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Hot on the Trail

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photograph by Jared CastaldiThe assignment sounds pretty cool. Hit the Delaware Geocaching Trail, then write a first-person account of the experience.

Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunt that takes participants through many of the historical sites and natural resources in Delaware—75 sites in all three counties, including state parks, sports venues and even farmers markets.

The sport is becoming increasingly popular in Delaware, where more than 9,600 people have hit the trail so far. All you need is a GPS and a free geocache.com membership that allows you to access the coordinates of the caches.

My wife, Janell, and I decide to make this a family outing and attempt our first geocaching adventure at nearby Lums Pond State Park—on Father’s Day, of all days.

I mean, what else would I want to do that day? Certainly not anything that involves a hammock, fishing, watching the Phillies or downing a cold one.

Turns out, the forecast is for temperatures in the 90s with high humidity and a chance of thunderstorms. We’re also at the height of tick and skeeter season.

Woo hoo! Fire up the minivan. This is gonna be a hoot.
 

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Easy Like Sunday Morning

My bright, nature-loving, 13-year-old daughter, Audrey, is eager to get started. She plops down on the couch and fires up the laptop. We go to the Delaware Tourism Office’s Web site (visitdelaware.com) and click on the Delaware Geocaching Trail button.

In just a few minutes, we create an account, pick a site, snag a handful of cache coordinates and we’re ready to punch them into our trusty GPS. I say “we,” but it’s my tech-savvy daughter who makes this a quick endeavor.

Audrey grabs our trusty Garmin Nuvi—the very GPS that during long trips, in a loud, female voice, barks orders at me from its suction-cup perch on the minivan windshield. When we first got it, I thought, Swell, that’s all I need: two women in the front seat telling me what to do.

Some gung-ho geocachers carry fancy-looking Magellan units that are geared specifically toward this growing sport. Not us. We’re stuck with the nerdy Garmin Nuvi.

Time to punch the coordinates into the GPS. “Which caches do you want to do?” I ask.

“Just do the ones close to the road,” says Audrey, scouring the map of cache sites and already looking for shortcuts. In about 10 minutes, the coordinates for seven cache sites—the locations where the “treasures” are hidden—are locked and loaded.

I scribble a couple of tips from the online map onto a yellow legal pad and we quickly review geocaching rules. The cache box—a sturdy, metal ammo box—contains a logbook and trinkets left by other geocachers. The rules say that if you take a trinket, you must leave one of equal value.

“You mean like a rock?” asks Audrey.

“No,” I explain. “Like a little Yoda figurine or something.”

“No, something cool,” she says, “like a rock.”

Jake, my energetic but easily bored 10-year-old son, seems excited by the trinkets.

“I’m going to go check my junk drawer,” he says. “There’s cool stuff in there.”

Soon the boy’s back with three plastic mini-Power Rangers, a green camel, a rubber soccer ball, a reindeer bell on a red ribbon and a tiny Humpty Dumpty figurine. Audrey adds a small gator bobblehead, two frog bobbleheads and a toy whale to our Ziplock bag of “swag.”

We agree that there’s some pretty cool items here.

“So you can’t leave a rock,” says Audrey. “Put that in your story.”
 

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Quadruple Survival 

It’s almost noon when we park the minivan near the nature center at Lums Pond State Park, located a few miles south of Newark. The van’s thermometer reads 87 degrees.

“Maybe we will see a skunk ape,” says Audrey, a fan of “Finding Bigfoot” on Animal Planet. “Skunk ape” is another name for Sasquatch, or Squatch, as we like to call him.

The first cache, called “Lums Pond Trail #1,” is actually back at the park office near the entrance. It’s a bit of a hike, but that’s why we’re here now, isn’t it? I’m thinking this whole deal will take a couple hours at most, then I’ll reap the real treasure: a vanilla shake at the nearby oasis known as Kirkwood Creamery. Now that sounds like a Father’s Day treat.

The Web site said the first trail’s difficulty is only 1 ½ stars out of five. The terrain is also 1 ½ stars. The cache size is regular, meaning it’s an ammo box that’s a little narrower than a shoebox, but taller.

Trying to avoid crushing dozens of tiny frogs along the edge of the woods, we follow the GPS’s lead and head north toward the park office. We wave to the woman who’s working the booth, whom we just drove past minutes earlier, and note the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. A bright blue dragonfly whizzes by. Then, there’s a noise and movement just inside the woods.

“It’s a skunk ape,” says Audrey. So we take turns imitating the high-pitched call we saw a guy do on “Finding Bigfoot.” People driving by must think we’re nuts. Considering how hot and humid it is today, I think we are, too.

It takes about 20 minutes, mostly walking, but Audrey discovers the first cache.

(Spoiler alert: Keeping with the spirit of geocaching, we won’t divulge the exact locations of the caches we found or even key landmarks. However, we will share some details to give you a taste of the experience.)

A beautifully scary spider watches as Aud uncovers the cache. A large tick also watches from Audrey’s leg. When the drama is over, she opens the case, records our team name, “Mystery Inc.,” in the logbook and Jake places a plastic frog in the box.

Just 20 minutes into our adventure and we’re all sweaty and we’ve drained our first bottle of water. If we were inserted into Discovery Channel’s “Dual Survival” reality show with expert survivalists Dave and Cody, we wouldn’t last 10 minutes.

We enter the park office to cool off. As we leave I thank the young staffers, telling them, “Hopefully you won’t have to send out a search party.”

Then we strike out to find the next cache. “What if they hid it in a pile of elephant dung?” asks Jake. “Elephant dung is good. You can light it and eat it.”

Dave and Cody would be proud.

Audrey’s not so optimistic: “If I get Lyme Disease from that stupid tick, I’m never going out in nature again.”
 

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When to give up

To find cache No. 2, we’re to start at the nature center parking lot, head west to the trail, then north on the dirt service road near the electrical lines easement. Trouble is, we’re coming from the opposite direction.

That’s when I begin to warm up to the whole GPS idea, even if ours is probably the nerdiest gadget ever to be used on the Delaware Geocaching Trail.

As we walk along a dusty horse trail, I take the opportunity to scare the bejesus out of the kids. “This is a prime place for rattlesnakes to lie in wait for passing horses.”

“There are no rattlesnakes in Delaware,” Audrey says, right on cue.

We approach a scenic section of the pond where we’ve fished before. A great blue heron perches on a small tree. We also see a small painted turtle, a great egret and a bright red cardinal.

We’ve been combing the woods for more than a half-hour now, but to no avail. Mosquitoes are buzzing and biting, poison ivy abounds and vines with stickers occasionally catch your clothes or scratch your leg. Plus, there are more ticks than you’d find in a neurologist’s waiting room.

This is taking longer than I would have guessed. A sick thought comes to mind. What if some jerk moved the cache?

I look at my impatient son. “How long do you look before you give up?”

He doesn’t bat an eye. “I’m already past that time.”

A shout rings out from a few hundred feet away. “Found it!” It’s Audrey.

Says Jake, “I hate her.” But then he attempts to justify his bad luck. “I bet Mom $20 I wouldn’t find one because I’m not good at it. Now, if I don’t try, I still get 20 bucks.”

Seems our son is seeking cash instead of cache.

Our second treasure must have been hidden by a pro. Janell actually made the discovery. This time the box isn’t blue. It’s painted gold and cloaked quite well under a pile of dead limbs. The trinkets include a yellow-and-orange puffy crab, a clam shell, and a marble. We don’t take a trinket, but we leave a plastic blue whale.

“Cover it up real good, like they did for us,” I tell Jake, as he puts the box back. “SOBs.”
 

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Don’t be hatin’

Time to find No. 3. I share the hint that I scribbled before we left home: “I’m on the second floor, the wood duck is on the third. I watch the beavers across the pond at night. Gnaw, Gnaw, Gnaw. My perch is too big for them. Have fun and bring your own pencil because I can’t hold one. Log only, bison tube. Put me back in same spot. Ribbit, Ribbit.”

We smell goodies being grilled at a nearby picnic. It doesn’t take long before we come upon a tree with an old wood duck box nailed to it. I remind everyone that this is a micro and the cache could be as small as a film canister. Problem is, because they’re growing up in the digital age, kids don’t know what a film canister is.

Audrey scores another cache. Jake is becoming discouraged. “How many is she going to find? I hate this.”

Unfortunately, we can’t sign the log because the paper is wet. Soaked in sweat and about an hour and a half into our adventure, I start thinking about that cool, thick vanilla shake. Janell is having similar visions. “Ice cream is at the end of the tunnel,” says the eternal optimist.

Jake, another step closer to 20 bucks, has something else on his mind as we pass by a spirited group grilling wieners. “You think we can ask those folks for a dog?”

We stop back at the van for a quick dose of AC and to grab another water bottle. We re-charge on an emergency stock of Smarties and Jolly Ranchers. The outside thermometer on the van reads 91 degrees.

Says Janell, “We could go get ice cream and come back.”

Nope. We’ve only been out here for an hour and a half. Suck it up, kids.
 

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Four, five and sick 

Our fourth geocache is another micro hidden somewhere near the nature center.

Audrey has a brainstorm. “Maybe we could drive, park on the side of the road and get out when we’re close,” she says, only half kidding. Then she notices something slimy crawling on her leg. “Ewwww. I think it’s a leech.”

“We weren’t in the water,” I explain. “It’s not a leech.”

“There are land leeches!” she screams.

Not to be outdone, Jake is suddenly exhausted and asks what diseases ticks carry.

“You don’t get bitten by a tick and get instantly tired,” Janell snaps.

After a little glitch in our navigation, we hit the boardwalk loop behind the nature center in search of a micro geocache. This one’s called “Enjoy Nature,” I explain.

“Well,” says Jake, jabbing a finger into the air, “there’s nature here, here, here and there.”

The girls go right, boys left. We meet in the middle and about 20 minutes into the search for No. 4, I strike gold. I see Jake smiling, but it’s not because he’s happy for my success. I can see dollar signs in his eyes because we agree to do just one more geocache.

On the way to our final cache, called “I Like Turtles,” we stop in the parking lot to dial up the coordinates on the GPS. The kids and I look up and see Janell seated in the van, AC blasting.

It’s back through the barbecue smoke en route to No. 5. Jake, a staunch competitor, can’t help himself. He wants to find this one in the worst way. And he does, after only 10 minutes.

Tickled with himself, he opens the box to unveil its treasure. The only trinket is a miniature doll with puffy hair. Jake was less than thrilled, but his sister was amused by the irony. Unfortunately, we couldn’t leave a trinket because we lost the Ziplock bag.

We get in the van and drop the girls off near the site of No. 3, where we think Jake may have left the bag.

Back in the car, I try to gauge the day’s success.

“I didn’t really have any fun,” says Jake. “Well, I did have fun, but it wasn’t like a lot of fun. It was kind of grueling.”

“What was your favorite part?” I ask.

“Finding it,” Jake says. “My least favorite part was finding out there was a Cabbage Patch doll in there.”

After about 15 minutes, the girls return, swag bag in hand.

“Guess where they were?” Audrey asks Jake. “You put the whole flippin’ bag of trinkets in the box. No ice cream for him.”

Luckily for Jake, Audrey isn’t in charge. Five minutes down the road, we pull in to Kirkwood Creamery. Janell and the kids pile out to order. Now trying to freeze my sweat-soaked shirt with the AC, I grin when I look at the sign and see Kirkie the cow’s smiling face. It’s about three hours since we left home and the payoff is finally here: a vanilla shake for me, an apple crisp sundae for Janell and raspberry cones for the kids.

The smiles on their faces tell me the day was a success. I ask Audrey to share her favorite part of the adventure, anticipating it will be the fact she found the first cache, or even that her brother found a cache with a girly doll inside.

“It was when I had to walk back to get the trinkets that he lost,” she says. “Not.”

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