Geocaching, a world-wide treasure hunt that uses GPS technology, is not just a game for children — it unites and challenges people of all ages. This is particularly true for the Carroll County Caching Fellowship (C3F), a free monthly group started in 2013 that connects geocachers from around and outside of Carroll County. The group meets every third Tuesday at Panera Bread in Eldersburg.
Geocaching began in 2000 and now has more than 10 million registered geocachers and 2.5 million registered caches in 180 countries, according to geocaching.com. A cache, the end-goal of the hunt, is a container of some kind, ranging from ammunition boxes to film canisters that contain tradable trinkets that geocachers exchange or a log book that geocachers can sign to leave a history of who has found the caches.
Husband and wife Eric Arnold and Margo Mildvan, of Sykesville, known to the geocaching community as "Zekester" and "Simon,"respectively, are the organizers of C3F. They began geocaching in 2005 and have found caches under their joint account in every state except Alaska.
Arnold and Mildvan lead C3F every third Tuesday of each month. It is less formal than a club because there is no official membership, but there is a core group of people who attend regularly, Arnold said.
"The passion that people have for their hobby kind of bubbles out of them, and it becomes infectious," Arnold said.
Geocaching starts with signing up for either a free membership or a $30 premium membership that grants people access to additional caches at http://www.geocaching.com. Once geocachers decide which cache they want to find, they plug the coordinates into their phones or GPS devices, or download the free Geocaching Intro App, which provides GPS as well as the geocaching website formatted for an iPhone. Then, it is just a matter of stepping out the front door and into the woods, the park, the town or wherever the caches are hidden.
People can either find or hide caches — as long as they meet certain regulations — using the geocaching website, http://www.geocaching.com. Regulations range from not being allowed to hide caches near railroad tracks to obtaining permission from state parks.
The C3F meetings are a time of camaraderie, but they also offer a chance for beginners to learn some geocaching tips from veterans, Arnold said. C3F is open to anyone, whether they've found 10 or 10,000 caches, Arnold said.
GPS devices can only get geocachers so close to a cache, and once geocachers reach that point they have to look up from their device and examine the area, keeping in mind what they know of the cache from its online description, Arnold said.
Mildvan said she always asks herself "Where am I going to hide it so that it's going to be hard to find?"
Sometimes caches will be hidden in hollowed-out rocks or logs, Mildvan said. If someone did not know to look for the hinge in the rock or wood, no one would even know it was there. A popular trick is to wrap the cache in camouflage tape and hang it from a tree so that it gets lost in a sea of green, Mildvan said.
"This is where you can get kind of crazy and a little devious," Mildvan said.
When geocachers find the cache, they remove an item and replace it with a trinket of their own. For the caches too small to hold anything, people can write their names on the piece of paper tucked inside. Caches range in size from as large as a bread box to as small as a film canister.
"The fun thing about geocaching is that it takes you to places you wouldn't necessarily have known were there," Mildvan said.
There are different kinds of caches, from mystery puzzle caches that include a puzzle that must be solved to get the cache coordinates, to multi-caches that lead to a series of caches before finding the final one, Mildvan said. The geocaching website differentiates each cache by its type, size, difficulty and the type of terrain in which it is hidden.
Tom Grapes, of Sykesville, said that for a long time — until he started attending the monthly meetings — he did not know any other people in the geocaching community. Grapes began geocaching in 2003 and has been attending the C3F meetings almost the entire time it's been in operation.
"It's a chance to get to know people in a different way other than reading their blogs on a caching page," Grapes said.
Grapes said he likes that C3F is local and that a lot of the same people attend monthly.
"When we first started doing the event in Eldersburg, we got to know a lot of people from the area and from other counties," Mildvan said.
Some people drive 40 minutes to attend the meetings, coming from Howard County, Baltimore County, Frederick, Westminster and Mount Airy, Arnold said.
At June 16's C3F meeting, about 25 people gathered in a corner of Panera, talking about especially difficult caches and calling out to each other by nicknames like "Frog King," "Tomulus" and "Deep Dish." These nicknames — called "handles" — are used by geocachers to identify themselves on the geocaching website where caches are logged and created.
Most geocachers go by their handles within the community. Arnold said he keeps a specific phone book of people listed by their handles because he knows people better by those names than by their given names.
"This is a community that really takes care of its own, and it's wonderful to be a part of that," said Arnold, who was away on business for last Tuesday's gathering but usually helps Mildvan lead the meetings.
Normally, about 10 minutes of each meeting is devoted to individuals discussing their most exciting geocaching experiences. Other times, Mildvan or Arnold lead a 10-minute lesson to help people use their GPS devices more effectively or teach other tips for beginners.
"There's a little bit of a teaching moment, but it's more of a time to get conversation going," Arnold said.
Part of C3F's objective is to sharpen participants' skills as geocachers, Arnold said. When the same kind of hides are used repeatedly, they are no longer a challenge, which is why Arnold said it is important for geocachers to raise the bar to keep the game from getting mundane.
"Let's do something that's a little more creative, a little more innovative, that makes you think outside of the box," Arnold said.
It takes effort and time to create a cache and hide it, Grapes said, so it can be discouraging to continue.
Now, when Grapes is in the woods hiding caches, he visualizes the friends that he has made at C3F and how much they will enjoy what he has created.
"Because I knew those people it actually motivated me to actually hide those caches," he said. "I think that's one of the benefits of [geocaching]."
For more information
To be a part of the Carroll County Caching Fellowship, join the online discussion at http://c3f.forumchitchat.com or contact Margo Mildvan and Eric Arnold metasm@mac.