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Modern day treasure hunters gather to search at Micke Grove Regional Park

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Posted: Saturday, April 13, 2013 4:25 pm

Remember when you were about 6 years old, standing in the middle of the backyard with your hands over your eyes, counting down from 10 for a game of hide and seek? The tense scramble while the rest of the kids jockey for the best spot behind a tree or in a shed. That momentary panic when the entire yard seems still and silent. The triumph of spying a shoelace or ballcap that gives the game away.

That adventure is what geocachers seek every time they step outdoors.

“Geocaching is a marriage of technology and the outdoors. It’s not about the number of finds, but the friends you make along the way,” said Beth Renken, an avid geocacher.

Close to 100 geocachers, many members of the River City Geocaching and Dining Society, gathered at Micke Grove Park on Saturday to share a potluck and search for nine brand new caches.

The River City Geocaching and Dining Society gets together once a month for food and searching.

Geocaching is a free, real-world outdoor treasure hunt. Players sign up on www.geocaching.com, enter their address or zip code, and a list of nearby caches pops up. Next, they grab a smartphone or GPS and head outside to find a cache. Usually, caches are small plastic containers tucked into a bush, hidden in a tree, or concealed wherever the hider found a good spot.

Inside each cache is a logsheet for finders to sign in, and some of the larger ones have room for cachers to leave or take small tokens.

The 21st century treasure hunters hide the caches, spend their weekends and off hours searching, and connect online to share their stories.

The game started in 2000 when computer consultant Dave Ulmer wanted to test the accuracy of recently updated satellites in orbit around the world. He hid a black bucket in the woods near Beavercreek, Ore., filled it with a few prizes, a logbook and a pencil, then listed the coordinates online with a GPS users’ group.

Within three days, two people had found it, signed in, and logged their find online. As with many Internet games, this one quickly grew in the real world. Now it’s possible to find a cache within walking distance almost anywhere in the world. That includes Lodi.

The locations vary in difficulty. Some hidden near Lodi Lake and the Mokelumne River are only accessible by kayak. Others are just off the main roads.

It’s all in fun. The cachers don’t take themselves too seriously.

“We use million-dollar satellites to find Tupperware in the woods,” said Brian Renken.

Others  joke about the nerdy nature of the technological hunt.

“Geocaching is what happens when nerds go outside,” said Erich Myers of Lodi. He and his son Ethan, 13, got started through a Boy Scout merit badge. Now Ethan Myers likes to build creative caches, like birdhouses, and search with his dad.

“You find lots of random stuff in the caches,” said Ethan Myers. “I’m always surprised to see what’s in there.”

Brian Renken of Auburn and his wife Beth Renken have been geocaching for years.

“It gets me out hiking with a purpose. I’m not the type to exercise for no reason,” said Brian Renken.

In fact, many players were avid hikers before they began. Geocaches encourage folks to get outside and into nature.

There are a few rules. Caches cannot be buried. They can’t be hidden too close to a school, a railroad or a national park. The sites cannot be closer than one-tenth of a mile apart.

A little maintenance is required by those who set out caches. Rain, wind and troublemakers sometimes mess with the containers, so they might need cleaning or replacing after time.

It’s not necessarily competitive, but some people have gotten really into it.

One member from Alamo has the most finds of anyone in the world. His name is Lee Vanderbokke, and he has more than 84,000 finds to his name. Later this week, he’ll leave on a journey to Hawaii that he hopes will add another 1,400 finds to the list.

“I would never have hiked as far if it weren’t for the cache,” he said.

Ara Tekerlek, a chiropractor in Stockton, prides himself on being the “first to find” new caches.

“It’s beyond an obsession,” he said.

If an alert pops up on his phone that a new cache has been placed nearby, he’ll leave work for a moment or two to find it first. That determination has gotten him neck-deep in Lodi Lake, scratched up and filthy from sliding down a canyon wall, and his two daughters late to school while he stopped for a quick find.

If you find a cache log stamped with TeamTek, Tekerlek has gotten there first. He even searches for them on vacation.

“It’s taken me to places I never would have found in a tour book,” he said.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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