By Anayat Durrani
Up for an adventure? Geocaching promises that and more. It’s an electronic treasure or scavenger hunt but on a worldwide scale. Former Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Hill has been an avid geocacher since 2009 and so far has uncovered 600 geocaches in 14 different states and in eight different countries.
“I can confidently say that some of my best memories have been geocaching in Japan,” says Hill, who joined the Misawa Geocachers Organization when his former wife was stationed in Japan. “I met several Japanese geocachers [who] I am still friends with today. I went on several geocaching weekend trips all over Japan, including a hike to the top of Mt. Fuji; walking tours in Akita [Prefecture], Tokyo, and Sendai; and a bicycle tour in Nigata.”
How does geocaching work? Geocachers use GPS coordinates to hunt for and locate objects that have been hidden worldwide. GPS originally was developed by DoD and intended for military use. But in 1996, after President Bill Clinton ended selective availability — which was in place to restrict accurate use of GPS to only the military — geocaching took off.
The first geocache was placed in 2000 by Dave Ulmer, who wanted to test out GPS technology. He placed a cache near his home in Oregon and posted the coordinates online to a GPS Listserv for users to locate. And so, geocaching was born. Today, there are 2 million geocaches worldwide, according to the website www.geocaching.com. And, not surprisingly, many military geocachers are among them. So many, in fact, a military-exclusive group, Military Association of GeoCachers (MAGC), was founded in 2005.
“Our goal was, and still is, to get military personal off the battle fronts we face and into nature where, if you want to discuss your experiences, you feel free [to do so], or if you don’t want to discuss your last trip downrange, the people you are with will 100-percent understand,” says Air National Guard Tech Sgt. Matt “Duke” Clements, who founded the group and is serving with the 113th Wing Washington, D.C., air maintenance squadron.
Since its founding, the group has had some 32 chapters worldwide and currently has 250 members on their Facebook page. Clements says their member rules are simple: “Be military — active, Guard, Reserve, retired, or honorably discharged — or be a supporter of those who serve,” he says. They also accept member U.S.-allied nations and have members from the U.K., Germany, Portugal, and Australia.
“Like any geocaching organization, we have events, but being military, we host them in ways not too many have thought of. One of our first events was called a worldwide roll call. During this event, several MAGC chapters using Zulu hour set up events so we were at our locations at the same time, and we communicated via the Internet,” says Clements, who during the event, heard from geocachers in Iraq, Germany, and the U.S.
Clements says as military members, they focus on military needs and issues and are currently preparing for their second Cache Run for the Fisher House Foundation, which provides a “comfort home” for military and veterans’ families to stay while their loved one is receiving treatment.
Among the general public, geocaching has grown in popularity and, on occasion, has led to some surprising finds. In January 2015, Michigan nurse Kelley Piekarek was in the woods taking part in a 365-day geocaching challenge — where geocachers try to make a daily find for a full year — when she came across a shiny object hanging in a tree. It was military dog tags that had the name Raymond C. Morin inscribed on them. Piekarek eventually was able to track down Morin, who enlisted in the Army in 1979 and was honorably discharged in 1984. Piekarek returned the tags in-person to Morin, who now lives in a group home. He had lost the tags 25 years ago during a walk in those same woods.
“For me, finding Raymond — like geocaching — was another treasure hunt,” says Piekarek. “He was such a kind, quiet man and was so appreciative of getting the tags back that he thought he would never see again. It made me feel like I made one person’s life just a little bit better.”
Army Lt. Col. Richard Cassem III has been geocaching since 2005 and has 1,210 finds from 14 states and 16 countries. After deploying to Iraq in 2006, he was surprised to find geocacher activity in the region through MAGC. He’s since served as MAGC chapter lead for chapters in Iraq, Jordan and the Holy Land, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. His caching adventures have allowed him to channel his inner Indiana Jones, taking him everywhere from the ancient Pyramids of Giza to the 2,000-year-old lost city of Petra in Jordan.
“[Petra] was a fascinating place to be involved in geocaching,” says Cassem. “I'd say that of all the places I have cached, Jordan and the Holy Land are my favorite.”