"There it is! I see it, Mom! I can see it!" My 8-year-old son Jakob shouts down from inside the foliage surrounding the intersection of two enormous downed trees.
"Can you reach it?" I ask. I am trying to keep tabs on both of my children; 5-year-old Wavy is playing gymnast, balancing on logs nearby.
"It's pretty high. Maybe if I had a stick..."
I hand him a stick, but he is still too short to reach the green, camouflaged pill bottle hanging from a wire attached to a nearby branch. I tell him to climb down before he falls and hurts himself.
I am certainly not the fittest person in the world, but I can still shinny up a tree when prizes and untold acclaim, real or imagined, are on the line. I scramble up into the branches and reach - on my tippy-toes - for the cache. And then the wind starts to blow. Hard. I hang on for dear life as the branches sway and bend. I imagine what it will feel like to be impaled upon one of the sharp dead branches poking up from the ground below.
We've come too far to give up now, though. The wind calms for a bit and I make the grab. I throw the cache down to Jakob, who tries to open it up. I have to talk him through it; it is a childproof cap, after all. He finally unfurls the tiny logbook inside and signs our team name: Team_RedPanda. He replaces the logbook and tosses the cache back up to me.
I replace it exactly as we found it, ready for the next person to find. This particular cache is titled "X Marks the Spot." The two downed trees do indeed make a giant "X". I gather the team members together - all three of us - we put our hands in for the team chant: "TEAM ... RED... PANDAAA!" We hike back to the car, quickly, as we have 49 more caches to find this weekend.
Geocaching is a relatively new pursuit, a high-tech treasure hunt. Simply put, people hide things - in the desert, in the forest, in the Harrahs parking lot, at the top of Mt. Tallac, at the bottom of Lake Tahoe - and then other people go and find those things. Using Internet tools, GPS (global positioning satellite) receivers, smartphones and good old-fashioned cunning, the hiders post the coordinates of their hides, or caches, on the Internet. Using those same tools, geocachers walk, hike, bike, drive and utilize all manner of transportation to those coordinates to find the cache, sign their name to prove they were there and then write about it online, most commonly at Geocaching.com.
Recently, 150 geocachers from around the country, including Team_RedPanda, gathered in South Lake Tahoe for GeoTahoeSouth 2012. The seventh annual event attracted twice as many participants as last year, quite possibly due to the newfound popularity of inexpensive geocaching apps readily available for smartphones.
Participants met early in the morning at the South Lake Tahoe community center to download cache coordinates provided by the event organizers, then spent the rest of the weekend seeking out caches in some of the area's coolest spots imaginable.
Longtime Tahoe geocacher Robert Franco volunteered to hide the event's 50 caches, a yearlong process that began soon after the 2011 event.
How was it possible to find 50 unique and memorable hiding places that took cachers off the beaten track and into places that even Tahoe residents don't know exist?
"It was a few different things. One, dumb luck," he laughs. "Two, being familiar with the area." While Franco lives in Fairfield, Calif., he has maintained a second residence in the Meyers area for the last eight years. Thirdly, Franco studied how past GeoTahoeSouth cache courses were laid out, with a goal of making the caches easier to get to, yet harder to find.
Those unfamiliar with geocaching will wonder where the challenge lies, when a GPS unit leads you to the exact coordinates of a hide. A good GPS will lead you to a 16-foot-square area, but a particularly clever hide may take you hours or multiple attempts to discover.
Franco's GeoTahoeSouth 2012 hides were indeed relatively easy to get to, but once there, cachers were required to do a bit of hiking, bouldering or wading. In one memorable instance, a cache floating in the middle of Sawmill Pond could only be retrieved with a makeshift fishing pole.
"People called me during the event, asking "Who is the crazy person that hid these?'" said Franco. "That's me!"
Just days after the event, Franco is already hard at work seeking out hiding places for next year's cache course. He will also teach geocaching classes for kids at the South Lake Tahoe Parks and Recreation Department later this summer; in exchange, the department offered up the use of its facilities for this year's GeoTahoeSouth event.
• It's cheap. After signing up for a basic membership at Geocaching.com and downloading the free app on the App Store, you're all set to go. A day of caching with the family can cost less than a latte at Starbucks.
• Oh, the places you'll go. You'll discover little pockets in your neighborhood that you never knew existed. Your travels ever farther afield will bring you to little-known parks, trails, cemeteries and side roads, as well as grandiose stands of trees or little piles of rocks in the middle of nowhere. In fact, geocaching may just make you rethink your definition of "middle of nowhere."
• Its exercise. When you're out caching, you're not sitting in front of your computer or lounging in front of the tv. Caches are rated by how difficult they are to get to. A five-star cache may involve miles of bushwhacking, technical rock climbing or scuba diving. For the rest of us schlubs, though, a two- or three- star cache will keep you on your toes, hiking, walking or moving in some way, shape or form.
• There is no winning or losing. Prizes, such as they are, come in the form of "swag," small tchotchkes and trinkets left behind in caches to trade and collect. My two kids have a stash of stickers, foreign coins, pins, buttons and plastic toys that they trade - and fight over - when we find a cache.
Geocaching is what you make of it. You can spend an afternoon wandering around your neighborhood. You can pore over your Lonely Planet guides and plan the vacation of a lifetime in exotic locales to find your share of the more than 1,825,500 geocaches hidden around the world. There is no time limit. You can cache a little, or a lot, in the time you have available.
Whichever way you roll, geocaching offers something for everyone, even this middle-aged mom who hasn't climbed a tree since the Carter administration. The journey to discovering the cache is often the greatest reward.