Alberta Cancer Foundation

Ditch Your Desk

HIDDEN TREASURE: Geocachers use a hand-held GPS to hide, and locate, items all around the world.

With an office two blocks north of the Alberta Legislature building in Edmonton, Vonn Bricker, 58, a recently retired government employee, spent many lunch hours searching for hidden treasure.

“Me and many of my co-workers were really not heavy duty joggers or power walkers,” says Bricker, also known as Bush Creatures, his geocaching handle. “It was really fun to get out and go for a bit of a hike.”

Bricker is a geocacher, a sport that combines walking or hiking with a scavenger hunt.

“It’s a high-tech treasure hunt,” says Barry Brown, another enthusiast of the activity that uses handheld global positioning system (GPS) technology to hide, and then find, items.

Despite having found his first cache just four months ago, Brown, also known as Kenkeknem, has already embraced noon-hour geocaching and turned his brother-in-law into an enthusiast who plans family vacations around caches.

The caches themselves are typically weather-proof small containers that, at minimum, contain a logbook and pencil and also may contain kid-friendly tradable trinkets. Geocachers locate the hidden containers with the help of a handheld GPS, sign the logbook and leave something – from stickers to dollar-store toys – to replace the prize they’ve taken.

On a recent lunch break, 49-year-old Brown, a system administrator who runs a computer consulting business, set out to find five caches in northeast Calgary. He finished his break having only found three, because a non-geocacher, or muggle, was sitting in a car near one of the caches. “That’s a part of the game, too,” explains Brown. “Sometimes you’ll go to get (a cache) and somebody is there and so you abandon it and move on. You have to be stealthy about finding your cache.”

The sport, which originated in Portland, Oregon and celebrated its 10th anniversary in the spring of 2010, has attracted a range of enthusiasts, including those, like Brown and Bricker, who use geocaching to swap sit-down lunch breaks for outdoor adventure.

Brown’s job takes him to various areas of the city, which means he can key in postal codes at and explore unseen areas of Calgary, while searching for caches. He says spending his lunch breaks being active means he’s more alert in the afternoon. “It’s not like going for a walk and picking up dog poop,” says Brown, of the adventure of geocaching. “It’s a way of getting outside and it’s always a hunt.”

Bricker, who worked in land-use planning before retiring, has found over 4,700 caches since starting the sport five years ago. Bricker’s passion for caching began after he read an article about geocaching. Then he and his young daughter “dug through the snow and found buried treasure,” at a cache one kilometre from his house.

While his daughter is now 16 and wouldn’t be “caught dead” hunting for a cache with him, Bricker has become an avid geocacher. Before Bricker retired he would often find geocache sites on his computer and then drag he co-workers along at lunch to help find the hidden treasure. “A few of them have kept up the game, but most of them rolled their eyes and said ‘I’m crazy’,” says Bricker, who still geocaches frequently in retirement.

Staying in the office for a lunch break often meant continuing to answer the phone and email and never stopping work, while heading out to look for caches was instant exercise and fun, says Bricker. “My office was very close to the river valley and great hiking trails. Sometimes the very steep terrain would definitely give you a bit of a workout.”

Leaving your desk and moving, through geocaching or any other activity, is a good thing, says Angela Torry, an education co-ordinator with the Alberta Centre for Active Living. Movement can improve circulation, get your blood flowing and increase your physical and mental health. “Our bodies are built to move,” says Torry, yet our Western lifestyle caters to sitting all day. “A lot of people have neck, back and joint pain, especially carpel tunnel syndrome if they’re using a mouse and keyboard a lot. It’s honestly because we’re not moving enough.”

Not only does a lunch break spent geocaching mean lots of movement and renewed energy, adventure-seekers are also able to explore new areas of their city. “You get to see places that you don’t even know exist… It’s not just for the loot at the end of it, there is interesting scenery that you’re introduced to that you’ll probably never revisit,” says Brown. He discovered an ice cave in a park near his house, thanks to geocaching.

Geocaching is an activity that people of all ages and physical abilities can embrace as both a terrain and difficulty rating accompany every cache posted online. Brown says he watches for caches with easy ratings then takes along his seven-year-old daughter, who loves the sport. “She is really good at finding them,” Brown says. “I guess being only one metre (tall) helps.”

Bricker says he’s seen everyone from toddlers to teens and seniors or people in wheelchairs geocache. “It can be a rugged sport if you pick the rugged caches, but it can also be very gentle. Geocaching is amazingly suitable for all ages and people of all physical conditions.”

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