Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Modern-day Treasure Hunting: For the Love of the Cache

A friend of mine recently mentioned that she was "nearing 30..." and the first thought through my mind was that she can't be nearing 30, cause we're the same age. But regardless of whether I acknowledge it or not, life is moving forward and I'm caught in the stream. One way I plan to avoid getting caught in the shallows is to try new experiences. Be adventuresome. So we decided to try geocaching!

On Friday, my husband and I took off work and drove about two hours north to the Piedmont/ Blue Ridge region of the Appalachian mountains.

Amicalola Falls State ParkOur first stop was Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville, GA. We had two objectives here: (1) hike down and then back up the (alleged) 600 steps along the waterfall ravine, and (2) find the geocache hidden near the lodge.

[About geocaching: Some friends of ours (I'll call them S & S) are big-time into geocaching, driving around all day with a handheld GPS, hunting down hidden caches by their coordinates, logging in, moving on to the next one. They were the ones who finally convinced us to try geocaching by lending us their little Garmin GPS. Here's what it's all about.]

The Georgia State Parks has a Geo-Challenge, which states if you find all 42 caches hidden in that many parks and historic sites, and stamp your PassPort with that park's unique stamp, you get geo-coins! A bronze coin for 15 caches, silver for 30, and gold for 40. Since we enjoy (and need an excuse) to hike in parks anyway, these are the caches we'll do, rather than those hidden in people's yards or in parking lots. We'll save those for days we're really bored.

So first we hiked the falls. We are also part of the Georgia Canyon Climbers Club, which means if we hike all four state parks that take part in this club, we get bragging rights. Oh yeah, and a t-shirt. (We're really not suckers for kitschy prizes, I promise!)

We parked at the top of the falls, climbed down about 425 steps to see this:

Amicalola Falls

From the bridge straddling the falls, we enjoyed the cool breeze and a chance to stretch our legs. (Going down stairs is a lot harder than you would think! Especially if you're nearing 30.) Andrew took lots of pictures with his classic "continuous shot" technique, so the above picture is one of 20 that look almost identical. While we were there, our GPS caught enough satellites to coordinate our position. Apparently a basic handheld GPS doesn't work very well under tree cover, but once we'd been on the bridge for a while it finally locked on. So, satisfied that we had a few good pictures and that the GPS worked, we trudged on. Down 175 more steps and a long downhill path to a reflection pond.

Friendly nature-people pic
Along the way we met another couple hiking uphill. We stopped to chat and take each others' pictures. Afterwards, Andrew said, "Why is it that nature people are so much nicer than regular people?" Food for thought, folks.

At the pond, Andrew apologetically fielded a work call (we needed another rest anyway), then we headed back to the top. I claimed we couldn't really call ourselves "canyon climbers" unless we actually went up in elevation. Right? I found that I much prefer going up than going down. I'd rather get a cardiovascular workout than have creaky knees and rubbery calves and quads. But that's just me.

From there we drove over to the park lodge. The description said the cache was hidden about 60 feet off a short, easy trail loop nearby. Using the GPS coordinates we found the closest point along the trail. "Sixty feet? I thought we weren't supposed to go off the trail!" I said. All along our hikes so far were signs saying basically,

"Leave trail at your own risk."
"Stay on the trails for your own safety."
"It is against the law to leave the trail."

Well, it didn't really say that last bit, but the young-Hermione-Granger part of me believed it was reckless and unfair to invite geocachers to wander around the underbrush of the forest trying to find an ammo box with a bunch of trinkets inside. Also, you've gotta understand, I'm a nature-loving city girl who incidentally HATES catching a spider web in the face and is paranoid of getting a tick.

our first cache!
But I followed Andrew off the trail anyway and we wandered around for a minute. There was a subtle footpath from the other cachers that helped point us in the general direction. We kept saying things like "It's gotta be around here somewhere," and "I think that's poison ivy." I was afraid we weren't going to find the cache before the spiders and ticks and poison ivy found us, but then I turn around and Andrew's looking smug and pointing at the ground. At his feet lay a pile of rocks and small logs--conspicuous enough to be the obvious hiding place, but natural enough to make it tough to spot, especially for caching virgins like us. We opened the box, I signed the log book, we stamped our cards, snapped a picture, and left a plastic jewel thingy I had found along the trail.

After a hiatus in civilization for some wine-tasting at Wolf Mountain Winery (they didn't card me--another indication I'm clearly nearing 30) and yummy pizza at Gustavo's in Dahlonega, we drove to Vogel State Park to fit one more cache in our day.

giant veggie slice

We arrived at Vogel and walked straight to the trailhead of the 1/8 mile loop the cache was on. On the way, I turned on the GPS to let it catch some satellites. We wanted to enjoy the hike, but it was also 7:00, and nearing sundown, so we were kind of in a hurry. By the time we got to the trail, the GPS had 2 sats--not enough to triangulate our position. Then once we got under tree cover, reception was worse. It lost what signals it had, and wouldn't pick up anything else. Remember how it didn't get enough satellites in Amicalola until we'd been standing on the bridge for a while? Apparently the best way to let it get set is to stand still until the GPS picks up 3 or 4 satellites. Nice to know now. (Thanks, S & S!)

From the trail, I veered onto what looked like the same kind of footpath that led to the last geocache. We looked around there, but not knowing whether we were anywhere even close to the location, we kept going.

Near the highest point of the trail was a sort of camp circle with benches and logs, and we thought for sure the cache had to be there! The GPS even picked up enough satellites to tell us we were 50-some feet from the coordinates of the cache. We spent probably 20-30 minutes absorbed in the following activities: looking around the kumbaya circle, then continuing on the trail, then determining that doing so led us farther from the cache, and then retracing our steps to the kumbaya circle to look some more. Meanwhile, it's getting darker.

Finally, after resetting the GPS, we got a more accurate read that we were more like 100-some feet away. And we found that retracing the path the way we came in took us closer to the cache. But once again, as we descended the trail under more tree cover, we lost the signal.

centaurs might emerge from a dark forest
In the growing darkness (doesn't that sound scary?) we tried to search out what we might have missed on our hurried trip in. I followed the same footpath I had tried before, looking harder this time, fearless of spiders or ticks. (We were that desperate to find the cache before it got too dark.) Andrew ventured further than before, across a little gully, and found a familiar pile of rocks and small logs at the roots of a tree. We were so excited to have found it finally, in the near darkness under all those trees. But then when we opened it, the stamp for our cards was missing. Someone apparently thought it was one of the trinkets to trade and took the stamp! Consoling ourselves with "It would have been worse to leave without even finding the cache," we packed everything back in the box and made our way to the exit of the trail.

When we finally left, it was nearly 8:00, mostly dark, and we were tired and thirsty. On our way out of the park Andrew said, "I bet that's the most harrowing, frustrating state park geocache we'll ever do." I hope he hasn't jinxed us.


  1. That sounds like so much fun. I wonder if they have such a game in the Illinois State Parks.
    How many more parks do you have to visit?

  2. I couldn't find anything like the Georgia State Parks Geo-Challenge in Illinois, but I did find this: http://www.traillink.com/stateactivity/il-geocaching-trails.aspx. It's a list of all the trails in IL with geocaches in them. To view the maps, you can register at the site for free, then go geocaching! The same website has links for geocache trails in all 50 states.

  3. I wonder if Centennial Hill has a cache?????

  4. The link is back up!