We arrived at Gatineau Park on a late November morning with a limited amount of time. The first winter storm of the season was making its way up the eastern seaboard and it had a date with Chelsea, Que. in about five hours.
Being lost in a national park was one thing, but the prospect of having to navigate out in a blizzard was less than appealing.
I was in Chelsea to try geocaching for the first time. My guide was Steffan Brown, a forest firefighter from British Columbia and avid outdoorsman.
Geocaching has been an activity on the rise over the last few years. It began as a pastime for a small group of outdoor enthusiasts but it has grown to an international community of both the hardcore and amateur participant alike.
In what is testament to the game’s success, the same weather front on its way to Chelsea had passed over hundreds of thousands of “caches” across the northeast that day alone.
‘Caches’ are in fact containers hidden across cities and parks and the activity requires players to seek them out in giant scavenger hunt.
The difference between this and what you used to do on Easter as a toddler is the use of GPS coordinates. These are logged onto a central website, Geocaching.com.
The success of geocaching has walked hand-in-hand with the growing availability of inexpensive GPS devices.
In fact, throughout the day we conducted a small experiment between the accuracy of my iPhone with the geocaching app and Brown’s professional GPS he uses for firefighting. The difference was negligible.
Apps for geocaching on the iPhone have made it extremely accessible, and affordable, for anyone to hunt for caches or place their own. Now there is something north of two million caches to be found worldwide.
The first cache we found wasn’t even the size of a thimble. A small pill size locket with a rolled up logbook inside to be signed by successful hunters. Someone had walked miles from civilization and hung it off a tree and posted the coordinates on the website.
As of the day we found it, three other people had logged they discovered it through their iPhone app. Two others had posted they gave up.
“When they mean micro, they mean micro,” said Brown after our discovery. He had never seen a cache so small, but it speaks to the evolving nature of the community.
“It’s usually a classic ammo box, wedged between trees.”
This was the case on our next cache. An ammo box was hidden on top of a mountain overlooking the park with Ottawa just visible on the horizon. It was as much a pleasure travel up that mountain as it was to find the cache.
Many geocachers place a cache not just for it to be found but to showcase something they find special about the region, like the scenery, making the activity great for tourists.
Our first attempt of the day, however, was a complete failure. After spending 45 minutes circling the shore of a swamp we gave up looking. Due to the multitude of caches, many go neglected or are stolen and this can be frustrating to the uninitiated, myself included.
As the first snowflakes began to fall, we made our way back to the park entrance, and I also learned my most important lesson of the day.
Bring a backup GPS.
iPhones are not meant to be running for five hours straight and mine had died several kilometers from where I parked the car. The pro GPS, which we had brought as an afterthought, ended up saving us from what I’m sure would have been a very uncomfortable night in the woods.
Be aware of the dangers and pack accordingly.
Don’t however let the dangers of geocaching dissuade you from trying it. An account is free. You may already have a phone capable of getting the app. It’s a great way to get off those couches and explore the city or neighborhood you think you know.