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Sunday, July 22, 2012

Responsible Geocaching

Recently geocaching has made the headlines in Tennessee, in a not-so-good kind of way.

Just over a week ago, 17-year-old Justin Hanford and 29-year-old Justin Willingham went geocaching along the banks of the Wolf River in the Fayette County widlife management area near La Grange, TN (think close to Memphis). They were using their iPhone, and accidentally dropped it in the river.

That's when they got lost. Search-and-rescue teams were formed soon after, consisting of people, helicopters, and even dogs. The dogs ended up saving the day by following Hanford and Willingham's trail far enough to where their human handlers could holler for the missing men, and thankfully the geocachers were found soon after.

Inspector Ray Garcia of the Fayette County Sherriff's Department said that they are considering removing all the geocaches from around the Wolf River due to how dangerous everything is. He cited the poisonous snakes and poor GPS reception for phones as reasons for this action, further stating that the thick tree coverage made it hard for even the helicopters to spot the lost cachers.

Good points, and I'll get to discussing that in a moment. However, first I'd like to say one more thing. In the article Garcia is also stated as saying how hunters, who have lived out in the woods their whole lives, get lost out in the woods for a couple hours sometimes. The implication being, we don't worry about the hunters, they get lost sometimes! But they always end up fine and find their way out sooner or later.

When I initially read the article (actually it was on INATN), I kinda agreed with Garcia. I love to go caching, but if you're going caching by a dangerous river with poisonous snakes and almost zero satellite reception for GPS units....I don't care how great the location is, if you can't get good satellite reception at a certain spot you shouldn't hide a cache there!

I sent my friend Super_Nate (a huge local cacher) the link to the article, and he posted it on his facebook wall. Surprisingly, or maybe not, there were a ton of comments. There were people on both sides of the fence--the people who said, "Yes, some areas are just not good spots for caches and it is OK for those caches to be taken away by the authorities", and others saying "Those caches should NOT be taken away! Cachers should just use common sense on which caches they attempt to find".

Hmmm. Common sense. Seems like common sense is so un-common nowadays.

With this issue, I feel like I am squarely straddling the fence. I honestly see both sides of the coin. Let me explain.

For me, safety is always my #1 priority. If I don't feel like something is safe, I don't want to do it. And that of course applies to caching. Sure, there may be a cache down (or up) there, but just because it's there doesn't mean that I'm going to do it. I want to have fun, but I'm going to be safe while I'm having fun. In this case, if there's a raging river, poisonous snakes, thick tree coverage and not much (if at all) satellite reception, I see why Officer Garcia wants those caches removed. After all, it is his job to make sure that people stay safe.

On the flip side of the coin, I know that there are cachers that are in much better shape than I am. They are physically able to do much more than I can, and they enjoy doing the 4-5 star terrain caches. That's fine. If you want to do it, and can do it, and do it safely, and maybe have some experience doing it, then that's fine. Go ahead and do those hard caches. That's fine with me, even though I won't attempt those hard caches.

I know that in my last paragraph I rambled a bit, but basically what I want to say is this: People who can do hard caches want to do hard caches. That's fine with me, and if they are indeed able to do them, then I think that there should people some challenging caches out there for them.

With that stated, I'd like to talk about some of the caching in the forest that I've done. It happened this past winter, between December and February when the ticks and poison ivy were gone. ;) There's a whole mountain of trails (called the "Biology trails") in Collegedale, right behind Southern Adventist University. There's thirty-some caches out there too, so I teamed up with my friend Mountain-Lover Pilot to find them.

I really never thought that it would work out, or that I would be allowed to. In other words, I really didn't think that my parents would allow me and my friend to go tramping around the Biology trails for hours on end all by ourselves! But amazingly, both my parents & MLP's parents gave their OK. I really did appreciate this move, as I felt like I was more grown up and they were trusting me more.

However, just because MLP & I had been given the OK by our parents, that didn't mean that we didn't take necessary precautions or safety measures. First of all, we printed out a paper map of the Biology trails. This paper map was very helpful, with color-coded trails, junctions, entrances, and exits. In short, if we could get to a junction or find a trail marker, we could know where we were. Additionally, at every major junction there are wooden markers with the full color map on them, declaring "You are Here". So we could check our map against the trail junction's map, and confirm for sure where we were.

Second, we carried cell phones. We had the phone numbers of our parents, and they had ours. If we had run into trouble, or ended up being a little later than expected, we could call them, and vice versa. We also had the number of Campus Safety, the people who would and could come rescue us if we really needed help (my parents don't know the Biology trails too well). And when my parents or MLP's parents would drop us off, we'd tell our parents approximately when we'd be back.

Third, we had our GPS units. Now, for a long time I only used my GPS for geocaching. Lately though, and it all started with Biology trail caching, I've started using my GPS for other things. For example, once you're at the very tip top ridge of White Oak Mountain (where the Biology trails are), there's only a few trails down. What if I forgot if I had passed that crucial trail junction? Enter the GPS unit. If, say I remembered that the cache "Wind-up" is right before the trail junction, I could look on my GPS to see if I was getting closer or farther away from "Wind-up". That would tell me where I was. Additionally, my GPS (and I think a few others have this too) creates a "bread crumb trail" wherever it goes, whenever it's on. This "bread crumb trail" litterally shows me exactly where I've been.

It was only relatively cold in this picture.
Later we added gloves, scarves, and hats!
Another great feature (and I think this is pretty common on all GPS units) that my GPS has is the ability to make a waypoint, to mark a location. So wherever I am, I can hit the "mark" button, and it'll record the exact set of co-ordinates that I am currently at. This is quite helpful, and could be downright life-saving in an emergency situation. This is what I mean: If I had enough forethought to mark the co-ords of the parking lot, trail entrance, and trail junctions, I could select those to navigate to and thus get out of the trail system. Along with the bread crumb trail and map, if somehow I got separated from MLP (or for that matter, anyone else I was hiking/caching with), I could navigate out of the trail system fine. (after all, we did quite a bit of bushwhacking to get to the caches!!)

Finally, the fourth safety thing that MLP and I did was to go together. It's a lot better going with someone, and I tell ya, I wouldn't have done half the caches out on the Biology trails without Mountain-Lover Pilot! He hikes out there multiple times a week, so I was confident in him knowing his way around. As his name suggests, he is a pilot and he is very keen to the weather. Again, I wouldn't have done half the caches I did without him, because I knew he knew the weather. He knew how long it would take to get out of the trail system, how soon the rain might hit, etc., etc.

In summary:


  • We had physical paper maps
  • We had cell phones, and told other people (our parents) when we expected to be back
  • We used our GPS units' for navigation, not just geocaching. We actively used the bread crumb trail. 
  • We went together
I'm sure there's more common sense and safety points that could be brought out, but that's just what comes to mind right now. In short, we were prepared. We knew what we were facing. It could've been dangerous, but by preparing correctly, we had fun and were safe. 

And oh yeah...the other thing is that we dressed for the weather. It was bitterly cold when we made our expeditions, and while we may have looked weird and crazy, we bundled up. Longjohns, pants, long sleeve shirts, sweaters, heavy-duty coats, hats, and scarfs...as I said, we looked weird but we were kept warm!

So in short, we knew what we were facing and prepared well for it. That way we were kept safe and had fun. Now back to that news story...

I do see why some people think that the caches should not be removed. If you are physically fit, know what you're getting into, and am properly prepared, then go for it! I think that if Hanford and Willingham were a little more prepared, they would've been fine. Now let me expound on that...

I am definitely not trying to criticize anyone who has a smartphone or who uses it for geocaching. I think the fact that smartphones can be used in place of regular, old-fashioned GPS units has opened up the hobby to more people then ever. However, smartphones just aren't dedicated GPS units. I feel that Hanford and Willingham's big mistake was not taking a dedicated GPS unit with them. A dedicated GPS unit will get better signals, is more rugged, water-resistant, etc. etc. In short, don't go caching in deep woods with just a smartphone! 

Remember how I mentioned in the first article hunters were mentioned, and how they sometimes get lost? My dad and I were talking about that. As he wisely pointed out, there is a certain expectation of hunters to know the land and fend for themselves. Plus, there's some regulations of who can become a hunter. For example, you need to get a hunting license first. For geocaching, there's no such thing. There's the hard core, I've-found-thousands-of-geocaches people who are prepared and who do the hard caches, and who do them just fine and safe. But then you got other people who are finding LPCs in urban areas and who have three and five-year-olds. Geocachers, unlike hunters, are a wide range of people who may or may not be prepared for various caches. That's how situations like this arise. 

The story continues. Evidently, after Officer Garcia was quoted in the Memphis paper as saying that his department is considering removing all the caches from the Wolf River area for obvious reasons, he's been getting tons of mostly negative mail from geocachers. INATN's follow-up article was even entitled, "Geocaching's Biggest Enemy Surrenders"!! Officer Garcia is not geocaching's biggest enemy!  He is just trying to keep people safe, doing his job, and this whole thing is giving geocaching a bad name. All I can do is to stay out of the fight, offer my balanced opinion, and see what comes of it.

And my thoughts? Be prepared, be safe, be knowledgeable about any expedition you may go on, geocaching-related or not. Things will be a lot more fun for everybody!

~tnphotobug