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April 20, 2010

Caching by the Numbers

This summer will mark the 7th anniversary of my start in geocaching and I thought it was time to put my thoughts to paper again, as much has changed over the years as the sport has evolved.

In the early days of my geocaching adventures and mostly the early days of geocaching itself, it was an occasional hobby. If I were looking for something to do, it would be one of the items on the list. I would go to the website of geocaching.com and look through the listings for a cache I was interested in finding that day. Yes, it was just the one cache usually. I would find the listing, review it, download the co-ordinates and print out any information I would require. Then I would drive over and head out for the find. Often the search took a while, sometimes it was tricky to find and sometimes there were just too many people around to search without being seen. But after I found the cache I felt rewarded. I would sit there with the open container and peruse the items and probably trade something. Put my note in the log book and pack everything back up and re-hide the cache. With the cache found, my experience was done for the day and I would head off.

As caching started to expand rapidly in 2005, the game started changing as elements of competition sneaked in. The appearance of caching contests and the notion of First To Find (FTF) are among the things that developed during this time. The local geocaching association (MBGA) was formed and I immediately recognized that with increased contact the competition would only increase as a result. With the large increase in the number of caches, the experience of going out to find a cache engorged into a feeding frenzy of finding many caches and finding them more often. The flurry of activity increased the enjoyment and excitement and spurred even more cache hides. With the formation of the association so to came the social elements of caching, once more of a solitary and underground sport, I would now venture out in groups and hang out at organized events.

By 2006 geocaching had become my primary hobby with a growing circle of friends from the geocaching realm. The number of caches continued to expand at a sustained rate, driven primarily by the cachers that had been participating in the activity for a while. Through geocachers and the caches I was expanding my view of the little world around me. I was exploring new parts of Manitoba and enjoying discovering new places and trying new things while finding the caches and spending time in the wonderful outdoors and with great people. This was one of my favourites periods of time and I look back at it fondly. With numbers swelling in all facets of geocaching it started to become apparent that there were elements of geocaching that I disliked, but all in all, the enjoyment overwhelmed any sense of unease.

The following two years continued to see sustained rates of increase in participation and caches. The MBGA spurred on the activity with interesting events and contests. The enjoyment continued as I settled into a state of normality with caching being integrated into my everyday life. Finding caches became a regular occurrence, no matter the day or time or season. And there was always a contest to challenge me to complete some tasks and an event to look forward to shortly. While the numbers were still growing strong, a sense of plateau surfaced. Some of the more experienced cachers drifted off to other endeavours and some of the caching became routine. The trend started shifting as newer cachers were the primary source of new cache hides and with it a feeling that the experience was diminishing somewhat. The increasing quantity of caches also meant that it was more difficult to find a good location for a cache and this contributed to the diminishing quality. I was very active geocacher and as such would have found most of the available caches around home and even around the city. I started expanding my view again as I looked elsewhere to fill my desire to go caching. I would often go out caching with friends and tackle an area further from home over a full day of caching on a weekend or even long into the night. There were still great enjoyment in the sport, but it sometimes became more elusive to latch onto.

By 2009 I was searching for something more in geocaching and longing for the good old days. I'm not too sure entirely when the shift started but there seemed to be quite a swing of focus onto all kinds of different challenges relating to caching. Mostly this was a focus on numbers, who had the highest count of something or a complete collection of something else. Most of these were personal challenges, you could pick and choose which ones you wanted and complete them on your own, with no real official mechanism to track them. As my geocaching experience grew, the caches often seemed routine. Although it was never really about finding the cache and more about the experience of getting there, it became more about the cache being 'found' than actually participating. The experience often seemed diminished for me as I revisited locations I'd been caching to before, found things that just didn't seem right or in places that didn't seem right or were just a mess. It became difficult to enjoy geocaching for me and I think that's why I started to pick up on many of the challenges out there and participate in them. It added another facet of intrigue and competition to spice up what could otherwise be potentially dull. I think many of the cachers who had started years earlier were feeling similar things as caching diminished amongst them as well. This served to reduce the amount of social caching which also diminished my enjoyment.

By the time 2010 rolled around I had a felling that I had played the numbers game and "won" the challenges I was playing as those things had lost my interest. Through a series of geocaching trips to far away places it also started to become crystal clear that the dislikes I had started to notice years earlier were becoming an increasingly larger portion of modern cache hides. Predominantly these were caches hidden in urban areas, usually small and offering no real enjoyable experience, hidden for the sake of being a number it seemed. And while a few of these here and there fits perfectly well into a well rounded caching experience, finding an overwhelming number of these just makes the entire experience forgettable and you wonder why the caches were even hidden in the first place. There were periods of time which were perfect for caching but I just didn't want to go find anything, when new caches showed up and I cringed at the thought. The enjoyment was all too easily turned into frustration. But there were still great times out there to be had.

So I've taken up the behaviour of many of the cachers who started years ago. Take a step back, slow down, filter out the fluff and participate when it's fun, much like we did years ago when geocaching was still in its infancy. For me that means I gave up my goal finding every cache, ignoring many of the urban hides which lack an enjoyable experience and focusing more on quality over quantity. Participating when the time and place is right and not motivated by some arbitrary challenge and enjoying the experience, whether it be a great new spot I've been shown, the great weather, a good exercise or just being able to spend time with friends. I've often thought over the years that I would like to revise my answers for the cacher of the month survey I filled out back in 2006 (CoTM 06/2006), but reading through it again, I realize my answers are just as accurate today as they were back then, that I've been distracted by numbers from the enjoyment I glean and its still out there waiting for me.

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