By DARCI MILLER
School of Communication
University of Miami
Posted March 19, 2013
HOMESTEAD, Fla. – It’s the dream of countless children to stumble across a cryptic map and embark on a treasure hunt.
Digging through the underbrush in an attempt to find that elusive X marks the spot, heart pounding in anticipation as the mysterious chest is unearthed – what could be more exciting?
Though traditionally these fantasies involve a battered piece of parchment and maybe a pirate ship, modern-day treasure hunters can arm themselves with a GPS device and set off in pursuit of bounties of their own.
Usually Tupperware rather than ancient wood and more than likely not full of gold and jewels, the treasure hunt takes a 21st-century upgrade in the form of geocaching.
“Geocaching is basically a really fun, real world hunting kind of adventure,” said Jenn Seva, a Business Development Program Manager at Geocaching.com. “And my guess is that no matter where in the world you are, there’s a geocache not too far away.”
In geocaching, participants navigate to a specific set of GPS coordinates and attempt to find the geocache (usually a container) at that location.
“It’s been gaining wildly in popularity for a long time, ever since the demilitarization of the global positioning system,” said Larry Perez, a science communications worker for all of South Florida’s national parks. “For the most part – not always, but for the most part – geocaching tends toward natural areas.”
It’s this aspect of geocaching that caught Perez’s eye when Everglades National Park was undergoing several major restoration projects.
“A few of us at the park down here in South Florida had talked about instituting geocaching as an interpretive tool in the parks for a long, long time but just hadn’t had a real good way of doing it,” he said. “Starting in 2009 we had the groundbreaking of one of several very high profile Everglades restoration projects going on here in South Florida. And a number of those project sites weren’t necessarily in the national parks but they were adjacent to them, just outside these national park areas. And these projects were very important to the longevity of the parks they intended to benefit. So we said, ‘well, what a great idea! Let’s use geocaching in lands that aren’t in the national park but are close by, and do it for a year and see what the response is.’”
So Perez reached out to Geocaching.com, which had been working with the National Park Service for a number of years. He was able to utilize some of the website’s images and other creative assets, and used the online form to set up the Everglades’ caches.
The first cache was placed in August of 2010 in the Deering Estate at Cutler, a Miami-Dade County park, and highlights the Biscayne Bay coastal wetlands project. This project involves a station designed to redirect water flow out into the Deering Estate and eventually into northern Biscayne Bay, restoring a historic hydrologic flow that was there and moving more quantities of fresh water into Biscayne Bay itself.
The second cache is at the Tamiami Trail Bridge, a one-mile bridge that’s going to bring waters from the north and flow them into Everglades National Park.
The third and final cache is immediately outside the entrance to the park at a project called the C-111 Spreader Canal, which is a ridge on the edge of the park to prevent water from leaving.
These caches have been in place for a year, and each one has received 150 unique visitors.
It was because of this success that Perez decided to expand the project in an unprecedented way. This past January, Everglades National Park unveiled five new physical caches within the park itself.
“That’s what sets Larry’s geocaches apart. They’re actual containers that people can find,” said Seva.
There are two main types of geocaches. The first, main kind of cache is a physical container that participants need to find. The other, Perez says, is called a “virtual cache,” where there’s no physical object to be found. While other national parks do have geocaching trails, the vast majority have only “earth caches.”
“Earth caches are a type of virtual geocache that, rather than have individuals find an object, require that individuals learn a lesson of some sort, usually with regards to ecology or geology,” Perez explains.
Though a fairly new concept in terms of exploring a national park, the Everglades’ five caches had accumulated more than 225 visitors before a full month had elapsed.
“Very early on as far as geocaching as an activity goes, there was a lot of hesitation about national park service areas in regards to allowing people to come in and place objects in the woods and encouraging people to go out and find them en masse,” said Perez. “And you can probably understand why; they’re protected areas with certain resources that are considered sensitive.”
So the Everglades is taking one pilot year to test the program. A team looked for strategic, appropriate areas in which to place the caches and took baseline information there. In a year’s time, the terrain will be analyzed along with information collected from the caches to determine whether the costs are worth the benefits.
Each cache contains a log inside of it, so when participants find it there’s the opportunity to record messages. Perez says that the data found here, rather than simply the visitation numbers, is what’s most valuable. Not only can geocachers record stories of their hunt for the cache, but it gives the park a unique opportunity to facilitate dialogue.
“We sort of realized that people want to talk about things, and we don’t really give them the opportunity. If you go to a national park, if you go to Yellowstone, if you go to the Grand Canyon or even here at the Everglades and you go on a ranger program, here’s what’s going to happen. You’ll be in a group of people, the ranger’s going to do a brain-dump on you, he’s going to say everything that he knows about the place in the course of 45 minutes, and at the end you’ll have five minutes to ask questions, and then you’re done,” Perez said.
“But what we’re finding is people not only want to share their experiences and their knowledge, but they can also learn a lot from one another. And so instead of this old paradigm of just standing before a group of people and talking to them, we want to facilitate dialogue and talk with them, especially on topics that are perhaps controversial or difficult to talk about.”
Each cache in the Everglades encourages visitors to become a park employee for the day, stepping into various roles to contemplate real management issues the park is facing. One cache turns you into a park botanist and asks you to figure out how to deal with invasive species. Another asks you to step into the shoes of a fire management officer and decide if saving an endangered bird is worth risking the lives of firefighters. Another allows you to become a park planning officer and contemplate rebuilding visitor facilities in a hurricane-prone area.
So far, it’s working like a charm. Feedback on the trail has been overwhelmingly positive, attracting visitors from such far-flung places as The Netherlands, Germany and France. Perez says that a future expansion could be in the cards if the project proves to be safe for the environment.
“I think he’s just getting started!” said Seva. “The ones that are published right now are the beginning of what we hope is a larger thing. I look forward to seeing it flourish.”
So grab your treasure map – uh, GPS coordinates. The treasure hunt awaits!