Bert Marshall and Larry Houston led a group of people out of the Baytown Nature Center headquarters into the soft sprinkle of a cool, rainy Saturday morning and onto a trek in search of treasure.
Well, some sort of treasure.
The expert geocachers, known to others involved in the high-tech sport as Baytown Bert and Houston Control, took center stage at the city of Baytown’s January edition of the monthly Nurture Nature program to offer a lecture about geocaching, then set out to demonstrate just how to find a geocache.
Their audience was small, perhaps due to that rain and cool temperature, but it included some experienced geocachers and a few folks checking it out for the first time.
Geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunting game in which participants use GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers, which includes most Smart Phones nowadays, to make their way to particular coordinates to find a geocache hidden at that location.
The geocaching world revolves around a website, www.geocaching.com, where one can log in, insert a zip code and get a list of caches in an area.
There are thousands within a 50-mile radius of Baytown.
The website gives coordinates, which the searchers enter into their GPS devices.
The site’s information includes particulars about caches, such as its size and difficulty to find.
The cache sizes can range from tiny micro caches just big enough to contain a tiny paper to log information onto to big cache boxes that contain take-away treasures, which are especially nice for children to find.
Difficulty ratings range from handicapped accessible caches to those that are incredibly hard to find, according to Marshall.
“We had one way out in a forest where we followed the coordinates and finally got there to find a mercury vapor light way out in the middle of nowhere and very high up in a tree,” he said.
A complicated set of instructions led to a code, which Marshall figured out opened what appeared to be a control box for that light, which wasn’t actually a light at all.
“The code opened that control box and inside was a little crank and when you crank it what looks like the bulb for that light comes down on a wire and that bulb is actually the cache box,” Marshall said.
That’s what geocaching experts call an “evil find,” according to Marshall and Houston.
Most aren’t anywhere near that difficult.
Saturday’s trek led the group along a trail at the Nature Center.
Their GPS units told them when to step off the trail and into the woods.
After walking a couple dozen yards they came to a tight grouping of young trees – so tight that the small waterproof box fit snugly between them a couple feet up from the ground.
Inside was the log sheet, which they marked to indicate it had been found, and some trinkets. Two children on the trek each chose a trinket and the experienced geocachers replaced what the kids took with trinkets of their own.
The game is based on leaving something of equal or great value behind in exchange for whatever one takes. Commemorating the find both at the site and online is equally important.
“If you find a cache, you sign the logbook there and when you get home you go online and log it in on the website,” said Marshall. “If you didn’t find it, log it in anyway as a DNF (for Did Not Find).”
Marshall and Houston, who both work for ExxonMobil in Baytown, spend a lot of their free time on geocaching. Marshall has been doing it for about three years and Houston for longer. They both hunt for caches and own caches, which means that they hide the cache containers and maintain them.
Caches can be complicated or simple. Many are accessible by land but some can be reached only by water, which makes it interesting for kayakers or people in canoes.
Some contain special surprises like a “trackable” object. Trackables, like travel bugs, are objects with a special bar code or other trackable inscription that are tracked online as they move from cache to cache ... you find it, take it, log it in, then leave it at another cache. Some have traveled around the world.
Some geocaches don’t involve treasure caches at all, but are designed simply to get people out to a specific geological site. Rather than swapping trinkets, visitors to those sites describe what they find, Marshall said.
Instructions for such things are available on the website.
The most important thing, perhaps, is that geocaching gets people outdoors, enjoying nature and getting fresh air and exercise.
“Geocaching is fun and it takes you places you wouldn’t otherwise go,” said Marshall. “When you get into it you become part of a larger community of people with the same interest. You learn a new language and new skills.”
“Anybody can do it and once they try it, then they want to hide caches themselves and be a bigger part of it,” he added.
Before doing that, Marshall advises finding at least 50 to 60 caches to get a good handle on what works and what doesn’t.
(The city of Baytown’s Nurture Nature series is held the first Saturday of each month and covers a wide variety of topics. The program is free with regular admission of $3 for adults and for children 13 and older.)