Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Nature vs. Technology

On Saturday, May 31, I was at a "meet and greet" of the North New Jersey Geocachers, part of a world-wide movement of people who use GPS, or global positioning satellite, to follow coordinates to a "cache" in a particular place that could be anything from a toy truck to a manhole cover.

It was very strange for me to be at this because it was taking place at New Jersey Audubon's Scherman Hoffman sanctuary, which advertises itself on its website as being "focused on nature."

Until I received the Scherman press release, I'd never heard of geocaching. But it makes sense - even the most Luddite of my friends now have cellphones and the Internet is a facet of everyday life. Geocaching was started in 2000 by two techie guys in Oregon who found a bucket in a park and published the coordinates (longitude and latitute) on a website for others to find it, the head of NNJC told me.

In short, it's a high-tech treasure hunt.

One of the Scherman Hoffman caches. (photo by Margo D. Beller)
These folks at the meet and greet were a fine bunch of people. They were friendly and not upset at all to have a reporter - even an unpaid one for the Scherman Hoffman blog - follow along as they walked the trail, stopped at the proper spot and started searching for the prize. One geocacher at the sign-in table, who had baked cookies, and told me he spent a lot of money each week filling his many bird feeders at home.

He also told me he makes it a point to put his caches not far off a park's trail and makes his online clues so clear you don't destroy the area looking for the cache.

I got the sense he is rather unusual in this.

When the first cache was found - "3 boulders from the trail" - people lined up and signed the pad of paper with the pencil found in the plastic lockbox. In this case the caches contain words you put together and bring to the Scherman Hoffman store for a discount on some merchandise.

This reminded me of the old Gene Shepherd routine, dramatized in "A Christmas Story," where the clues on the decoder ring spelled out "Be Sure To Drink Your Ovaltine."

Signing the cache log book. (Photo by Margo D. Beller)

I don't blame Scherman Hoffman for getting involved with geocaching thanks to the head of the NNJC knowing teaching naturalist Dorothy Smullen through his mother. It is a huge movement, I learned from Scherman Director Mike Anderson told me Kittanny Valley State Park was overrun by caches and people looking for them before New Jersey had any idea what was happening.

In this case, by getting involved at the start Scherman Hoffman gains some sort of control over the process on its land by working with NNJC, which maintains the caches.

My problem is with the technology.

Following a GPS to find a cache does not mean you are going to stop and look around you in the woods and be interested in that red bird over there. (It's called a veery.) When I attempted to follow the group I found myself falling behind as they raced up the steep incline and then continued, not along the official trail route on Scherman land but on another trail into part of the National Park System, the Cross Estate.

There are rules on where to put caches and notifying landowners but apparently no rules on following a shortcut your GPS finds for you.

I've seen it on the highway and so have you -- drivers who do not plan ahead, blindly follow their GPS and then, at the last second, veer across several lanes of traffic to exit, ignoring the hazards they create for other drivers.

Same with geocaching. You focus on the GPS and/or the cellphone (be aware, many woods don't have cell towers in them) to the exclusion of everything else. I would like to think, as the officials at Scherman Hoffman do, that once people discover the sanctuary they will come back and become more interested in nature, maybe even become NJ Audubon members.

Sorry, but I doubt it.

I was very glad when I lost the pack in the woods, reset my internal GPS and proceeded along familiar trails to find birds, my preferred sort of treasure.

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