Sunday, May 23, 2010


I like to fancy myself an outdoorsman.  Someone who enjoys the great outdoors; the woods, the ponds, the animals.  But I usually find myself far away from my cabin in Cattaraugus County, stuck in the clean-cut and paved suburbs.  But it turns out the great outdoors can be found right here in Amherst, Williamsville, and Clarence.  Add in an incredibly fun, new activity, and you have a great Sunday afternoon.  So I put on old jeans and hiking shoes, and headed out with Neil, as well as Dom, Dave, and Nick.

Geocaching.  Think of it as a futuristic treasure hunt.  Instead of a pirate’s map with X marking the spot, you have a handheld GPS (or even a smart phone, in this age of incredible technology), a given latitude and longitude, and perhaps a cryptic clue or two.  At the end of the trail is a cache, usually a Tupperware container or something similar, holding a logbook, where you sign your name and the date and earn your bragging rights.  You just drive to the location (in our case, Dann Lake in Clarence, a fifteen minute drive down Transit Road), plug in the coordinates, and start hiking.  Some geocaches are placed in urban areas, even on the UB campus. But most, like this one, are hidden in parks and other green spaces.

We pulled off to the side of the road, near an entrance where a crude bridge spanned a drainage ditch.  After checking our supplies (plenty of water, trail mix, cell phones, and GPS) and getting psyched up, we started walking up a well-worn path.  At first our directions were spotty; we walked in circles and found ourselves at dead ends, peninsulas where standing water was several feet deep and several yards wide.  After re-calibrating our GPS, we found a new route around most of the swamp, near the park’s rear entrance.  It became quickly apparent that we weren’t going to find this cache and stay dry.  As hot and sunny as it was that day, it was no match for the past week’s rainstorms, which had flooded paths and turned hard ground into slippery mud.

We progressed through thick brush and sharp branches, eventually emerging at the lake itself.  It was rather beautiful, seeing this fairly large, deep blue lake just a few hundred yards from Transit Road.  A father and two sons were there fishing, and we walked along the edge of the shore until the GPS pointed us down a smaller path into the woods.  We were in the right area; we just needed to find the right spot.
Again the GPS proved unreliable.  We would fight our way amid branches, stepping from stone to stone across the swamp like Indiana Jones, only to have the GPS reverse course, and send us back to the other side of the path.  After a few false starts, we finally got within a few feet.  Dom was sharp enough to spot the cache: a small plastic container covered in camouflage contact paper.

But this was not the end of our adventure. Inside the box was a picture of a barcode: a bonus round for those with the right tools.  Dom came to the rescue again, with a barcode-scanning app from the Android market.  Armed with a new set of coordinates, we set out down the path to the next cache.  After a few more circles we came to the spot where the cache had to be: a very large, foot-deep marsh.  We had gotten all the way here; we weren’t giving up.  Dom and Neil sacrificed themselves, plunging into the water and walking around.  Dave hovered at the water’s edge, and Nick and I looked on from the path, scanning the trees for a sign of the box.  It was a precarious situation: Dom and Neil sloshing through the standing water, gingerly holding and passing the very fragile, very expensive, borrowed GPS.  At this point we became acutely aware of one of the problems of standing water: bugs.  Gnats and mosquitoes were everywhere, making us anxious to find the cache and leave.  As I zeroed in on a promising shadow, Neil made the spot from thirty feet away, and splashed his way to a small tree, where the cache was nestled between a few low-lying limbs.  It was our proudest moment: we each signed the logbook, and left one of Neil’s “random act of kindness” inspirational cards.  Feeling quite accomplished, we began the trek back, which turned out to be no easier than the way in.

We finally reached the road, and took stock of ourselves: sweaty, sore, tired, bleeding; our shoes and pants covered in mud.  So we stood in the road, next to Dom’s brother’s Cadillac, trying to figure out how to keep the car relatively clean.  At the time, we only had one solution.  Our shoes went into the trunk, and our pants followed.  Five college students in t-shirts and boxers, driving on Millersport Highway.  I can only imagine what would have happened if we had crashed, or been pulled over; I’m not sure if bottomless driving is illegal, but I’m sure its frowned upon, and probably laughed at.  Definitely not something you want on a police report.  The excitement of the day, topped off with the thrill of having the wind on our legs, made us giddy.  We took a detour to Dunkin’ Donuts, to see our good friend Kevin and his sister Amy, and cool down with iced coffee.  Kevin was unfazed by our attire; he looked down and said, “Are any of you wearing pants? No? Ok. That’s $11.25.”

We eventually got back to the apartment.  By some stroke of luck, no neighbors were out to see us emerge in our boxers, carrying jeans caked in mud and shoes still dripping from swamp water.  Those we placed on the back porch to dry, and we scattered ourselves across the room, collapsing on couches and trading stories of the highlights of the day only barely gone by.  We were immensely tired, not being used to seven-mile hikes in the midday May sun.  But all we could talk about was “next week,” the next cache we would find, what we would do differently.  It was a good feeling, to end the day worn-out and sore, but with a feeling of epic accomplishment.

Geocaching was a great activity.  There was something sublime about the combination of nature and technology.  It’s hard to believe that a little plastic box can pinpoint your place on the Earth using satellites.  Anything that gets me outdoors, exercising while exploring woods and streams, out in the middle of nowhere, is a good thing.  And the fact that it was hidden right here all along just made it sweeter.

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