June 11, 2005

Travels with the Dope (WARNING: lots of words, very long post, no political content)

I recently enjoyed one of the most gorgeous day trips I've had in years. Back on the 6th, I lit out on the open road as the sun rose not knowing exactly where I was heading. And it turned out to be the most gorgeous day and the most beautiful scenery I've seen in a long time. My idea of heaven is rolling in the trusty Dopemobile, good tunes or Air America on the stereo, and finding out what's around the next bend.

About a year ago, I stumbled across an activity known as geocaching. I'm hooked.

The way it works is this: Geocaches are little containers that are placed all over the world. They can be anywhere. Under a post office box, in a hollow tree in the woods, on top of a mountain, or literally anywhere you can imagine. There's a website (www.geocaching.com) that is like a giant clearing house for geocaches. You go to the site and register, which provides you with your own page which lists the caches you've found, caches you've hidden, and other info. It keeps track of how many you've found as well. Some people have found over a thousand! You can then search for geocaches in your area by area code or coordinates, or search anywhere around the world. The site has a map function which shows caches.

For instance, there are hundreds and hundreds of caches hidden within a 100 mile radius of the Quad Cities and the number is growing all the time. (There's about 5 on Sylvan Island, 6 or 7 in Scott County Park, and about the same number in West Lake Park, for example. Here's a map showing the caches in the area.

The caches can range from a tiny pill bottle to a large ammo can. They all contain at least a slip of paper to log your find, and most also contain various trinkets and goodies, the idea being that you drop off something and take something. Many contain a disposable camera and you're supposed to take your own picture. The "owner" then collects the camera once it's full and gets to see who all has found his cache. There's a million variations and fun stuff, and you can find out more at the site. (You can also find benchmarks, those little brass discs used for surveying. I found one in a pasture high atop a bluff that was placed in 1886 during a survey of the Mississippi River, and which no one had found before.)

The basic tool of this "sport" is a handheld GPS or global positioning system receiver. You can get one for anywhere from $30 to over a thousand bucks, depending on bells and whistles. Good ones go for a couple hundred. These receive signals from a fleet of satelites orbiting the earth and can pinpoint your position to as few as 7 feet anywhere on the face of the earth. (unless something interferes with the signal, such as tree cover.) They're also amazingly useful for just getting from point A to point B and back in areas you're not familiar with or if you get lost.

You search out the caches in the area you want to check out, (they are literally all over the country. Anytime I've taken trips, I check out geocaches in that area or on the way and find a few if I have the time) Each cache has it's own page created by the person who created it and hid it (you can also hide your own) It contains the coordinates of the cache and a few paragraphs with a general description and tips. For instance, if the location is full of sticker bushes or insects, or requires tough climbs, etc. they'll warn you. Each is also rated for difficulty to find and difficulty of terrain.

Once you have the coordinates loaded in your GPS, it points you to the spot and off you go. Where you're going to end up, you don't know. And that's the part I love.
I've ended up on towering bluffs in the middle of a remote cow pasture, climbing cliffs that I didn't know existed around here, slogging through woods in nature preserves that I likewise had no idea existed, seen historic places that I'd never seen, etc. And you can do it anytime you feel like, day or night, 365 days a year. I've gone out at 3 a.m., and at all times of the year, whether it's below zero or almost 100 degrees. Some are within yards of a nice parking area, others require miles of difficult hiking. You can pick your own level of challenge.

The GPS usually gets you to within several yards of the cache, but they're not just laying in plain site. They're often in remote woods and well hidden and disguised. Some are hung on cliffs or up in trees, a lot are hidden in hollow trees or logs and covered with pieces of bark to disguise it. So it can be quite a task to finally find the cache.

Once you've found the cache (or tried)you go back to it's page on the site and log your find. You can write about your experience and the condition of the cache, what the weather was like, things you saw in the area, or even post pictures. This way the "owner" of the cache can keep tabs on it as well, as people will report if it needs attention, has been moved, destroyed, etc. You also get to see who all have found it.

Some make their hides easy or specifically for kids, others lay out strings of mult-caches, where you have to go to one location, record certain information, decode that or solve a riddle, which provides the coordinates to the second part, etc. Some require finding as many as 8 or 9 caches before you find the final one, and they might be spread out over several miles.

Anyway, I looked at all the caches loaded in my GPS and picked one out on IL-92 about 30 miles. I took off at about 4 a.m. It was a relatively easy find, and after walking around taking in the sights at this remote location, I wanted to look for another. I looked at the GPS map and saw a few caches relatively close, so off I went. To make a long story longer, I ended up exploring all over the countryside, found some incredibly beautiful spots, hiked a lot, saw lots of wildlife, met some nice people, learned a lot of history of the area, and had a fantastic day. (despite spending a looong time crawling through thickets looking for a couple caches that I later found out had been removed. Ooops. Serves me right for not checking the site first.)

Here's a couple shots I took. 10 points for the first person to identify the structure in the picture and where it's located. (Hint: It's within 60 miles of the QC's)

Can anyone doubt that the midwest is just as beautiful (sometimes) as any other spot on earth?


At 6/11/2005 11:45 AM, Blogger Dissenter said...

My guess: bridge over the Hennepin canal.

At 6/11/2005 9:05 PM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

A tip of the Dope hat to Dissenter! First to guess and you are a winner!!

I figured the QC types would be stumped.

This is a lift bridge over the Hennepin canal at lock 15 near Wyanet, IL. Farmers would use these bridges to access their fields. They're an iron bridge lifted by heavy chains over a pully. The bridge would be lifted and lowered by a windlass in the middle of the bridge.

There used to be several, but this restored bridge is the only one which still exists.

There is also another type of bridge not far away which is interesting as well. A cantilevered bridge is mounted on several tracks with wheels and the thing simply slid/rolled out over the canal to the other side, and rolled back when something came through the canal.

I also finally got to see an aquaduct over a large stream. There are six left. The canal actually crosses over rivers and streams via a large bridge. Pretty amazing.

Another highlight was seeing the largest turtle I've ever seen in the wild. When I was walking up to it, I thought it was a half submerged tire or black garbage sack in the water. The thing had to be at least 14 inches in diameter. It was enormous!

Good work Dissenter!!

At 6/12/2005 7:04 AM, Blogger maybesomeday said...

Hey Dope let us know if you run into Bigfoot!

At 6/12/2005 9:17 PM, Blogger Dissenter said...

If I had a nickel for every time that Dope got me hooked on one of his latest hair-brained schemes.....

Because of Dope, I have written in support of bringing the Illinois Channel to our area, I have dropped what I was doing to go watch C-Span, I have signed up one of my buddies for a Republican dating service, and now this.

Three hours. THREE HOURS!!! I have never before heard of geocaching, and now I am hooked. I finally found one geocache, and spent almost two hours looking for another. I am quite certain I contracted poison ivy, and I am certain that it is time to buy a new handheld GPS device. Oh, and I think I have a tick. My yard was to be mowed this evening but that chore remains undone. Instead, I believe that I am quite close to finding a geo-cache with a camera and travel bug.

I never realized how much of follower I am, until this damn website.

If Dope were a respectable website administrator, he would be here right now, scratching the itchy, red, blistery things I have on my leg thanks entirely to him.

At 6/13/2005 12:06 AM, Blogger The Inside Dope said...

(evil cackle) Oh yeah, I forgot the part about the poison ivy, and ticks. But did you consider that the rash and bites might be karmic retribution for signing up your friend at a Republican dating site? Think about it! Ha!

And I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention the burning welts from truly barbaric weeds covered with a velvety coat of microscopic needles which paint your skin with fire at the slightest contact, aggressive mosquitoes, having buckshot whistle and shred the trees just above your head while looking for a cache near a shooting range or hunting area, or for that matter, the likely chance of coming face to face with equally startled wildlife, like the time I emerged from a hellish weed choked river bottom area through some waist high grass into a corn field at the same time two red foxes emerged from the field.

We were literally 3 feet from each other when both of us noticed each other. I don't know who was more scared or more startled, but for what seemed like an eternity, we simply stopped dead in our tracks and looked at each other.
My mind was stuck in park, but after a few seconds, one fox shot past me nearly brushing against my leg, nearly causing me to imitate the proverbial bear in the woods! The other trotted away in the other direction for a couple yards, then stopped and looked back over his shoulder to take a better measure of me.

I then tried to raise my camera, turn the damn thing on, and get a shot, but as I was almost done with this procedure, the fox, perhaps camera-shy, took off and vanished in an instant.

I continued on at what turned out to be without question one of my very WORST, most painful, most difficult, and most maddening cache finds I've ever had.By the time I'd found it, I was literally almost losing my mind from the searing itch and burning from sticker plants, and being in the most remote, boggy, and pure creepy area you can imagine, with a very long slog back through even more stickers. (yeah, being the Dope, I was wearing shorts. Brilliant)

When I finally reached the car, I had to strip off my clothes (no one was around, thankfully) and spend almost an hour trying to A. Avoid a heat-stroke, and B. Somehow remove the burrs and nettles which covered 90% of my clothing, including the front, back, and sides of my shirt, pants, socks and shoes. I mean, I was COVERED with them. And most were the kind that comes in strands of tiny burrs which break apart when you try to pull them off. Try to get rid of that many when you can only remove one tiny burr (or part of one) at a time! I finally resorted in desperation to using one of those bug sponges for cleaning bugs off windshields, which at least gave me a fighting chance.

But as is the case with this "sport", after the burning pain subsided later in the evening, I had a feeling of perverse satisfaction in having actually found the damn thing.

Geocaching will get in your blood and yes, you will find yourself with an irresistible urge to be the first to find a new one, or find yourself standing in some completely wild and improbable place, scaling rusty barbed wire fences which threaten to end any chance of reproducing, finding stray cows standing in the road and pulling up and having a long face to face staring contest with one before helping to herd them back to their field, or standing in some God-forsaken remote woods in the dead of winter asking the trees just what in the hell you're doing there. And perhaps worst of all, you WILL make excuses to neglect other chores in order to go out traipsing around the countryside.

But the thrill is in the hunt, and it's a hard habit to break.

Good luck to you Dissenter. Feel free to contact me and trade notes any time.

At 6/13/2005 9:20 PM, Blogger maybesomeday said...

Hey folks, not sure if this will help you but my cell phone service Nextel - has a built in GPS locator in the phone. I don't know that much about GPS technology, but check your cell phone and maybe it will be another tool on your hunt!

Good luck!!


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