CLINTON — It almost feels like a secret society, but with members numbering in the hundreds of thousands in 191 countries and on all seven continents, geocaching is difficult to keep under wraps.
Someone drives to the edge of a parking lot or wooded area or parks near a guardrail at the side of the road. He watches his phone as if he's looking for an imaginary Pokeman. He looks high, low, in a circle of increasing diameter. He feels underneath, on top, behind. Sometimes he sets up a step ladder or reaches for something out of site with a golfball retriever or a grabbing tool. He pokes and pulls and reaches into crevices full of spider webs and crawly things
Passersby wonder what he's up to. Concerned citizens ask if he needs a ride somewhere or if he lost something. Police stop to see why he's acting suspiciously. Sometimes a fellow geocacher will ask, "Did you find it?"
Geocaching is a treasure-hunting game in which geocachers hide and find containers using GPS coordinates and a map on the geocache app, earning virtual smiley faces and souvenirs in the process.
Like members of a fraternal order, geocachers meet and share experiences.
Cheryl Neumann, who uses the geocache name cneumann98, hosted a get-together for geocachers Saturday at Clinton's Hy-Vee. Neumann, a teacher in Chadwick-Milledgeville, Illinois, has been caching since September 2011 and has logged 4,021 finds and hidden 52 geocaches during the past seven years.
Rich Dixon of Bettendorf was there with a handful of trackables, items that cachers move from cache to cache.
"Early in caching I picked up a travel bug in Cheyenne, Wyoming," said Dixon, whose caching name is IowaBeaver.
He wasn't sure what he was supposed to do with it because instructions weren't included.
Now IowaBeaver uses his wife's laminator to type up instructions for the trackable from geocaching.com and attaches them to the trackable. If it's supposed to go west, the geocacher will know to take it to a cache in the west. If it wants to go to another country or continent, the geocacher knows to leave it in a cache there.
Jason Hale of Winnebago, Illinois is Halemeister. He makes geocaching videos on his YouTube channel, Geocaching with Halemeister. The videos document his caching adventures, how he maintains the caches he's placed and how he feels watching other cachers find the what he's hidden.
Hale has been geocaching for about 10 years, he said, seduced to the international hobby by a Facebook friend from Minnesota.
"Even the easy finds were hard at first," Hale said. "I didn't know what I was looking for."
Caches can be small tubes such as blood vials or Bison tubes hung from trees or signs or stuck in holes on posts. They can be tiny magnets attached to metal poles, signs or benches.
Some geocaches are containers manufactured for the purpose of hiding house keys. Empty pill bottles covered in camouflage duct tape become caches.
Larger caches, such as lock-and-lock containers sold as office supply organizers or ammunition boxes, contain trackables or trade SWAG (stuff we all get) – toys, beads, coins, and other small items – that a geocacher may take if he leaves something to replace it.
All caches contain a log that cachers sign using their geocaching names. The cache is also logged online – usually on the smart phone from the site of the find – creating a smiley face on the app's map.
Some caches are easy to find. Park. Grab it. Sign the log. Put it back.
Other caches require a lot of time or effort to find. Hale's favorites are gadget finds, "something that's easy to find, but hard to get into." Gadget caches require that the cacher solve puzzles to get inside.
Hale has found caches in 26 states from coast to coast, he said. He reached 10,000 finds in 2018.
"My farthest find is in California," he said.
Cachers are a hardy bunch," he explained.
"I've got stuck in ditches in the car," Hale said.
Dixon found a cache just after he sustained a broken hand.
"I got ran over by a bicyclist," he said, but he made himself find the cache before he sought medical help.
Dixon is up to 12,000 finds. He's been geocaching since 2004.
Galena, Illinois cacher Blacktop guy, also known as Wiliam Gronner, found 5,500 caches in Iowa last year.
"I had the most finds in Iowa in 2018," he said.
Gronner crosses the river to find caches because: "They're just the closest for me to get to."
Most of the caches in Galena have been placed by Gronner or by Kirk F, a.k.a. Kirk Foecking.
Gronner's secret for finding the most caches in Iowa in 2018 is two-fold: 1. Go geocaching a lot. 2. Find a lot of caches.
He has 9,400 total finds.
Bob and Sue Bergman of Clinton are 24Adventure. They've found 6,346 caches, Sue said, and have placed 15 or 16 in the Clinton area.
Pete Maier of La Motte, known as iowaPete, has placed about 300 caches. Half of those are located along a bike trail in Dubuque.
While geocachers try to remain unnoticed by Muggles – non-geocachers referred to by the word for non-magical people in J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" novels – they sometimes draw unwanted attention.
Maier was traveling home to Dubuque one Christmas Eve, he said. North of Merrillville, Indiana he came across a development that had no houses but had 14 pill-bottle geocaches hidden on the light poles.
"I'd found five," Maier said, "and while I was signing the log for the fifth one, I saw a helicopter."
Maier found the sixth cache, signed the log, and noticed that the helicopter was circling.
He continued to the next cache.
"I turn, and I look, and it's landing on the road," he said.
The helicopter was marked "Lake County Sheriff's Department."
Maier explained his hobby to the deputy and produced a geocache to prove his story. The deputy explained that someone had been stealing copper wire out of the lights, so when he noticed Maier going from pole to pole, he had to check it out.
Maier was free to go, but, like a true geocacher, he asked instead if he could find the other caches hidden there before leaving.
"A lot of people have been pulled over by the police," Maier said.
The first geocache was hidden near Beaverton, Oregon in May 2000. In September of that year, Jeremy Irish launched Geocaching.com, a listing site for geocaches. At the time 75 geocaches were known worldwide.
In the fall of 2000, Irish, Elias Alvord, and Bryan Roth founded the company Groundspeak Inc., doing business as Geocaching HQ, to support the game of geocaching.
To begin the adventure, sign up at https://www.geocaching.com/play.