For the second time in a decade, North Carolina will host what many see as the geocaching community’s premier gathering. GeoWoodstock XV is coming to the Haywood County Fairgrounds in Waynesville on Saturday, May 27 (see box, “Finding a Good Time”).
If you’ve never heard of geocaching, you’re not alone. A kind of 21st-century treasure hunt, the relatively new sport was born in May 2000, when changes to the Global Positioning System allowed for improved accuracy. Participants use a GPS device to hide and/or find containers stashed in precise locations anywhere in the world. After that they reconceal the cache, so it’s ready for the next geocacher.
Asked why people would want to participate in GeoWoodstock, co-organizer Rob Maile said, “It’s about the best way I can think of to see a new town.” The Hillsborough resident says Waynesville was chosen to highlight the state’s western region; the previous North Carolina gathering was held in Raleigh 10 years ago.
Sky’s the limit
In the early days, a handheld GPS receiver was needed to track and locate caches, which often take the form of a used ammo can. “But geocaches can be as small as a pea or as large as an industrial toolbox,” says Jacksonville, N.C., resident Allen Brewer, an avid geocacher who’s planning to attend the May 27 event. “There are lots of Tupperware containers, recycled pill bottles, Altoids mint tins, empty plastic film canisters or just about any waterproof container you can imagine.” A larger cache might hold a logbook to sign, or items to trade with the person who finds it.
Caches can be hidden anywhere, from remote hiking trails to more urban settings. Groundspeak, a Seattle-based business, maintains geocaching.com, a website that enables participants to find out about caches, log their finds and communicate with other cachers. Over the last 17 years, more than 3 million caches have been hidden all over the world, and with the advent of smartphones and specialized apps, geocaching has become as simple as taking a walk through town or going for a backcountry hike.
GeoWoodstock was the brainchild of Nashville, Tenn., resident Joe Armstrong, aka JoGPS. Armstrong, who died in 2015, originally thought of just assembling the top 10 geocachers in one place, but then he was inspired to expand the idea and make it an event. Some 75 people attended the inaugural GeoWoodstock in Louisville, Ky., in June 2003. Since then, the annual gathering has been held in such diverse locales as Jacksonville, Fla.; Dallas, Texas; Wheatland, Calif.; and Carnation, Wash., and attendance has continued to grow.
The last few events have attracted about 2,000 cachers, and Maile expects a similar-size crowd this year. Groundspeak co-sponsors GeoWoodstock, and a committee of prior hosts decides the event’s next location via an Olympic-style bidding system.
Asheville resident Graeme McGufficke, aka OzGuff, has been geocaching since Sept. 1, 2003, and he’s personally stashed over 2,100 individual caches. “There’s something inherently rewarding about finding an item that’s been intentionally hidden,” he says.
McGufficke is excited about GeoWoodstock XV. “I place caches in cool spots that I think folks would like to visit, so when I’m traveling and get a chance to find some, I try to target ones that the locals have hidden in their own cool spots,” he explains. “A cool hike with an awesome view. An interesting piece of sculpture. A location with historical significance. These are the types of geocaches that get me jazzed.”
Brewer agrees. Instead of paying for a tour when he’s in unfamiliar territory, he prefers what he calls “geotourism.”
“I let the geocaches take me to all those out-of-the-way, off-the-beaten-path places that only the locals know about. Some people go on vacation to relax; I go on vacation to geocache.” Brewer favors caches with a “wow factor … a cache that takes me on a journey or teaches me some local, obscure, trivial history, or brings me to a special scenic place, or challenges me.” It could be “some wacky roadside attraction, a park or some slice of Americana. These are what I call ‘cache candy.’” What matters, he explains, is that “The cache’s owner specifically hid it to take me, a stranger, on an adventure. I’ve geocached in over 525 U.S. counties, 38 U.S. states and seven foreign countries. Every single one was an adventure.”
Exploring the world
One of the best reasons for getting involved with geocaching, notes McGufficke, is that it “can get you off the couch and into the great outdoors. There are so many caches hidden along trails in WNC that you could go hiking every weekend for 20 years and not find them all. But in the attempt, you will have seen some really amazing places.”
And with so many caches to find both locally and worldwide, there’s something out there for everyone, says Brewer. “There are caches that are great for kids, caches that are hidden specifically for folks with disabilities, caches that require long hikes or special equipment … and everything in between. It gets folks out of their house and out into the outdoors to explore the world.”
When Armstrong first conceived of bringing geocachers together, he thought it was all about the numbers: how many caches he could hide or discover. But after several years of organizing and participating in GeoWoodstock events, Armstrong experienced a shift in his perspective. “It’s still about the numbers,” he says in a video on the GeoWoodstock website, “but it’s about the number of friends you make, the number of smiles you give away. It’s all about just having a good time.”