Geocaching a hit at Minnesota state parks

Cub Scout Matthew Legler
Cub Scout Matthew Legler points in the direction of the geocache at Whitewater State Park. Legler and his cub scout pack traveled from Rochester to Whitewater State Park to geocache for the first time in September.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

To attract a new generation of park goers, the state park system is tapping into a high-tech scavenger hunt called geocaching, a sport that combines GPS navigation with the lure and adventure of a treasure hunt.

On a leaf-covered grove in Whitewater State Park, a group of eight-year-old boys scours for a hidden clue.

They zero in on wooden sign using the handheld GPS devices that hang from their necks. The receivers pick up satellite signals and calculate their positions on earth within just a few feet.

The sign reads: "Congratulations. You've found stage one of three for this geocache. The next stage can be found at N 44, 03.251 W 092, 02.617."

The boys are part of a Rochester-based Cub Scout group visiting the park on a recent Saturday morning, and they're just the demographic officials with the Department of Natural Resources is trying to attract to the state's parks.

"Kids are not spending as much time in the outdoors as they have in previous generations, so we're looking at some fun ways to get them engaged," said Pat Arndt, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota State Parks.

She said the DNR is working hard to finds ways to make visiting the parks more relevant to younger generations, their parents and grandparents.

Geocaching has turned out to be one of the most popular ways to marry technology with getting people outdoors.

Geocache clue
A clue on the back of a sign post at Whitewater State Park helps the geocachers find their next desitnation.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"The idea is technology, which is where a lot of our kids are spending their time these days, whether it's on a computer, with a GPS unit [or] with their cell phones," Arndt said. "That's kind of the hook, so to speak, with this. It gets people outdoors, cause you actually have to go into the park to find the cache."

The DNR started its geocaching program last year, during the state's sesquicentennial. It placed one cache in each of the 72 state parks and recreation areas.

The program was so popular, officials decided to make it a permanent offering at all of the parks.

Some of the caches are easy to locate; others are stashed in harder-to-reach spots. They're usually metal or plastic waterproof containers that are hidden in a specific location.

Rich Perry
Rich Perry traveled from Milaca, Minn. with his wife, Shirley, and a group of friends to find the geocache at Whitewater State Park. Inside the cache he finds a toy car, some sidewalk chalk, and a logbook, which he signs his name on.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

The ones in the state parks each have a collector's card inside, which geocachers can take once they locate the box.

Although it's still relatively new, at least a couple thousand people a month have signed the cache log books around the state this past spring and summer.

And more people are coming into visitor centers asking to borrow GPS units, which are available at about two dozen state parks.

But the DNR is not only reaching out to kids, the hobby appeals to a wide-spectrum of people, including Rich Perry, a retired school teacher from Milaca.

Geocachers Dick Jackson and Dwight Hagman
Longtime friends Dick Jackson and Dwight Hagman, both of Onamia, Minn., compare the coordinates on their GPS to the final location of the cache at Whitewater State Park in southeast Minnesota. Since he started to geocache in summer 2009, Hagman has found nearly 40 geocaches around the state.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

After following the directions of the GPS for about 40 minutes, and hiking 200 feet, he found a cache tied to a tree between two large boulders. He sat down on one of them, and opened the metal Army surplus box.

Perry found the log book and signed his name on a new line and takes a look to see what else is in the box.

Inside are various items, including a small racecar, a crayon, dice, some perfume or lotion and some buttons.

His buddies Dick Jackson and Dwight Hagman caught up with him.

Metal cache
The metal cache at Whitewater State Park is tied to a tree at the top of a hill. Geocachers follow clues and use coordinates to entered into GPS units to find the caches.
MPR Photo/Elizabeth Baier

"It was easy to find but it was a fairly good walk," Hagman said. "But it wasn't hidden; most of the time it's not hidden. We've seen them in hollowed out trees, the one Thursday was under that log with all that bark covered over it."

The men say the real value in the adventure lies in the pursuit itself. Perry's found 13 caches and Hagman up to 40.

"It gets you out walking and seeing new places and meeting a lot of different people, also," he said.

Meanwhile, state park officials say they'll continue to come up with games to make geocaching more interesting to park-goers of all ages.

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