Muggles: Do not be alarmed. Those people snooping around the river are not thieves. They're geocachers.
Geocaching, a kind of high-tech treasure hunt, is a relatively new hobby — just over 10 years old. But its popularity has continued to grow over the past decade, with more than 1.4 million caches — small containers that contain a logbook and often other small items — hidden around the globe, and more than 4 million geocachers hunting for them.
In the geocaching world, non-geocachers are known as muggles, who sometimes stumble on caches without knowing what they are. "Geomuggles are mostly harmless," notes the geocaching.com website, the online hub for the hobby.
There's no better place to shake your muggle status than West Bend, the self-proclaimed Geocaching Capital of the Midwest, where there are nearly 1,400 registered caches within a 10-mile radius of downtown.
According to Craig Farrell, executive director of the West Bend Area Chamber of Commerce, the moniker comes from not only the density of caches in the West Bend area but also the city's mega-event, the West Bend $1,000 Cache Ba$h, Aug. 7-8.
A mega-event is a geocaching event with 500 or more teams participating, and this year's Cache Ba$h is expected to draw nearly 2,000 geocachers from around the globe. The event, which started in 2008, features 66 special caches hidden around the city. Teams have from Friday morning — when the new cache locations are released — until 4:30 p.m. Saturday to track down as many as they can. Cash and other prizes are raffled off Saturday afternoon in Regner Park, the headquarters of the event.
"Every year we're bringing in new cachers, but our event is sufficiently exciting that we keep bringing back these experienced cachers because what we're offering is special and fun," Farrell says.
What you'll need: A GPS device or GPS-enabled cellphone.
A membership to geocaching.com. A basic membership is free and provides information on caches hidden around the world. Note that some caches are only available to premium members ($29.99/year).
Jim Bliefnick, president of the Wisconsin Geocaching Association, recommends trying the sport with an experienced geocacher or using your smartphone before investing in a global positioning system device, which can cost anywhere from $100 to more than $700. The WGA has more than 500 active members, and Bliefnick recommends searching the website for someone who may be able to take you out or an event in your area.
You may also want to bring a pen to sign the cache's log, in case the cache does not have one, and trinkets to exchange.
How you do it: Before you head to West Bend, check geocaching.com to get the coordinates of caches you want to find. Use the "Hide and Seek a Cache" page to find caches by address, ZIP code, city or state. The "Map this Location" option is also helpful for viewing nearby caches on a map.
In West Bend, you have your pick of caches. Get warmed up for the Cache Ba$h at Sandy Knoll Park, which contains eight caches of varying difficulty.
For a longer adventure, head north to try your skills on the Holiday series — a collection of 12 caches with holiday themes, five of which are along the Ice Age Trail and some within the Kettle Moraine State Forest-Northern Unit.
Send the coordinates to your GPS device and head to West Bend.
Find parking nearby, and set off with your GPS. If you're starting out and using your cellphone, the search may be a little more challenging. Cellphones rely on cell towers to provide locations, while GPS devices tap into multiple satellites to provide a reading. "You get a lot more accuracy with a GPS unit," Bliefnick says.
Even the most accurate GPS will only get you within about 30 feet, and you'll have to use your own senses to search from there. Some caches are very cleverly hidden in tree branches or under rocks or logs. Descriptions on the geocaching website can provide clues on where to look and what to look for, as do comments by geocachers who have found it.
When you find a cache, sign the logbook. Many caches also contain trinkets left by other geocachers. You can take an item from the box as long as you leave something of equal or greater value for another geocacher to find.
Once you've signed the log and exchanged trinkets, return the cache to the exact spot you found it for another geocacher to discover.
After your adventure, log your find on your computer at geocaching.com or by using the official Geocaching app from Groundspeak, the company behind geocaching.com.
Where else to geocache: "Personally, I like northern Wisconsin, because it takes you out in the woods or the pines, and there's nobody else around, no risk of being seen," Bliefnick says, referring to being spotted by other geocachers or muggles.
Although cache hiders are required to get permission from landowners when hiding caches, some muggles get suspicious when they see someone poking around places off the beaten path, especially in urban areas.
In the Milwaukee area, there are caches hidden everywhere from downtown along the river to Lakeshore State Park.
Why it's fun: Geocaching is great way for anyone — regardless of age or physical ability — to explore the great outdoors, and you can do it almost anywhere. It's especially great for families.
"I can't think of a better way to get the kids away from the game systems and the television and get them into the outdoors and the fresh air," Farrell says. "That's how you make memories."
Bliefnick says the best thing about geocaching is "getting outdoors and discovering secret places you never knew about, maybe just 3 miles from your home or maybe 50 miles."
While you're there: In West Bend, stop by the Old Courthouse Museum (320 S. 5th Ave.), built in 1889. The museum houses the Washington County Historical Society and includes exhibits that share the history of the county.
Next door is the Old Sheriff's Residence & Jail (340 S. 5th Ave.), built in 1886 and one of the last remaining sheriff's residences in the country. A 45-minute guided tour of both properties is available.
For more about the two museums, see historyisfun.com or call (262) 335-4678.
More information: West Bend is about 40 miles north of Milwaukee via I-94 and Highway 45. For more on geocaching in West Bend, see visitwestbend.com or call (888) 338-8666. For more on geocaching in general, visit geocaching.com.
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Updated: July 23, 2015
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