Hidden Treasure in a Plastic Container: Geochaching in the Yukon, and around the world

“Okay, it should be near… here… six metres… four metres…” Shane Griffiths says, reading from a display on his iPhone.

What we’re looking for, I’m not sure — just that someone has hidden a container somewhere behind Yukon College. Something meant to be found.

“Ah, here,” says Griffiths, turning over a log and finding a ragged zip-lock baggie.

Inside there’s a pill bottle. And inside that, a small panda charm, a quarter, and a log sheet.

“It’s just a small one,” says Griffiths. “You find them that are a lot more elaborate.”

We are geocaching, hunting for hidden objects using the Global Positioning System, (GPS). Think of treasure hunting with a modern-day twist.

“It has its roots in orienteering,” says Griffiths, who’s been geocaching for about three years, after being introduced to it by his brother-in-law. “When you add GPS and the Internet, it really became a community.”

On May 2, 2000, according to the Geocaching.com website, the GPS satellite system was upgraded to allow much more precise location-finding.

It didn’t take long for people to figure out how to have fun with the new system: hide something in the woods, mark the co-ordinates, and send them out to other GPS enthusiasts. By the fall of that year, it was a full-fledged movement.

Today, more than six million people geocache, searching for 2.2 million caches around the world, including 250 in the Yukon.

“Sometimes the trails around town get boring,” says Griffiths. “This is a great way to find new trails, explore new areas around town. We’ve walked some paths dozens of times, only to find out there’s a cache just a few metres off the trail.

“It’s good clean exercise, and gets the kids out with a goal. They really see it as a treasure hunt.”

There’s a spiritual aspect for others, connecting to the land, which makes geocaching a special activity.

“For me, first of all, it’s the journey that counts, hiking in a forest, in the mountains, or discovering a village or town,” says Michael de Jong, a 42-year-old accounting clerk living in the Netherlands. “But it’s also the reward at the end, the geocache, the crown of the day. It’s the thrill of finding it and also of opening it and discovering what’s inside.

“It’s actually geocaching that has made me discover my own country.”

De Jong calls himself a dinosaur of geocaching, having started in 2001. He’s collected nearly 800 caches in more than a dozen European countries — but he considers that a low amount. He emphasizes unique geographic locations or special caches instead of sheer quantity.

The dropping cost of the technology and its ease of use has made geocaching a growing sport. All you need is an app on your smartphone. Sign up on the Geocaching.com website, and you are set, Griffiths says.

Some geocachers have made a special trip to the Yukon.

“We have had guests who travel specifically to geocache,” says Nancy Tanner, the manager of Beez Kneez Bakpakers in downtown Whitehorse. One couple from Kelowna was so into it they convinced Tanner to help them set up a geocache near the hostel. They sent her a rubber boot with a picture of a bee on it. The cache is now tucked inside it, under a rock, hidden in the trees at the base of the clay cliffs. Tanner checks on it periodically.

“It was all new to me, I guess I got caught up in their enthusiasm,” she says.

The many variations of geocaching have made it more of a live-puzzle game than an exercise in reading co-ordinates from a cell phone. Some caches are in urban areas, hidden in plain sight. Some are as big as water barrels, others as small as the pill bottle we found. There are varying levels of difficulty, from beginner to expert.

Many treasures are interactive. Hunters are encouraged to leave a message or swap goodies in the cache. In some caches, specially-tagged coins can be taken from one box and put in another, a few miles or a continent away. Geocachers can follow the coin’s travels on the website.

Any member of Geocaching.com can create a cache and personalize it.

“We made one up with a back-to-school theme, with my kids’ old lunch box and thermos,” says Griffiths. “And somewhere in Granger we put a cache with dinosaur toys.”

As with any activity, geocaching can bring out the competition in some people.

“I know of guys with thousands of cache finds,” says Griffiths. “But for me, it’s just a great way to get out and do stuff outside with the kids.”

Still, he adds to his cache record whenever he can — and has found them in four provinces and territories so far.

And even the long Yukon winter doesn’t stop die-hards. Treasure can be found any time of year, thanks to the technology.

However, some old-school Yukon sensibilities still apply. Go with friends, tell people where you’re going, and when you expect to return. And every once in a while, look around as you wander.

“We’ve seen lots of wildlife,” says Griffiths. “So far, the worst has been when our dog chased after a porcupine. Still, you have to be careful.”

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