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Geocaching: It Can Be Fun, Educational, Hazardous--and Even Profitable

by Harold Charlier

It was the Northern Lakes Chapter's turn to host the annual summer meeting of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors, and with that assignment came the responsibility of planning the program. Their planning committee, led by Devon Vanden Heuvel, was pretty sure that the standard events would remain the same: a golf outing, trap shooting, a pacing and estimating contest, a seminar, a banquet, a membership meeting, and a board meeting. But since one of the latest crazes (worldwide!) appears to be geocaching, the chapter decided to give it a try. Eleven teams participated in the August 3 event, with all destinations within five miles of The Waters of Minocqua meeting facility.
So what is geocaching? It's a treasure hunt using hand-held GPS units. Admittedly, this one didn't follow your standard procedures. Rather than searching for existing caches and exchanging small items from concealed plastic containers, the committee had a simpler scheme in mind for these teams of (mostly) rookies. They had hidden one-gallon clear plastic Ziploc bags at six sites, each containing a supply of poker chips, with a different chip color at each site. The goal was to find the hidden bags and collect up to six chips, good for converting into six cards to make up a poker hand. The team or individual with the best poker hand became the contest winner.
As a contestant in the contest, I had one problem: I needed a cram course on how to operate a Magellan receiver. Thanks to instructor Mike Romportl, we learned how to enter the site coordinates into the system. And with further coaching by Seiler Instruments' Terry Leuschow, we were on our way. We had more help from the committee, however. The handout also provided some cleverly concocted clues. Here's how they read (in addition to providing the coordinates, longitudes and latitudes):

            Site One: If fishing is your gig, then this is your SIGN. If you have the time after finding the cache, take a tour of this facility.

            Site Two: This famous fundraiser parade started with a single PENNY and was key to the future of healthcare in the Minocqua/Woodruff area. It gained national attention and helped to save lives.

            Site Three As this Babe looks to the North, she's feeling Blue. So grab the WHEEL and show her the cache!

            Site Four: This DAM road is really curvy! Wow, you're there, a parking lot east of the road, but don't look there. Oh LOOK, a beautiful white birch to the north and west of the road, but whatever you do, don't park your trailer here!  

            Site Five: No, we're not bowling, but Brunswick is part of this game. Follow the Stone Gate, but not too far and be careful. Private property to the west of this point, but National Forest to the east. When you get there, you are in for a surveyor's delight that very few get to WITNESS!

            Site Six: We'll call this home for now as SURVEYORS ARE WELCOME here!
We selected Site 4 as our first destination and indeed the road was curvy, and there was a dam there (with a brass cap bench mark imbedded in the concrete wall), but the coordinates told us we should be about 100 ft. north. We searched the ground around a twin birch tree, but found nothing. After verifying that we had entered the right coordinates, we checked the same area. Ah, tricky! The bag of chips was about five feet above ground wedged between the two trees.
We wasted some time by scrambling back to the hotel to retrieve a camera, and from there headed to Site 3, a Paul Bunyan restaurant with a monster sign, and next to it the remains of a cart once pulled by his faithful ox, Babe. This is where I demonstrated that this activity can become hazardous. The routine went something like this: "Terry, I think I'm getting closer near this wheel." "Hey, I thought they said the containers would all be clear Ziploc bags. This one is blue." "Whoa, yuck!" "This isn't a bag of poker chips. It's a doggie doo-doo bag!"
On to Site 2, which has a great deal of significance to the people of the Minocqua/Woodruff area. An historical marker told the story about how one person started a campaign to collect pennies for building a hospital, was recognized on national TV ("This is Your Life"), and eventually accumulated enough pennies from around the country to build the hospital. There was no doubt about this bag of chips; it was tucked behind a bed of flowers in front of a giant replica of a 1953 penny.
Site 1 took us to the entrance to a state fish hatchery. We walked past a rotted old log a couple times before we noticed the bag. The team ahead of us made sure this one was well concealed with twigs and leaves--playing hardball! For some reason both Terry and I showed the location to be about 50 ft. away from where we found it.
The commentary for Site 5 claimed that this was going to be a "surveyor's delight." And that it was, finding the remains of witness trees marked almost 150 years ago. Included in the bag of chips were copies of Deputy Surveyor Alfred Millard's field notes, which added a little bonus to the visit.
While heading back to the hotel we stopped to take pictures of the offices of two of our longtime society member firms--Wilderness Surveying (Jim and Jimmy Rein) and Foltz & Associates (Stuart Foltz and Charles Winkler). 
Site 6 was the final destination, and we knew this would be an easy one. The bag was tucked next to the large sign marking the entrance to The Waters of Minocqua.
And finally, there was one remaining piece of business to take care of: converting the chips to playing cards. As committee chairman Vanden Heuvel spread the cards on the table, we knew that someone had already picked a pair of fives, and later that was topped with a pair of sixes. The first pick was a king (good start), the second card was another king (looks like a winner), the third card was a queen, and the fourth card was another king--just to make sure.
In summary, we can attest to all of the following: it was a lot of fun; it was educational; it was hazardous (to one's dignity); and, it turned out to be profitable as a first prize winner. I think the Northern Lakes Chapter has caught on to something that could become one of the standard activities at future summer meetings.   

Harold Charlier is the longtime (since 1972) executive director of the Wisconsin Society of Land Surveyors and the editor of Wisconsin Professional Surveyor, the Society's quarterly publication. He is also an organizing and charter member of the Wisconsin Land Information Association. Nationally, he has served a three-year term on the board of direction of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping (ACSM), and since 1981 has represented Wisconsin on the board of governors of the National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS). 

Originally published on November 15, 2007.


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