There’s a wealth of forgotten history, unnoticed scenery and other worthwhile detours just below the surface of every destination. Tourism offices and visitors’ centers can’t possibly cover it all.
Geocachers, however, have found a fun way to discover some of these overlooked treasures while looking for purposely hidden objects.
Geocaching is a high tech treasure hunt that uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or a smartphone with a Geocaching application to find something hidden by other players. As a side benefit, cache owners frequently include historic background information or something else of significance about the hiding location in the online descriptions of their caches. (Visit www.geocaching.com for more information about geocaching.)
“It’s an educational tool,” said Dan Chaney, a Maryland resident and geologist for the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. “The goal is to find something, but it’s going to make you think about what you’re looking at or where you are.”
Both Chaney and his wife are avid geocachers who travel globally because of his job requirements.
“Geocaching gets us to places we never otherwise would have visited,” he said. “It hasn’t really made us travel more, but it has changed the way we spend our free time, for the better.”
Traveling at Home
“I have traveled widely in Concord,” said transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, and the same sentiment could apply to geocachers who explore closer to home.
Within Howard County, for example, geocachers with a Civil War bent can discover the site of the Cooksville Skirmish which was won by Confederate soldiers commanded by Gen. J. E. B. Stuart, or the secluded gravesite of Frank Wyman, a Union soldier from New York who settled near present-day Wincopin Park in Savage after the war.
In Prince George’s County, a six-stage multicache series leads searchers on a Drive Through Laurel’s History, the name of a geocache challenge created for the Laurel Historical Society (LHS) last year by Robert Barrett as an Eagle Scout project.
Working out the final location of this cache requires players to collect information by visiting historic sites that include the city’s train station; Montpelier Mansion and Snow Hill Manor, both part of the former Snowden family plantation; and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, a house of worship established in 1921 to serve Laurel’s segregated black Grove community.
“I decided that geocaching … would be a great way to give back to the community in a creative way,” said Barrett, who also created a walking geocache trail for the historical society that allows visitors to explore Main Street Laurel with a borrowed GPS device.
“It’s a good resource for us, but not that many people know about it,” said LHS Executive Director Lindsey Baker. “One of our volunteers has agreed to take on the responsibility of studying the trails to see how they’re being used and how best to promote them.”
Further afield, geocaching is being used by the Maryland Municipal League (MML) to promote tourism within the state. In fact, the Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail, established in 2009 in partnership with the Maryland Geocaching Society, was the first statewide trail of its kind in the nation.
The MML program offered special geocoins — trackable items used in another aspect of the geocaching game — to the first 500 people to find at least 22 of the caches hidden by 85 of the League’s 157 member municipalities.
“The program exceeded our expectations … and at least 450 of the coins were handed out before the program ended,” said Paula Chase-Hyman, MML’s director of member relations.
“The nature of our being the first to do this brought a lot of visitors to the participating cities, many of which are small and can’t afford large publicity campaigns of their own,” she said. “The goal was to get people to stop in and maybe spend some money in a shop or restaurant, or stay in a local hotel.”
The original MML Geocache Trail was decommissioned on Aug. 1 this year, but the program will continue with the expected unveiling of a Phase 2 Trail sometime in the fall of 2012.
Other geotrails in Maryland include the Star Spangled Banner Geotrail, focusing on the War of 1812, and the Captain John Smith Geotrail, which highlights the routes and places associated with the English explorer’s travels. Both trails extend out of state and span the Chesapeake Bay region.
Veni, Vidi, Cachi
The average geocacher is anything but average. “Geocaching really has a broad-based audience,” said Chase-Hyman, explaining what made the MML Geotrail such a success. “The only shared traits are a love of the outdoors and acceptance of technology, but the people who do it are relatively progressive and like to discover new things.”
Geocaching isn’t limited to remote forest settings, either, but plays out in urban environments as well and includes locations accessible by disabled individuals.
“That’s a major consideration for me because my wife is confined to a wheelchair,” said Chaney. “At first we didn’t think we’d have much in common with other geocachers, but the nice thing is that geocaching gives us a common interest with everybody we meet. We always have something to talk about to break the ice.”
Last October, Chaney established an Earthcache — a destination where visitors can learn about unique geoscience features or aspects of the earth — at Laurel’s Dinosaur Park. To claim credit for the find, geocachers must read the park’s informational placards and answer a series of questions relating to a fossil discovered there.
“It’s a place that I find interesting because I’m a geologist, and I wanted to share it with others,” Chaney said. “Hopefully others will find it interesting enough to go there and learn more about it.”