Jesse Swedlund made sure the coast was clear.
A pack of sorority girls had finally made their way down the block, and the man across the street was too busy fumbling coins into the parking meter to pay attention.
The sophomore slipped his hand under a park bench outside a Purple Line stop to pull out a small, black capsule no larger than his pinky finger. He popped open the cap and unfolded the tightly wound piece of paper that listed those who had come before him.
Swedlund had found a geocache.
Geocachers are modern-day treasure hunters. Their journey begins online, where they download the coordinates of a hidden treasure container — the geocache — and find them using GPS devices.
Geocaches can be anywhere in the world, from a forest preserve to a sunken shipwreck off the coast of Evanston. Caches also come in a variety of sizes. Micro caches, like the one Swedlund found, are often hidden in population-dense areas where stealth is paramount. In busy, urban settings, cachers maintain a certain level of secrecy to avoid catching the attention of non-cachers, or “muggles,” who may be tempted to tamper with the cache later.
“The thrill of the hunt is what I like best, getting out there and exploring new areas,” says Swedlund, a Communication sophomore. “It’s a hobby for a lot of people. It’s a good excuse to go to the park. It’s a fun way to do something that isn’t so serious.”
The standard cache is roughly the size of a shoebox and usually holds tradable trinkets such as souvenirs, rare stones or small toys. Cachers can take whatever they want out of the cache as long as they put something of equal or greater value. In addition, all caches contain a log to sign and date upon discovery.
After the find, cachers document their experiences in another log at Geocaching.com, creating an online network that connects the estimated 4-5 million active geocachers worldwide.
Oregon computer consultant Dave Ulmer placed the first geocache in May of 2000 after the government expanded public access to GPS technology. This March, two months shy of geocaching’s 10th anniversary, the millionth cache was hidden.
After a friend mentioned the activity to him last spring, Swedlund visited Geocaching.com to see if there were any caches in Evanston. He found several right on campus, ranging from x-marks-the-spot quests to multipart excursions involving math puzzles to unlock the next clue.
“When you do find it, it’s such a rush,” Swedlund says. “Not finding it makes me obsessed with going back. I don’t think I’ll ever leave a cache that I couldn’t find. I’ll always come back and look for it.”
Swedlund doesn’t own a GPS device, instead opting to punch in coordinates to Google Maps and study aerial views of the site before heading out. It’s an easy way for beginners to try geocaching before investing in a real GPS device, which can start at around $100. Groundspeak, the Seattle-based company behind Geocaching.com, now also offers smart phone geocaching applications for less than $10.
Eszter Hargittai, an associate professor of communication studies, is responsible for many of the caches on campus. Her “Turtle among Wildcats” series features seven caches on the Evanston campus and one on the Chicago campus. The series gets its name from Hargittai’s Geocaching.com user name, TurtleFan, and from the tiny turtles originally included in each cache.
“Look around my office,” she says, gesturing to a tall bookshelf where chains of small fabric turtles descend from the highest shelf. “I’m a little obsessed.”
Hargittai is well-known in the North Shore area. Although she started caching a little less than a year and a half ago, she has has logged more than 700 and hidden almost 40 of her own. There’s hardly a cache near campus Hargittai hasn’t found.
“One time I ran into a cacher [and] he said, ‘What’s your name?’” Hargittai recalls. “I said Eszter, but I realized that’s really dumb. Nobody knows who Eszter is. So then I said TurtleFan and he said, ‘It’s an honor.’ That was nice.”
That wasn’t the only time Hargittai’s reputation preceded her. Laurel Childress, a second-year graduate student in Northwestern’s earth and planetary sciences department, knew about Hargittai through the turtle caches.
Childress, who goes by the geocaching name tuihat, began seriously caching about six months ago. She was in the process of completing the campus series when she noticed one of the caches had been misplaced and alerted Hargittai. Later, after Hargittai restored the cache, Childress suggested they go find the newly placed Morley Shipwreck, an underwater cache located about 150 yards off the Evanston shore.
“The in-real-life experience is kind of strange,” Childress says. “The first time I was meeting Eszter that morning, I thought, ‘I don’t really know how to recognize her.’ I took out my GPS unit and thought, ‘Maybe this’ll be obvious.’”
Considering how geocaching starts online and becomes an outdoor activity, it’s no surprise that social interactions follow the same pattern.
“One of the reasons I do find geocaching fascinating is that it’s one of the few activities where both the online and the offline are essential,” says Hargittai, who is in charge of the Web Use Project, which studies the role the Internet plays in peoples’ daily lives. “There are few where both are crucial. You can’t do it with just one aspect, you have to have both.”
Geocaching events are where the interactions of online and offline meet head on, and where the activity’s social qualities come to life. Events can be small — in August, about 20 people attended a Northwestern event Hargittai hosted — or large. Cache-apalooza, a 10th anniversary celebration sponsored by the Geocachers of Northeastern Illinois, took place in Worth, Ill. this past May. In typical geocacher fashion, there are no formal invitations for these events — only event caches with coordinates for addresses.
It’s also not uncommon for event attendees to suddenly realize they’re engaged in conversation with the person who hid their favorite cache. It’s an experience that often happens to Mike “TeacherMike” McGowan, the organizer of Cache-apalooza and the technology director for a school district in Calumet City, Ill.
“You get to trade stories [and] all of a sudden people will come up to me and be, ‘Oh, you’re TeacherMike!’” McGowan says.
At Hargittai’s lunch event, guests wore nametags with their screen names.
“There are people that just through the site you feel like you have a relationship with even though you haven’t met them,” says Childress, who attended the event. “You’re like, ‘I’ve done a bunch of their caches, I have an insight into their style.’”
As a group, geocachers are hard to stereotype. Respondents to a 2008 survey by the Michigan Geocaching Organization ranged in age from 23 to 70 years old. Jen Sonstelie, the marketing director for Groundspeak, says because there’s no common geocacher in terms of demographics, cachers form bonds over the hobby alone.
“Events are in some ways like going to a music festival,” says Sonstelie, who flew out from Groundspeak’s Seattle headquarters to attend Cache-apalooza. “Everyone’s there for a common reason. Everyone’s having fun and meeting people who like the same things they like. Geocachers definitely define themselves as geocachers, so it’s very welcoming of other people.”
Tucked alongside Deering Library, there’s a garden Northwestern students could probably go their entire undergraduate career without knowing — unless they were geocachers. Thanks to Turtles among Wildcats, Swedlund says he has discovered campus nooks and crannies well off the beaten path.
“They’re designed to bring you to pretty places on campus and they really did bring me to a couple of areas I had never been to that were really cool,” he says.
Although Hargittai is introducing geocachers to Northwestern through her caches, the hobby has also introduced her to the area.
“I certainly do way more nature things than I did before,” she says. “I had no idea how many forest preserves are in the area.”
That holds true across the pond as well. Because she travels frequently for work, Hargittai has cached in 16 states and four different countries.
Geocaching’s international appeal has drawn academic attention to the activity right here at Northwestern. Dirk Brockmann, an applied mathematics professor, uses geocaching data to understand and apply human mobility and travel patterns. Brockmann studied Travel Bugs, special caches that geocachers move across states, countries and continents, often toward a goal destination predetermined by the original hider. When geocachers log a Travel Bug on Geocaching.com, the site will generate a map showing its migration across Google Maps.
“[Caches] are in more than 200 countries,” Brockmann says. “There are more than [one] million caches. Travel Bugs have traveled more than a billion kilometers. You can address all sorts of interesting questions.” He previously used data from Where’s George, a website where visitors can look up and record the travel trajectory of their paper money, to predict how the H1N1 virus would spread following its initial outbreak.
Brockmann and his family set up four Travel Bugs throughout Europe before their move to the U.S., each with Chicago defined as the Bugs’ goal destination. One arrived after a year of travel through Canada, Maine, South America and New York.
“The people that were involved didn’t know one another,” Brockmann says. “Nevertheless, it made it. My daughter was really psyched. She waited a year and then she had her little toy back. It’s fascinating that this works.”
That’s part of the mystery of the geocaching. Theresa Edwards, a Kent State University student and the author of the Muggles Don’t Scare Me! geocaching blog, described geocaching as “one of the only hobbies where you can run off into the woods with a stranger and know you’ll come back alive.” It’s a fitting description. Whether geocachers interact in person or online across the globe, they form an altruistic and collaborative community driven by an intense enthusiasm for the hobby and not a whole lot else.
“It’s all about getting more people involved,” Hargittai says. “It’s good for the activity, but people also enjoy it. That’s a good feeling, that I constructed this little thing and that actually affected what somebody decided to do on their weekend.”
The number of active geocaches has been corrected to more than one million. North by Northwestern regrets the error.