Caching In
For local game players, finding hidden items a thrilling journey
Plainfield Sun, Friday, October 18
Story: Janet Prasad, Photos: Sally Washburn


After finding his first cache of the day at Isle a la Cache in Romeoville, Markwell leaves a note in the log book for the next geocacher to find.

Seeds and mud cake Markwell's jeans after one of his geocaching hikes. Markwell enjoys geocaching for both the problem-solving skills involved and the chance to be outdoors.

Global positioning game has residents scouring the area for ‘treasure’

At first glance, Kelly Markwell seems a little eccentric. He's got a backpack filled with plastic trinkets. He's got maps marked with latitude and longitude coordinates for places called "Kay's Garage Sale" and "Cache Cache." He is marching through the woods periodically holding up a global positioning system receiver.

click to enlargeMarkwell is not crazy. He is on a treasure hunt. A sentence on the back of the scuffed-up baseball hat he wears reads, "You are the search engine."

The name of the game is "geocaching." For about two years, people with GPS receivers have been hiding tubs and containers - caches - of stuff in forest preserves, cities and parks across the country. Then they post the coordinates of their stash on the official geocaching Web site, www.geocaching.com, and dare people to try to find it.

What started on the West Coast in 2000 as an experimental game by a few people with GPS receivers has become a world-w9ide phenomenon. People have hidden more than 30,000 geocaches in 149 countries, with a fair number of caches planted in Will County.

“I hide, I find, I have a lot of fun,” said Markwell, a lifelong Plainfield resident. “People like adventure, and they’ll take it any way they can get it.”

One recent morning, Markwell was determined to find the cache planted in the Isle a la Cache Museum forest preserve in Romeoville. It was called "Kay's Garage Sale, or Leftover Junk" hidden by Bolingbrook resident and experienced Geocacher Frank Orlowicz, a.k.a. Eagle Son, his e-mail name.

Walking through the quiet woods is the best part of the hunt for Markwell. Certainly he finds satisfaction in finding the hidden caches, but says the journey is truly the destination.

“After (finding) 30 caches, I wasn’t interested in the stuff anymore,” Markwell said.

As he gets close to the cache location, his GPS receiver tells him he is coming within feet of the hidden booty – which could be misleading, since the GPS system has a wide margin of error. Two deer stand a few hundred feet away, staring at him. Until Markwell walked up, they had been standing right next to the hidden cache, as if guarding it.

With relative ease he found the plastic jug marked with a geocache sticker. He knelt on the forest floor and dumped out the contents – a plastic puzzle, some multicolored plastic sunglasses, a magic trick, some hackey-sack balls and a notebook and pencil sealed in a plastic bag.

The notebook was a log book, signed by each Geocacher who found the jug. Markwell added his entry, took the sunglasses and replaced them with a Matchbox car and a toothbrush.

click to enlargeA general rule in Geocaching is to replace items take from the cache with something equally cool. Most of the time people leave little toys. Often geocachers will leave a signature item that other geocachers will start to recognize. Orlowicz says he always leaves a dollar coin. Markwell has created a compact disc of classical music he usually leaves.

But Markwell’s CD won’t fit in this cache jug. After signing the log book, Markwell takes some pictures with a digital camera and puts it back in its hiding place.

Orlowicz said he named that cache after a garage sale because that’s where he got the items he put in the jog. On the scale of difficulty, “Kay’s Garage Sale” was set pretty low, he said.

“It gets you out of the house and into the woods,” said Orlowicz, who has hidden five caches in the Bolingbrook and Plainfield area. “It’s a good excuse to get out and take a walk in the woods, to get to see parks and places you’ve never seen.

“It’s not Indiana Jones, but it’s a little bit of a thrill to get out here and look for treasure,” he said. “It gives you a reason to get outside.”

Most of the geocachers in the south suburbs know of each other by their e-mail names and by the trademark items they leave in the caches. After finding each cache, the finder usually posts a summary of his or her experience on the Geocaching.com website for his buddies to see, along with any pictures taken along the way.

Inspired by his find at “Kay’s Garage Sale,” Markwell decided to set out for another cache. This one was a little trickier to reach, nestled along a riverbank on the other side of a giant marsh of 10-foot reeds.

The “Cache Cache,” named for its proximity to the Isle a la Cache Museum, was eventually named to Markwell’s toughest terrain list.

Once Markwell reached the riverbank, the cache was easy to find. Only the terrain made it a difficult site. Even Orlowicz, who has found 137 caches in 11 states, said he tried three times to get to the “Cache Cache” and could not make it.

Some geocachers, like Markwell, delight in making their caches a brain tease. Some caches have three parts to them, and hunters must find two or three smaller hidden clue caches before they find the mother cache.

“I’m really a masochist when it comes to making people find these things,” Markwell said. “Just put the coordinates out there? That’s too easy.”

A cache Markwell recently hid in the Plainfield area involves finding three separate caches, including one that contained the encoded coordinates for the main cache on an audio CD. Very “Mission: Impossible,” and very fun for avid hunters.

Geocaching is usually a daylong adventure. Sometimes one cache will take all day to find. Often geocachers will get the coordinates for three or four caches located in the same general area, then make a day of driving and hiking around looking for them.

Getting started in Geocaching is easy – anyone with a GPS receiver and an Internet connection can do it. Geocachers must love the outdoors and should count on spending a lot of time there. Most of them are self-described technology geeks who already had the GPS device before they stumbled upon the sport of geocaching.

But people with an affinity for technology are not the only ones getting into it. In the past year, the number of people geocaching has nearly doubled, Markwell said, mainly because of other geocachers talking it up to their friends.

As more people get involved in Geocaching and more treasures are hidden, the chances of somebody spotting one of the hunters wandering around local forest preserves and parks also increases. The geocachers might seem a little odd, but they’re having so much fun.