By Susanna Graham-Pye, courtesy of The Cape Codder

Geocaching-photo-of-Melissa_Hennessey-and-daughter-by_Susanna_Graham-Pye_opt

Melissa Hennessey & daughter Sophia on a geocaching adventure–photo by Susanna Graham-Pye, The Cape Codder

HARWICH – No mistaking it – this is an adventure. Melissa Hennessey, her five-year-old daughter Sophia, and Jenna Zoino slip off the beaten path, duck beneath a barely visible opening in the tangle of Virginia creeper and briars, and slip into the woods.

Not only does an air of adventure hang around the trio, but an aura of mystery too. Who knows what they’ll find?

“If we’re going to reveal the sites, we have to agree on having personal anonymity,” says Zoino, holding a branch aside for little Sophia to duck beneath. Hearing the humans’ approach, some creature skitters away, its noisy escape announced by leaf cover left dry by a summer of too little rain.

Everyone pauses to consider what it might be.

“Squirrel?”

“Sounded like something bigger.”

Everyone squints into the woods for a moment. Then, they continue their trek, following the arrow of the compass.

“If we don’t reveal where the sites are, we can use our names in the article,” she suddenly says. The reporter following them agrees to keep their destinations – a series of hidden spots around the town of Harwich – a secret.

Anonymity, code names, hiding things and finding things – this is geocaching, and it’s a favorite hobby for Zoino and Hennessey and their soon to be kindergartner children.

Hennessey first heard about geocaching from a co-worker at Cape Cod Five Cent Savings Bank, where she is a financial planner.

“He kept talking about these adventures he’d had with his son,” she said. “It seemed like a cool thing to do.”

Not soon after Hennessey and Sophia tried geocaching she met Zoino, who works for the office of developmental services. They met at the pre-school attended by Sophia and Zoino’s son, Jeremy. The children had become friends, moms became friends and the quartet joined the geocaching world as a fierce team that has found hundreds of caches, and hidden its fair share.

“It’s just a great way to get out and see hidden places you might not otherwise ever see,” Zoino said. Hennessey listens, nodding.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she said. “But I’ve found places I never knew existed because of geocaching.”

“Knowing that Harwich Conservation Trust has an active volunteer program and supports geocaching on selected walking trails, Melissa approached us with an interest in volunteering her geocaching skills,” said Lach. “She and I met to discuss her ideas at her Cape Cod Five offices and it was clear she has a natural ability to lead and inspire enthusiasm. We’re thrilled that she’s volunteering with HCT.”

When Hennessey and Zoino create a geocache, they do so with intent. They want people who are searching to pass through experiences they might not otherwise see: a location rich with birds, a hidden vista, or little known landscape.

Geocaching is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary. The “game” evolved with the advent of GPS technology. According to the official website geocaching.com, it all began when a a computer consultant in Oregon, hoping to test the accuracy of the new GPS technology, hid a bucket in the woods near his home. He published the coordinates of his stash, which was filled with prizes and a log book. It worked. Today, there are more than 2.5 million caches worldwide. There are hundreds all over the Cape and Islands.

While geocaching isn’t new, Harwich Conservation Trust Director Michael Lach hopes it will become a new way to get people out exploring conservation land they might not otherwise see. Lach has been working with Hennessey to develop a geocaching program that will teach people the basics. That event, date and time to be announced, will happen this fall.

Cell phones have enhanced geocaching. A free app is available and, most cell phones have the necessary GPS capability, Hennessey explained, noting that both she and Zoino have equal success with an iPhone and Samsung.

Geocaching has a special language: sites must be hidden in “muggle-free zones.” The term “muggle” borrowed from the Harry Potter series. It means caches must be hidden far from crowds of non-caching folks. FTF – first to find – is a high honor that is noted in a cache log, where geocachers make note of the date of their visit. People have secret code names they use. Zoino and Hennessey both declined to share theirs in the article.

There are large caches, most of which are hidden in Tupperware boxes containing trinkets. For Sophia, this is one of the most fun aspects of the game. If you take something from a box – a sticker, a plastic trinket, a pretty rock – you must replace it with something. There are micro-caches as well, tiny and challenging to find.

Games within the game exist as well, Hennessey explained. For some there are mysteries to be solved, others are a kind of treasure hunt with one cache leading to another and another. There is letter box caching, which involves stamping log books as you go. There is also “earth caching” in which you seek out a site where you will then be given a lesson on the geography and ecology of the site you’ve found.

“I’ve learned a lot about glaciers this way,” Zoino said with a laugh.

And there is the tradition of “cache in/trash out,” the two women explained, that encourages geocachers to care for the lands they explore by removing the trash they find. When the coordinates for a geocache are downloaded, its name, perhaps clues and a difficult rating are included. In addition to logs at cache sites, many have online logs where people are invited to comment.

“It’s a great activity for groups of friends and family,” Hennessey said. And both women agreed, in an era when it’s difficult to get kids to put down their personal devices and get outdoors, this is a way to get kids to follow their phones on a great adventure into the world around them.