Some of them, it’s in a day or less. As soon as you log it on the Web site, they’re there.”

BEAR WITH IT Ken Sobon, who hid the Bear’s Lair cache, is surprised at how quickly people rush out to find a new cache. “Some of them, it’s in a day or less. As soon as you log it on the Web site, they’re there.”

Photo By Tom Angel

The search is on: Stories vary on who “invented” geocaching. According to geocaching Web sites, the first person to hide a cache is said to be Dave Ulmer, near Portland, Ore., on May 3, 2000. Geocaching.com also gives props to someone in Finland who had been using coordinates to search out locations since the 1980s.

The geocaching veterans have told us to meet them at N 39° 44.758 W 121° 48.500—also known as the Chico Creek Nature Center.

The Sobon family of Paradise, known in these circles as team Jaboobado, has agreed to take us on a high-tech treasure hunt through Bidwell Park. Ken and Brenda, 6-year-old Clarice and 4-year-old Aidan have put on their walking shoes for the Sunday afternoon adventure.

Armed with a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit, we’ll be able to get within 12 to 15 feet of our cache—a hidden container of booty in the form of small trinkets and a notebook in which to log our success. Coordinates obtained from an Internet site, which lists nearly 50 caches in the Butte County area and 680 of them within 100 miles, point us toward our goal. If we get stuck along the way, we can decode a clue provided by the people who hid that particular cache.

What we’re doing is called geocaching, and it’s a nearly free, family-friendly hobby that, in less than two years, has gained a worldwide following and sent people traipsing over hill and dale to test their GPS-reading skills and hide-and-seek mettle.

It wasn’t until then-President Bill Clinton, in May 2000, unscrambled the GPS signal, making it available to general audiences, that the game was on. The GPS receiver uses signals from satellites orbiting the Earth to determine a location via triangulation.

GPS systems are now standard in some cars, cell phones and personal digital assistants. But handheld units can be purchased separately for as little as $100. More accurate—and expensive—models can hone in as close as 3 feet from the given coordinates. Many hunters first plug the coordinators into an Internet mapping site such as MapBlast to get a general idea of where the cache is, to see if they can get close in their Honda Civic or will finally get full use of that SUV.

The cache the Sobons are looking for today is called “Northeast of the Bear’s Lair.” Ken and Clarice know where it is, because they’re the ones who hid it. But Brenda and Aidan weren’t along that day, so it’s a surprise to them.

With Clarice holding the GPS unit and following its digital arrow, we walk beyond the nature center past a concrete enclosure I never knew was the bear cage of the Chico Zoo, circa 1950.

CACHE AND CARRY The contents of the cache have already turned around from when Steve Hillis’ class left it in Princeton. Now, there are some wintergreen Tic Tacs, a watch, a rattlesnake skull and some other stuff. Pictured from left are: Steve, Kevin, Alex, Arthur and Joe.

Photo By Tom Angel

This is half the intrigue of geocaching: new discoveries. “It’s taken us to places we’ve never been,” Ken Sobon says. The family has traveled to places such as Paradise Lake, Lookout Point and Bald Rock ("It was all junk"—a white-elephant cache, Aidan reports.)

“This is the first hobby that we both like and we’ve both been able to do,” said Ken Sobon, a science teacher who read about geocaching last year in a computer-related magazine.

“This is the fun part,” Sobon says, pointing to the data fields displayed on the GPS unit. It shows we are .15 miles from our quarry. But that’s as the crow flies. “If you follow where the crow flies, you can find yourself in all kinds of poison oak,” Brenda Sobon warns.

Which brings up another critical component of the ethical cache-hunter—don’t mess up nature. Geocachers also take a page from the hikers’ moral manual and tote out any trash they might find.

Dennis Beardsley, director of the city’s Parks Department, had never heard of geocaching but says as long as nobody’s disturbing natural habitat or otherwise tearing up the park, it sounds like nothing but good, clean fun.

“Bidwell Park is for people to use,” he says. “I don’t see any problem with it.”

Geocachers also vow not to use federal land or private property for their games. And you don’t take the cache away with you; it’s left for more people to find.

We still have logs to climb over and vines to traverse before we’re within snooping distance of the cache. Caches are not buried, but their waterproof container might be tucked among some rocks or a log.

All the while, the kids have been having a blast. Aidan has picked a dandelion, and both of them crawled into part of the bears’ cage, now grown over with park brush.

GPS SAVVY Daughter Clarice watches as Ken Sobon follows Geocaching.com’s recommendation of marking his car’s location as a waypoint to avoid getting lost. “The final 30-100 feet is the hardest,” the site warns. “It helps to think like the person who hid the cache.”

Photo By Tom Angel

“Ta-da!” shouts Brenda Sobon, spying the cache peeking out of some groundcover. The kids scurry to pry open the Rubbermaid container and inspect the contents. There are plenty of prizes, including a pressed flower kit, Happy Meal toys and baseball cards. Clarice and Aidan quickly stake their claim on a handful of coins.

“The kids love it because of the treasure aspect,” says Ken Sobon, even though “they’re just exchanging their junk for somebody else’s junk.”

I’ve brought a vintage 1980s Smurf figure, which we swap for a Baltimore Orioles team card. (My geocaching name is Scoopdogg, by the way.)

The Sobons are excited to see that several people have logged their visit, including some from Mesa, Ariz. “One of the most rewarding things is to hide them and have people log in and say, ‘I found your cache and now I’m hooked.’ I love getting those e-mails,” Ken Sobon says.

We also find a remnant of something that’s legendary in geocaching circles: a ring box, in which a man stashed a gumball machine ring with which to propose to his sweetie. That was last September, and the woman logged her response: “I said ‘yes.'” Two days later, a couple celebrating their 37th anniversary wished the couple as many great years as they’ve shared.

One of the couples who logged the Bear’s Lair cache is Don and Jacqi Lilliard, who go geocaching as “Rock” and “Crystal” in honor of their shared love of rock hunting. They both work for Butte County.

Just a few months ago, the Paradise couple was visiting a relative who knew about GPS and geocaching and pointed them to the Web site. “It was kind of a trip to be in Southern California and pull up a cache in Paradise,” Don Lilliard says. They got a GPS for Christmas 2002 and have already logged 47 caches.

“We’re looking for our first 100 and then our second 100,” he says. They eventually want to travel to Alaska to seek caches. Last month, they vacationed for a long weekend in Oregon. “The whole trip was devoted to geocaching.” They even found a “virtual” cache, in which they had to stand in front of a Web-connected camera in Ashland. Jacqi’s mom, contacted by cell phone, used her computer to capture the photo, which must be uploaded to prove they were there. “We stood there like a couple of idiots waving at this camera,” Don Lilliard remembers with pleasure.

The Lilliards are loving the exercise, views, history, meeting people and the family aspect to the hunts. They usually bring along their 6-year-old daughter, Michelle. “She loves it. It’s like goes to Toys R Us for her,” Jacqi Lilliard says.

Photo By Tom Angel

When you find a cache, her husband says, “you’d think it was gold doubloons.”

“The whole idea of this worldwide game where people can place things and anyone who comes along can add to it,” Jacqi Lilliard says. “It’s really addictive.”

Carol and Ned Lyke also incorporate geocaching in their vacations. The Castro Valley residents found some caches while visiting Chico.

“We find this ‘sport’ enticing because it combines hiking, orienteering, birding and botanizing … with a good old-fashioned treasure hunt,” Carol Lyke says. “When we go to new areas, like we did a week ago in Chico and Quincy, we’re able to explore places often not on the usual tourist beat.”

“It’s good fun,” adds Ned Lyke.

Steve Hillis, who travels from his Chico home to teach school in the Glenn County town of Princeton, has made geocaching a class project, helping the teens develop map-reading and listening skills.

His Community Day School students have “planted” two caches near the school. They were excited when someone found one right away. “They didn’t think it would happen,” Hillis says. The class also hid a cache near the Princeton Ferry.

The cache near the school is called “What’s that Smell,” because it’s within sniffing distance of a stinky canal. The Lilliards have already found this cache.

Players take great care and pleasure in naming their caches, which in the Chico area have such diverse titles as “Nora’s Octopus,” “Wood Duck Cache” and “Run Like an Antelope.”

The caches, rated on the Internet site, range in difficulty from one to five. “I’ve only done up to two,” Hillis admits. A level five cache could involve SCUBA gear.

“The more interesting place the better. [Sometimes], it’s right in the middle of where everyone else goes, but you have to go looking for it," he says of the cache locations. "Anywhere I go on vacation I’m going to look for them."