Story and photography by Michelle Menes.
Adam Kwasnaza and Sandy Walsh met through an online dating website. Six months later, the Pennsylvania couple found out that together, they had created something special.
They had placed the 1 millionth geocache in the United States.
Geocaching is a modern-day treasure hunt that uses GPS coordinates to find hidden containers, known as caches. Each cache contains a piece of paper for players to sign and in larger caches, small items for trade.
When Walsh signed up for the dating site, she mentioned in her profile that she liked geocaching and wanted someone who would enjoy it with her. Kwasnaza had never geocached before but thought he would give it a try. Together they have found over 200 geocaches in four states.
“It was an icebreaker,” Kwasnaza said. “Once we started dating, we would go out together and that’s how we got involved in it.”
As a girl, Walsh had fond memories of fishing at a local duck pond with her father. She and Kwasnaza decide to place a geocache at the spot.
On Sept. 14, Kwasnaza was notified by the official geocaching website, geocaching.com, that the geocache they had placed was the 1 millionth registered in the United States.
“We placed it on Saturday morning,” Kwasnaza said. “Saturday evening we got an email that it wasn’t approved because, according to the geocaching guidelines, you can’t place any geocache on or near a school. Where it’s at used to be a school but they closed it in 1999. That delayed the posting. It got approved later that night and the next afternoon we got a new email saying it was the 1 millionth one.”
Geocaching began in May of 2000. Before then, the government had limited the accuracy of civilian GPS signals for national defense reasons. On May 2, the restrictions were removed and the accuracy of GPS devices increased dramatically.
On May 3, Dave Ulmer placed the first container which he called a “stash” near Beavercreek, Oregon and posted its coordinates to a Usenet newsgroup. It was found a day later by Mike Teague.
Ulmer called the game Global Positioning Stash Hunt. Four days after Ulmer placed the first stash, Teague placed the second and third. Because the term “stash” had negative connotations, the name was changed to “cache” and the word “geocache” was born.
By the end of 2000, with help from Teague and Ulmer, web developer Jeremy Irish created geocaching.com. The site lists geocaches by location and allows users to register and log their finds online.
According to geocaching.com, in the first year there were 75 geocaches hidden. Since then, the number of registered geocaches has risen to over 2.5 million worldwide.
Currently, 162 of those have been placed by Larry Gunn. Gunn has been geocaching since 2009, and has found over 15,000 geocaches.
“What I’m trying to do when I place geocaches,” Gunn said, “is to bring people to nice places. I make the geocaches a little bit more historic and I tell people about Rancho Cucamonga. By doing that, they learn a little bit about the history of the town and how it grew from a sleepy vineyard to the thing that it is today.”
Gunn also hosts and attends geocaching events. He held an event in March where he demonstrated different types of geocache containers. He said that learning the different types of caches makes people better geocachers. Over 50 members of the local geocaching community were in attendance.
“I know more people now that I’m a geocacher than I did before,” Gunn said. “It’s like a quirky group of people. Everybody is a little bit different and from all walks of life.”
Eric Schudiske, public relations manager at Geocaching.com, agrees.
“The geocaching community shares one common characteristic,” Schudiske said, “they’re explorers. Beyond that, uniting through spirit of adventure, geocachers span the socioeconomic spectrum. Teens to retirees from nearly every cultural and national identity are enjoying geocaching.”
In its early years, geocaches were placed in remote areas, many near hiking trails and in state parks. The caches were mostly waterproof plastic containers or ammo cans hidden between rocks or in tree stumps.
Today the location and type of containers are as varied as the people who hide them.
When a container is large enough, the cache owner will place a few small items inside for other geocachers to trade. These items are usually small toys or trinkets. Sometimes they hold a special meaning for the geocacher.
Once a cache is placed by a member it is submitted for review. A reviewer’s job is to make sure every geocache meets certain guidelines before it goes live on the site. Reviewers are not employees but members who volunteer their time.
Tom Sayer is a reviewer for the San Diego area. He became a member of geocaching.com a year after the site was launched.
“I fell in love with the game for the outdoor activity,” Sayer said, “the hiking to beautiful locations. The game has certainly evolved since then but there’s plenty of that still available. I always tell people if all there was was finding a cache on the side of the road it’s the stupidest thing ever, it’s pointless. But if you make a game out of it, that’s what makes it fun.”
Geocaching also has seen its share of problems. Sayer said he is sometimes called on to deal with caches that are placed on private property without the property owner’s permission, which is strictly against the rules of geocaching.com.
Sayer also said that because geocaches are hidden, there’s always the risk that a container might be considered a suspicious device. He’s had the bomb squad called on a geocache in his area.
“When you consider the thousands of caches that are out there,” Sayer said, “it’s very few and far between.”
John Carter is the Communications Supervisor for the Anaheim Police Department and a 911 dispatcher. He said he is familiar with geocaching.
“I’ve taken breaks and found a few around our police department,” Carter said. “As a 911 dispatcher, I’ve had the experience of getting calls about suspicious people digging through bushes, or planting things that look like drugs in locations that I’ve known to be a geocache. Anaheim PD doesn’t have any policies regarding geocaches specifically, but when we get calls, we’ll respond and check the area just in case they are doing something illegal.”
Adam Kwasnaza said what he likes most about geocaching is getting out and seeing new places.
“We’ve been in this area for so long,” he said, “but geocaching has brought us to places that we’ve never seen before. Some areas we never knew even existed.”
Eric Schudiske of geocaching.com said the reason geocaching appeals to so many people is that it gives people a reason to explore the world around them.
“There’s something in all our DNA that wants to see what’s around the next corner or across the country,” Schudiske said.
“Geocaching is the tool people use to power that adventure. Each geocache offers a living history of a location, and people who find that geocache play a small part in that history, by telling their story, uploading a photo and replacing the geocache for others to find. As the website and the apps become easier to use, more and more people are channeling into geocaching as a low-cost way to connect with friends, exercise and explore.”