by Roger Allen
Have you heard about “letterboxing”? It’s an organized game of following clues to find items that other participants have hidden. It requires good walking shoes, access to the Internet, and a sense of adventure.
Letterboxing began in England in 1854 and is still a popular pastime there. The idea came to Dartmoor resident James Perrott, who placed a bottle in a wild, nearly inaccessible local area. In the bottle he included his calling card so future visitors could contact him. They could also leave their own calling cards.
In the past ten years or so, letterboxing has come to America and beyond, spurred by a 1998 article in the Smithsonian magazine. Participants are both hiders and finders. At the Internet site www.letterboxing.org, they post their own directions (for locating small items they have hidden) as well as retrieve the clues of other hiders.
Following a printed-out series of directions usually requires a fair amount of walking, often in nature areas or parks. Once the seeker finds the “treasure,” he or she uses a rubber stamp in an included logbook to announce success. The box may also contain goodies for the finders. The letterbox is then closed (think waterproof zip lock bags) and carefully replaced for the next finder.
Directions to a box (called “clues” or “the map”), can be straightforward, cryptic, or any degree in between, depending on the hider’s personality and ingenuity.
New technology has come to letterboxing. Today’s modern version, “geocaching,” involves a Global Positioning System (GPS) unit to help locate the hidden object. A geocacher can place a geocache anyplace in the world, pinpoint its location using GPS technology, and then share the geocache’s existence and location online. Anyone with a GPS unit can try to locate the geocache.
Geocaching was imagined shortly after the removal of Selective Availability from GPS on May 1, 2000, because the improved accuracy of the system allowed for a small container to be specifically placed and located. The first documented placement of a GPS-located cache took place on May 3, 2000, by Dave Ulmer of Beavercreek, Oregon. The location was posted on the Usenet newsgroup sci.geo.satellite-nav as 45°17.460N 122°24.800W. According to Dave Ulmer’s message, the original stash was a black plastic bucket buried most of the way in the ground. It contained software, videos, books, food, money, and a slingshot.
I found out about geocaching only last week as I watched a couple searching the ground around an oak tree on my farm. They turned up a cylinder containing names and a message. According to the pair, Mark and Bevie Schmidt, it was one of two geocaches on my place. There are dozens and dozens more in Kent and Ottawa counties.
There are lots of geocaches in and around Rockford. Many have a story behind them. Charlie’s Lost Childhood in Townsend Park is named in honor of the hider’s dog, who was abused before being adopted.