By Laura Ruane, News-Press
It's a form of outdoor recreation that taps into space-age technology using gear that costs as little as $100.
And, if you own a smartphone, a $10 app alone will launch you quite nicely into the world of geocaching.
Geocaching is a treasure hunt of sorts that is guided by location-based coordinates generated by satellites. Additional clues from solving word or number puzzles or answering questions about area history or ecology also might be involved in the quest for a cache.
Boomers and empty-nesters are big geocaching fans, but families with elementary school-age youngsters also can participate. Adherents of all ages said it's another great way to enjoy being outdoors and learn more about the area in which you live or where you are visiting.
Flexibility is one of geocaching's biggest selling points.
"You can make it your life or just do it on vacations," said Brian Wyllie, 65, a retiree and ardent geocacher who lives in south Fort Myers. He's geocached since 2008, and has logged about 2,900 finds.
Depending on the cache's location, Wyllie might look for it on foot, on a bicycle or in a kayak. There even a few underwater caches for scuba enthusiasts.
Most commonly, though, caches are on land.
"We're seeing an exciting expansion of geocaching as more state and city parks embrace geocaching as a way to enable people to explore their surroundings," said Eric Schudiske, spokesman for Groundspeak Inc., the Seattle-based creator and manager of geocaching.com, the website that most people in the hobby consider an authoritative source.
Phyllis Faust of Fort Myers, started geocaching about a year ago.
"I love being outdoors, being in the elements, seeing the animals and plants," Faust said. She's a Florida master gardener and master naturalist, and sees geocaching as an extension of those interests.
Getting started on the hunt requires a Global Positioning Satellite device or a smartphone with a geocaching app. Tablet PCs also are getting into the act.
However, many geocachers prefer the more rugged and water-resistant hand-held GPS devices when they are on the water or out in the wild. These devices have price tags ranging from just under $100 to several hundred dollars, depending on the features.
Traditional caches are waterproof containers with a logbook one can sign and some sort of small toy or memento inside, which cachers are free to take. They can be as big as a bucket or as small as your pinky fingernail. Some cache-makers are true craftsmen: One of Wyllie's caches is camouflaged as a pine cone.
Geocaching etiquette holds that you bring something of equal or greater value to replace what you take, and that you return the container to its original location.
In some environmentally sensitive areas, including Lee County 2020 Conservation lands, the rules prohibit caches with containers and trinkets.
Instead, there are virtual or "earth caches." People seeking earth caches learn some earth science related to the area on their journey. If they successfully answer some very specific questions about their destination on geocaching.com, they are rewarded with recognition for their find.
People who seek traditional, physical caches also commonly go to geocaching.com to check for caches in their vicinity, and to report finds or problems with a cache. A basic site membership is free, with a premium membership listing details for more caches costing about $30 annually.
According to geocaching.com, the United States is close to reaching 1 million active geocaches. Currently about 38,000 of those are in Florida. There are more than 1.9 million active geocaches around the world and more than 5 million geocachers.
Wyllie estimates there are at least 1,500 caches between the cities of Cape Coral and Fort Myers, alone. These include at least 11 new caches along the shared-use path paralleling the Metro Parkway Extension that opened last year. Another two dozen can be found in the 10-mile-long John Yarborough Linear Park that has an off-road, paved trail frequented by walkers and cyclists.
Altogether, there are about 60 geocaching opportunities in Lee County parks, and another 20 on county 20/20 land, said Mike Hammond, 20/20 ranger.
At Hammond's request, geocacher Wyllie recently established earth caches at three preserves that recently opened to the public: Wild Turkey Strand, Powell Creek and Popash Creek.
Geocaching "gets people into some of the smaller parks and places off the beaten paths," Hammond said. International tourists, "especially people from Germany," seem to like geocaching, according to Hammond.
At Lovers Key State Park in Bonita Springs, administrative assistant Catherine Bowron said geocachers have a reputation for being eco-friendly. Periodic "Cache In, Trash Out" or CITO events such as one at the park last year not only acquaint cachers with the park, but also leave the grounds tidier. Bowron hopes another CITO event will be at the park this March. No date yet has been set.
Geocacher Bob Beville of Fort Myers added that, "For every cache in a woodsy environment, there are probably 10 in an urban setting." For example, Beville said, "There's one at the CVS (drugstore) I go to."
Nationally, "we're seeing an influx of customers who discover and experience geocaching solely through their smartphones," said Schudiske at Groundspeak.
People who begin geocaching through one of Groundspeak's smartphone apps do occasionally invest in handheld GPS devices, Schudiske noted, adding that, although today's handheld GPS devices tend to be more accurate, durable and offer longer battery life than traditional smartphones, the phones are quickly closing the gap.
Regardless of the device, Schudiske notes, "there's a hunt involved, there's exploration, some learning and a little adventure."