Sunday July 8, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- You may not realize it, but there is a treasure hidden less than a mile away.

There are dozens within two miles. There are hundreds throughout the county.

"They’re everywhere," said geocacher Kathy Gwozdz. "They’re in rest areas of any given highway. They’re in the parks, and all through the woods."

They are, in fact, hidden all over the world -- including seven in Antarctica and one onboard the International Space Station.

Geocaching is the practice of hiding something outside, advertising the exact coordinates of the item, and seeing who can find it.

It is a rapidly growing form of outdoor recreation that combines the love of walking through the woods and playing with technology. It began in 2000, when the government allowed the use of global positioning satellite technology by the general public.

A geocache is not really full of treasure in the conventional sense. More like trinkets and mementos. But to a geocacher, they’re undeniably treasures, something to seek out and find, and a find to proclaim to all their geocaching buddies.

In the early years, only hand-held GPS units could track coordinates of a geocache. Now downloadable apps on smartphones can perform the same function.

As a result, a whole bunch of folks are walking through the woods looking for stuff.

Its popularity is so powerful that geocachers have started gathering together to share the fun, like the 700 or so who swarmed over Bosquet Ski Area Saturday for the first Berkshire GeoBash.

Gwozdz, a school adjustment counselor at Greylock Elementary and an organizer of the GeoBash, became hooked when she read an article in The Advocate about geocaching. Today her whole family walks around looking for stuff. She started a program at the school, and now the families of many of the students are walking around looking for stuff.

For the geocachers, it’s as much about the hunt as it is about the find.

"It’s my therapy," Gwozdz said. "It gives me a reason to get out there."

Hidden in watertight containers, as small as a matchbook or as big as a bucket, can be anything that fits -- a toy soldier, a commemorative coin, a message, or anything else that comes to mind. There is also a log that the finders sign. The finder also logs the find online.

And geocachers can be competitive. The more finds, the better the score.

Nancy Plouffe of Pittsfield has been geocaching since 2004. She has logged 16,612 finds since then.

"We go out all hours of the day and night," she said. "We try to make it fun and out-do each other. We call ourselves caching addicts."

Geocachers also have geocaching names. Plouffe is known as RockingTheGoat.

Some geocachers who are expecting a baby have the child’s geocaching name picked out before they’re born.

"It’s a great family activity -- it gets everybody out there walking, talking and working together," RockingTheGoat said.

Some geocachers are also tricky, hiding the cache in unique ways and in unique items, like birdhouses or drainage pipes. Some have been known to hide the cache in the mouth of a rubber snake, or at the bottom of a dark hole next to a fake mouse.

So finding the cache can be a challenge, and it can be sort of scary.

Some caches are like a really small swap meet. If one finds something in a cache they like, they can keep it, as long as they put something else into the cache.

"If you put something in, you can take something out," Gwozdz said.

Eric Schaffer and his 8-year-old daughter, of Torrington, Conn., started geocaching about six months ago. So far they have 180 finds logged. They heard about the GeoBash and made the drive up.

"It’s really good for someone like me -- a good ole redneck who likes technology and spending time outdoors with my family," Schaffer said.

To reach Scott Stafford:
sstafford@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6241.
On Twitter: @BE_SStafford