Treasure Hunting Goes High-Tech

April 1, 2013 | By More

The science of navigation has come a long way. Peering back into prehistory is a hazy endeavor, but most experts agree that the first waypoints – references used for purposes of navigation — were physical landforms. Mountains, rock formations, and unique looking trees were easily identifiable. Some of us still use this practice, particularly when giving directions without the aid of street names and numbers. Phrases like, “If you pass the big forked pine tree you’ve gone too far,” are still uttered every day. 

We also know that people have been looking to the skies for direction for as long as there have been people on the planet. With some variance according to latitude and seasons, the sun is a very predictable marker. It will always come up in the east and it will always set in the west; for the most part. When you throw in calculations for those seasonal variances, navigation by the sun becomes very accurate.

From there, it’s not much of stretch to see how navigation by the stars became the most popular and the most accurate way to navigate until the late 1100’s. Early stargazers and sailors were able to chart a course and keep a heading with universal predictability. The more talented of these navigators did this with remarkable precision.

The invisible power of magnetism was the next leap forward for navigation. The compass became the preferred tool of the trade, particularly for land navigation where a view to the skies could be obstructed by mountains and trees.

Today, in the 21st century, we look again to the heavens for precise navigation. But, it’s not the stars that point us to our destination. The explorer’s method of choice is now the Global Positioning System or GPS.

GPS is a satellite navigation system. As you can imagine, it’s complicated and it would be easy to wade into a paragraph full of four-dollar scientific words here, but, the layman’s version will suffice. GPS receivers calculate location by measuring the time of a satellite transmission and the satellites location. The U.S. Department of Defense created the system, but civilians have found another way; a fun way to use the technology. It’s called geocaching.

Geocaching is a way to channel you inner Indiana Jones — minus the large rolling boulders, dart flinging booby-traps, and power hungry Nazis. It’s a modern day treasure hunt that combines GPS navigation skills as well as insightful thinking. It’s also a popular outdoor activity for many people according to Sasha Bowles, park interpreter at Lake Dardanelle State Park.

“It’s a pretty big deal,” said Sasha. “It’s a great motivation to get the gaming/computer generation outside. The GPS unit in their hand gives them a connection to that technology, but it also gets them outdoors. And, I’ve seen all ages of geocachers.”

Arkansas State Parks started offering a geocache in celebration of the state parks system 75th anniversary. The activity was so popular they decided to keep the caches and now every state park has at least one on its property.

Geocaching extends beyond the state parks though. The website geocaching.com offers a huge database of geocaching locations that are created by individuals across the country. Simply type in a zip code and the coordinates to geocaches in that area can be loaded on to a GPS device. Anyone can create a geocache and then register it on the website, though permission from a property owner to place a geocache on private lands is required.

Lake Dardanelle State Park has other caches besides the one placed by the park system.

“We have three other daytime caches and then we have a night cache,” said Sasha. “You’ll need a flashlight for the night cache. It has reflectors that point to the cache once you get in the general area.”

Finding the general area of the coordinates without a GPS is a skill that few possess today. Sasha said that old-school navigation tools are seldom used.

“I don’t really know anyone that uses a map or compass to do this,” said Sasha. “A GPS will at least tell you that you have arrived at the destination, and then you have to look hard for the cache. Sometimes the cache is a little tube, sometimes its an ammo can. Some are hidden underneath things. We’ve got one here in the park in a plastic baggie that’s taped under a rock.”

Caches can be in rock crevices, tree stumps, on a pulley system up in a tree, underwater, or even an old Tylenol bottle painted silver stuck on top of a chain link fencepost. It’s all up to the creativity of the individual. Most geocaches will offer a clue as to their location and it’s your choice to use the clue or not

“The cache in the tree that used a pulley system clue was pretty clever,” said Sasha. “The name of it was something about the fire department and the clue was here kitty, kitty.”

Finding a cache sounds like a bucketful of fun. But, what do you do with a cache once found? And what the heck is a cache anyway?

“A cache can be a small metal tube, an ammo can, or any type of container,” said Sasha. “The little ones have a log and you just sign your name. The bigger ones have trinkets and if you take something, you leave something. I’ve seen shirts, mugs, beads, toy cars, it could be anything. No food items or water though.”

Sash said it’s not really about the treasure though, it’s about the experience.

“It’s a lot fun,” said Sasha. “And, it’s a great way to get outside and see places that you probably wouldn’t see otherwise.”

For more information about geocaching go to: www.geocaching.com or www.arkansasstateparks.com

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