Story and photos by Chris Baxter
Have you heard?
La Grande resident Ron Newton, known as Slower Pace in the geocaching world, along with thousands of other people here in the Northwest and throughout the world are hiding odd little treasures in our great outdoors in hopes that as many as possible will find them.
The numbers of such individuals and their somewhat surreptitious activities have increased in recent years to such proportions that these caches, as they call them, are now literally all around us. Within 20 minutes of La Grande there are dozens to find. So what's going on?
Geocaching is what's going on a fast-growing pastime that has Newton and the rest of its devotees throughout the world, known as geocachers, hiding and seeking these caches for the sheer fun of it, and more. Here are the basics.
This relatively new world of geocaching revolves around the extremely accurate locating data provided by 27 global positioning satellites located in earth's orbit.
Although these satellites have been lurking silently above us and streaming their information to our government for decades, it was only in May of 2000 that the satellites' locating data was officially de-scrambled and made accessible to the general public.
This opened the door for the consumer GPS locating device which enabled anyone to manipulate this newly accessible information. Geocaching was born soon thereafter.
Newton, who donned his geocacher's alias of "Slower Pace" near the ground floor of the sport around three years ago, is one of our area's geocaching old-timers.
Newton explains that, barring any overhead obstacles, a GPS locating device will ideally lock on to at least four of the satellites hovering overhead and, with one acting as a time keeper, the other three can triangulate and pinpoint your location to within a few feet.
Once the satellites are locked in, simply enter the coordinates latitude and longitude references of a specific cache you'd like to find and start following the direction of the unit's prominent compass which will point the way. Voila! You are geocaching.
WHAT YOU MIGHT FIND
So what exactly do these caches consist of?"
There are several types of caches but by far the most common is known as the traditional cache.
Typically it consists of some sort of all-weather container ranging in size from a large metal ammo-box to a 35mm film canister.
What you may find within these containers is anyone's guess, but the bare minimum is usually a log-in sheet where you can add your name and comments.
As for the larger caches, the owner starts them off with any number of assorted articles and thereafter those that find the cache may take whatever they'd like, remembering the cardinal rule of replacing whatever is taken with something of equal or greater value. So a cache's contents are continually changing.
While there have been reports of coming across unusually valuable items such as a hundred dollar bill, a Nintendo gameboy, tickets for a helicopter tour of San Francisco, among others, generally the items in a cache are far more humble.
While the thrill of manipulating this space-age technology in searching for a cache never seems to fade, for Newton the ultimate attraction of geocaching isn't necessarily the caches themselves but most often it is the location of the cache that is the highlight.
Typically someone chooses a cache location because there is something special about that place which they would like to share with others.
For instance, Newton has placed several caches in and around La Grande that will introduce the visiting geocacher passing through our area to historic settings and information about our area's pioneer past, or lead them to some of our valley's beautiful spots that would probably otherwise be missed by the average visitor.
And it's not only the visiting geocacher who expresses appreciation for Newton's thoughtful cache placements.
On his cache sign-in sheets one can find comments from locals who "have lived here for years and never knew these trails were here!" or were "unaware of the historical significance of this spot."
So how does one find the coordinates of all these caches?
Actually, the answer to that and nearly any other question you may have about geocaching can be found by logging on to www.geocaching.com , geocaching's Mecca and official Web site.
Here one can find a complete list of the tens of thousands of current, active caches in the world.
Anyone can place a cache too. Just follow the simple protocol found on the geocaching Web site.
Once placed and approved, each cache has its own page giving its coordinates, details such as its difficulty rating (is it easy car access or will it take a five mile hike uphill?) along with any other interesting information about the location.
Here cachers can also leave comments about the cache and their experience finding it.
Another fun aspect of geocaching is the coveted travel bug.
These "bugs" may initially look like just another little toy or article lurking within a cache's contents, but when you see attached to the article the official metal tag bearing an official number, you know you've got yourself an official travel bug.
Each travel bug has its own unique story, which can be found by typing in its official number on the geocaching Web site.
Here you will learn all about your little hitchhiker, such as who its owner is, where it began its journey, where it's been, and most important of all its travel goal.
Maybe its goal is to visit the Great Wall of China or visit all 50 states or see the Eiffel Tower. The goals are as varied as the owner's imaginations.
Once the bug's goal is known you do what you can to further its progress.
Anyone can order an official tag from the geocaching Web site and send their own intrepid travel bug off to Patagonia, Paris, Pendleton or wherever their imagination leads them.
Then sit back and watch its adventure via its Web page.
These are just a few of the alluring aspects of this curious pastime that keeps enticing more and more people into exploring and discovering their neighborhoods the GPS way.
But if geocaching is still flying below the radar as far as the general public is concerned, it is doing so only barely.
There are literally hundreds of new caches being placed every day.
The activity's popularity has grown to the point where caches placed in more sensitive, natural areas, such as wilderness areas and parks, are being visited in such numbers that officials caring for these areas have begun removing and prohibiting any future cache placements within the protected areas.
But according to Newton, by and large the geocacher, by definition, is one who values the outdoors and will usually leave a cache area undisturbed and often even in better shape by removing any litter he or she may find.
After all, for the geocacher, the outdoors, and enjoying it with friends and family, is what it's all about.