David Cofer spends his weekends climbing 1,000 feet through a storm drain and out a manhole—all in the name of geocaching.
This Saturday, Outdoor Chattanooga hosts Geocaching 101, a free public workshop designed to introduce a hobby that brings treasure hunting into the 21st century and connects people locally and globally, all with a few simple coordinates.
The workshop will be held at the organization’s Coolidge Park office, located at 200 River St., and will run from 10 a.m. to noon.
“It’s a very accessible, inexpensive way to get people outdoors,” said Ruth Thompson, marketing and events coordinator for Outdoor Chattanooga. “That’s our main mission.”
From the palm of your hand
The official geocaching website defines the adventure activity as “a real-world, outdoor treasure hunting game using GPS-enabled devices." The website also provides an encyclopedic page with answers to any question a novice geocacher could have, from how to play the game by the rules and how to best hide a cache to what all the new lingo means and how to use a GPS device.
A cache—short for geocache—for example, is "a container hidden that includes, at minimum, a logbook for geocachers to sign."
Maggie Kirkpatrick, who will be leading Saturday's workshop along with her husband and fellow adventurer, Richard Manning, explained that the many steps and rules of geocaching all boil down the initial concept: going on a hike to a new, weird or beautiful place and discovering a hidden object.
First, a geocacher visits the geocaching website to pick up the coordinates to a cache located nearby or anywhere on the globe. He or she plugs those coordinates into a GPS devices or a smartphone application and heads that way. Once he or she has reached the intended longitude and latitude, the geocacher has to find the cache.
Though the containers, which can be plastic lockboxes, film canisters or ammo cans, cannot be buried or cause any environmental damage, the objects are often very cleverly hidden out of plain sight.
After the geocacher makes the discovery and cracks open the container, he or she must sign the log sheet to prove the find and then fill out a similar log on the geocaching website.
Kirkpatrick and Manning first found the adventurous hobby through an orienteering class in which they were participating and then leading for whitewater rescue. The outdoor element, combined with the techy, gadget-friendly aspect, was the perfect combination for her and her husband.
Geocaching is also a favorite for families who can use the activity as an avenue to get kids outside to exercise, while also familiarizing themselves with their local area. Brian Smith, public relations coordinator for Chattanooga Parks and Recreation, himself a geocacher, noted the hobby's ability in Chattanooga to help people discover the lesser-known of the city's 65 parks.
In fact, during phase one of its geocaching project, the city department hid 17 caches, one at each community center. The department has placed nearly 40 caches to date and seen larger parks begin to be populated with treasurers that other Chattanooga geocachers are placing.
Some are on the smaller side, and some are on the large side: Somewhere at the South Chickamauga Creek Greenway is a five-gallon bucket packed full of goodies, waiting for the right explorer.
Chattanooga is home to:
—17 neighborhood community centers
—4,800 acres of park space
"This is a low-cost, family fun adventure, which is something we try to provide no matter what," Smith said. "The responses have been exactly what we were hoping for—people didn't realize these parks were here, and they can't wait to come back."
Other geocachers are driven by the historical significance of the cache. Kirkpatrick and Manning trekked up to Cookeville, led by the clue that the cache was with someone that was a "real survivor." They found the cache by the tombstone of the only person who survived the Custer massacre at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana in 1876.
In addition to traversing storm drains, Cofer has canoed down a creek into an old mining cave to find a cache in Etowah, Ga. He even uncovered a diamond ring once in a cache.
Kirkpatrick said she and her husband are drawn to the exploration nature of the hobby. They even traveled to California on one trip, hiking on hills right next to the coast.
"We could look out and see the ocean," she said. "It was really a fantastic experience that geocaching led us to."
Starting your own adventure
Saturday's workshop will include a talk about the basic how-tos, the rules of the game, what to expect when finding a cache for the first time and hiding a cache for the first time, and other ins and outs, like geocoins, swag and trackballs.
Kirkpatrick and Manning will be joined by fellow geocachers Cofer, Carol Moon and Nathan Lewis.
In the second hour of the workshop, the experts will turn the group loose in Coolidge Park and work with those new to the hobby to find the caches hidden in the area. Lunch will then be held at River Street Deli.
It's not hard to find oneself bitten by the geocaching bug, and, as Cofer noted, it's a popular way to connect to the Chattanooga area and other adventure-minded Chattanoogans.
"The local geocaching community is really strong," he said. "It's nothing for somebody to call me up and say, 'Let's go out this Saturday and pick up a few.' We've gone as far away as Indiana, but usually we stay closer with Nashville, Knoxville or Birmingham. There are a lot of caches relatively close."