The author’s son checks out the swag from a cache. All photos by Jamey Penney-Ritter
A Great Way to Get Out and Explore the Lake Region
You walk, hike, drive and possibly even boat past them all the time: containers of all sizes and shapes hidden in the bramble, or boldly flashing clues in plain view. They are discovered accidentally by the uninitiated but more frequently hunted with a GPS, smartphone or, what the most experienced call, “geo-sense.”
The geocache (pronounced geo-cash) is the treasure in geocaching, a sport started by nerds and now embraced by those from all walks of life seeking adventure. A brief description goes like this: People hide swag (Stuff We All Get) in a box and then other people try to find it using GPS (global positioning system) coordinates. A list of these caches can be found on www.geocaching.com. The website is easy to use and a basic membership is free.
What used to be a geeky hobby requiring expensive equipment is now accessible to everyone.
Smartphones with GPS capabilities are just one app purchase away. Geocaching apps help you manage and find geocaches wherever you are. Walk within a few hundred feet of one and you’ll get a notification that your quarry is near.
The caching bug hit my family while we were living in San Diego in 2005 when our youngest, Elena, was just 6 months old. Her caching handle is Baby Breeze, my husband Jason is Passing Wind and son Aidan is PW Son. I chose Caching Widow. I’m a hunting widow of a different sort. Jason logged about 1,000 caches in those first six months, thus my moniker. Eventually we all joined him in the hunt.
The hills around San Diego were so crammed with caches that the caching elite started calling them trash caches.
Then we moved to the south shore of Lake Superior. Caches here are fewer and much farther between. Plus, there are ticks. I grew up in Superior. Most of the rest of the world would consider that rural, but not me. I’m a city girl. The majority of my exposure to nature was at the family cabin every weekend in Iron River, Wisconsin. I spent most of my time hiding in my room reading (after thoroughly checking for ticks). So if I can cache out in the woods, anyone can do it.
After five years back on the shores of Lake Superior, I’m a bit more comfortable in the woods, though Jason still laughs at my non-stop tick checks while hiking. My favorite caches are still the ones near roadways and hiking trails. I like the hikes but not the off-trail rummaging for the cache. “Honey, sign the log for me” is frequently heard when we are out.
We maintain a few caches of our own up here. Our “Penneys from Heaven” (N 46° 34.274, W 091° 21.592) cache was voted Best Cache in November for the northern part of the state by the Wisconsin Geocaching Association. It’s one of those bold and in-plain-sight caches, but if you didn’t know what you where looking for, you wouldn’t see it.
Around the Lake
Geocaching around Lake Superior is one of the best ways to find and explore those pathways less traveled. You are guaranteed to go places you never would have gone if you weren’t pointed in that direction by your GPS. Within 8 miles of the lakeshore there are more than 2,800 caches, with the highest concentrations in Duluth and Thunder Bay. While trying to find them all would turn the Circle Tour into an epic summer-long adventure, you can use caching as an excuse to stretch your legs every hour or so.
Good Things to Know
Swag, as I’ve mentioned, stands for Stuff We All Get. After signing the log, the rule is to trade swag. Trade up, trade even or go home empty handed. It’s poor form to take without leaving. Caches are stuffed with toys, gadgets and stuff you usually find at the back of the junk drawer. Countless fast food kid’s meal toys have left our household this way. If you’re lucky you may be rewarded with swag of a higher caliber: Geocoins, path tags and travel bugs are a few. Cachers will also leave their personal card or other item with their name on it.
Geocoins and path tags are typically something you keep. They are typically inscribed with numbers that you can log on your geocaching account. Travel Bugs, however, are meant to live free. You log them and put them in another cache for someone else to find. I once found a Travel Bug in San Diego and found it again months later during a trip to Superior. Its mission was to travel back to Hayward, Wisconsin, and it was nearly there.
A Social Sport
Caching can be a solitary sport, though I don’t endorse long walks into the woods alone. It is a wonderful family activity. Kids love to dive into the piles of swag to look for their trade item. Getting them to sign the cache log so you can look for ticks is also a plus.
There are also organized groups, like the Minnesota Geocaching Association and Canada’s Capital Cachers. These groups plan events like campouts, picnics and CITO (Cache In Trash Out) cleanups. Schedules can be found on their web pages and on geaocaching.com.
Networking with other cachers can start some good-natured competition. FTFs (First To Finds) are coveted in the caching world. And then there’s the all-important number – how many total caches you’ve logged. I’m proud of my 151 caches.
My husband presented me with a special pin at the 100 cache mark. Of course, he’s logged 2,488 finds of his own.
There are also some extremely difficult caches that will earn you prestige among your peers. Jason once attempted an FTF that ended in a near-death experience and got him featured on his own Hazards of Geocaching coin. Regionally some of the most difficult caches are in or near the water. The Ashland, Wisconsin, breakwater has a cache that’s only accessible by boat or when the ice is thick enough to support a walker all the way to the lighthouse.
Duluthian and five-year caching veteran George Host (aka ghost640) says Duluth has some fun and challenging hides. “There are a lot of caches along Skyline Parkway and the Superior Hiking Trail. It’s a great way to see those areas,” says Host. “Duluth is really known for its puzzle caches.”
Puzzle caches may involve complicated puzzles that you need to solve to determine the coordinates. Often, puzzle caches will lead you to several locations before you find the container and log.
As for difficulty, “The ‘Chester Creek’ (N 46° 48.647, W 092° 05.368) cache is hard to find. It’s in a gorge where the GPS can’t pick up a signal,” states Host. “To find it, you have to come in from the right direction.”
Host also recommends “Silver Island Treasure” (N 47° 16.149, W 091° 16.051). It involves walking along a breakwater, climbing a rope and something about attack seagulls. If you go, wear sturdy shoes and a helmet, and don’t forget to check for ticks.
Jamey Penney-Ritter is a Washburn-based photographic and graphic designer, and admits that she does look for ticks even in the winter.