The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 25, 2006

Features

John Foster retrieves his well-hidden cache. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

The hunt for the Town Land Cache

The Conant Land holds a secret. So do the Cranberry Bog, Towle Field, the Town Forest, Great Brook Farm State Park, Estabrook Woods, Fox Hill — in fact most of Carlisle's beautiful woods and trails.

The secrets are called caches, and they are the goal of a new, high-tech game of hide and seek called geocaching. It is played all over the world where geocachers place a box or container of inexpensive items (think miniature cars, foreign money and trinkets, not gold coins) for fellow game-players to find. Caches are not buried, but are strategically placed in the hollow of a foreign money and trinkets, not gold coins) for fellow game-players to find. Caches are not buried, but are strategically placed in the hollow of a tree, under rocks or sometimes inside a public building. Cache placements are listed on the official geocaching web site — www.geocaching.com — where inserting Carlisle's zip code brings up well over a dozen sites in town and many more in the area.

The GPS unit points the way. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)
The only tools required for geocaching are a hand-held GPS (global positioning system) unit costing about $100 and access to the Internet. The geocacher downloads information from geocaching.com about the cache he or she plans to pursue and enters the latitude and longitude coordinates into the GPS unit. Then the thrill of the hunt is on! Once the cache is found, players are welcome to take an object or two from it, but must leave something in its place. Each cache holds a logbook which geocachers are asked to sign — a sort of guest book for the cache — and they post their comments about the find on the Internet.

Searching for the Town Land Cache

Last Saturday afternoon, Carlisle's premier geocacher, John Foster of Nathan Lane, led this reporter and photographer Mollie McPhee Ho to the Town Land Cache he placed on the Conant Land five years ago. The search for the cache would normally have begun at Towle Field where Foster has placed another cache with directions to the Conant Land site.

We meet at the Town Hall parking lot, and Foster hands over his GPS with the coordinates and waypoints entered. The screen tells us that the cache is only 0.33 miles away and an arrow points in the direction we should walk. "That's the distance if you go directly through the woods, through a swamp," Foster points out, gesturing to the right. "We'll stay on the trails and we'll get within 15 feet of the cache and then bushwhack."

John Foster checks out the contents of his cache as Ellen Miller peers over his shoulder. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)
We had barely begun our walk when we spot a Great Blue Heron on Fish Pond; he takes flight when we approach. Conversation turns to the Carlisle bear and whether we might meet up with him (we did not). After a pleasant, if buggy, walk on cushiony pine-needles, avoiding poison ivy on the way, our GPS tells us we have arrived close to the cache site. Foster leads us a short distance from the trail, toward a collection of huge rocks atop a hill. Our keen-eyed photographer spots the cache first — the corner of a white plastic box held in place by three small rocks peeks out from under a ledge.

Foster pulls out the large Tupperware container. We inspect the contents, which are meager: a red Matchbox car, a few coins, a strange CD and a small notebook — the log. Foster had placed a page in the box explaining Carlisle's habit of purchasing conservation land. The Town Land Cache "commemorates the connection between coins and conservation land by providing a stash of foreign and domestic money, and a chance to visit two of the better-used tracts of town land near Carlisle center." He tells us that a $2 bill and other money placed in the box have long since disappeared.

We deposit five foreign coins in the box, Foster snaps the lid shut and returns the cache to its hiding place to await the next geocacher. According to the log posted on the web site, the most recent geocacher found the cache on July 14. We make our way back to the parking lot, excited about this new adventure and pleased with an enjoyable walk in the woods. Our trip took about an hour.

Father and son: geocaching pioneers

Foster, a space physicist whose office is at MIT's Haystack Observatory in Westford, began geocaching in 2000, when the sport was new. "Our family was among the first participants and played an active role in establishing the activity," he says. Foster's son Dan — a graduate of the Carlisle School, Concord-Carlisle High School and Dartmouth College, who now lives in Stow — was working with personal GPS units when geocaching began. "He interacted with the originators of the geocaching.com web site and developed EasyGPS, one of the earliest and most-used GPS waypoint management software tools." It is a free download from geocaching.com. Dan Foster's next product, ExpertGPS, is a state-of-the-art mapping tool for geocachers and anyone who uses a GPS professionally or for sport, according to his proud father. (Dan's company is Topografix, www.topografix.com.)

The Fosters were "active geocachers for many years, though not as fanatic as some are today." Dan placed a cache on Boston Common years ago, but it was stolen. John has visited caches from Texas to Alaska. Asked to name the most unusual "treasure" he found in a cache, he replies, "A CD of Texas music in the 'Texas Tunes' geocache in Houston. They were good songs. Actually I picked up a CD of 'electric' tunes in a California cache. Some of those were really way out."

Many caches contain a travel bug, a small object that bears a trackable tag. Geocachers take them from caches and place them elsewhere in the world. They can be tracked through the web site. John Foster says he "used to pick them up in one part of the country and take them to another as I traveled on business. One travel bug 'wanted' to visit the Redwood Forest, so I took it to Yosemite Valley and then returned it to Carlisle."

The Fern Loop Cache

It is difficult to identify other Carlisle geocachers, because they are known only by their online user names. A geocacher called Morgun placed the Fern Loop Cache in Great Brook Farm State Park. It is a log-only cache, meaning there are no treasures inside, only a paper log stuffed in a 35-mm film canister— and bring your own pen. The web page describing the cache says, "Great Brook Farm State Park is one of the finest hiking areas near Boston and is home to many caches. Fern Loop Cache highlights a beautiful, underutilized area of this park. It features fine views, interesting wildlife, an old foundation and fine stonewalls."

Several of the cache descriptions on the Internet include a history of the site and the surrounding area and point out special features of the landscape. The online comments by cachers to the Town Land Cache reveal that many are first-time visitors to Carlisle who are struck by the town's beauty and the quality of its public lands. "This was a very good quality cache hunt," wrote one geocacher. "Thanks for taking me out to these trails of lovely Carlisle."

Geocaching is a great family activity, combining an outing to parts unknown (even within Carlisle) with a high-tech hunt for the cache. Whether it's done on a beautiful summer day or on snow-covered trails, the appeal is universal. Rik Pierce, the Mosquito's webmaster, says that he and his family found the Town Land Cache and enjoyed the experience. "I don't know why we haven't gone again," he says.

The caches are waiting to be found, all over Carlisle.


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