DeKALB – Dave Yanke has gone on more than 8,000 little treasure hunts in the past decade or so.
The prize wasn't gold or jewelry, but the satisfaction of finding special containers called caches hidden by other players in the GPS-driven game of geocaching. Some of the caches have been the size of a dumpster, while others have been as small as a pencil eraser.
"Basically, you become the search engine," said Yanke, of Sycamore. "It's something you can do whether you live in downtown Detroit or the middle of the desert. It gets you outside and moving. Kids get to play with technology and get outside."
Geocaching is an international phenomenon, but there are plenty of local caches, including a magnetic key box hidden near the Egyptian Theatre in downtown DeKalb, a jar propped in a tree near Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb, and a tube hidden inside a chain-link fence post near Sycamore High School.
Dozens of caches are hidden under the metal skirts surrounding parking lot light posts, and nine remain in Sycamore parks, placed there last year to celebrate the Sycamore Park District's 90th year.
Greg Locascio of Sycamore has been teaching his son about the game after playing himself since 2012. Starting to geocache can be as simple as downloading a free application to a smartphone or jotting down coordinates from a geocaching website.
"Anybody with a GPS unit or smartphone can do it," Locascio said. "You don't need to be an expert map-reader to do it. I think a lot of people are turned off because they think it is technically demanding, but my 8-year-old son mastered it within five minutes."
A technological evolution
Worldwide, more than 6 million participants have access to more than 2 million geocaches, but it started with a single bucket in Oregon about 14 years ago, according to Yanke and geocaching.com, a website dedicated to sharing information with the game's community.
In May 2000, the United States government discontinued its selective availability for GPS, making it available to everyone for the first time, Yanke said. Dave Ulmer, a computer consultant from Beavercreek, Oregon, planted a bucket with a log book inside, released the coordinates online and waited to see who could find what he had planted to ensure GPS accuracy, Yanke said. People took him up on the challenge, and a trend was born.
Since then, geocaching sanctioning companies have created trackable tags that participants can attach to figures or other items, encouraging other participants to carry the items from cache to cache. Others use trackable coins or leave small items, such as simple toys or stickers, in caches. Sometimes, the people who hide caches leave gift cards or other gifts for the first person who finds it.
As the owner of LINE-X of Greater Illinois, Yanke's work truck has its own geocaching setup, including a laptop with mapping software connected to a GPS. He geocaches often with his wife, but also takes a trip once a month with three friends, a group dubbed the League of Adequate Geocachers. He's cached in 22 states, Canada and Mexico.
He also wears a trackable geocaching ring, one of 11 in existence, so if other geocachers find him, they can log where they met him.
Meanwhile, geocaching has made Locascio look differently at his surroundings: He gets to explore his world in a different way.
"It gives you a little bit of weirdo status, kind of poking around, looking around parking lots," Locascio said. "I like going to parks to find geocaches. I don't know how often I've gotten off the trail, and I'm just the guy coming out of the deep brush."
One of Locascio's first finds was the glass jar propped in a tree near Littlejohn Elementary School in DeKalb; a nearby homeowner gave him an ice cream bar.
"I thought: 'Wow, free food. I like this game,' " Locascio remembered.
Dubbed Mom's Place, the hiding place was created March 25, 2005, although "mom" – Sue Myers, a 76-year-old retired medical technical – replaced the original black plastic container after animals got into it. There's also a wire sticking out from the tree for geocachers to leave unused keys.
Myers' son, Bob, a 52-year-old DeKalb resident, created the cache to give his mother another social outlet. He's created four or five caches in the 10 to 12 years he has been geocaching, but Mom's Place is the only one that remains active. He estimated its been found 1,300 times.
"I wanted to make it fairly easy," he said. "It's really mostly about the experience."
• Daily Chronicle News Editor Jillian Duchnowski contributed to this report.
Helpful geocaching sites
Geocaching.com: The official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site
GoNIL.org: Geocachers of Northeastern Illinois
How to get started
• Register for a membership online or download a free app on a smartphone
• Enter a postal code
• Choose a geocache, click on its name
• Enter the coordinates into a GPS, or active the GPS in the smartphone app
• Find the geocache container, sign the logbook and return geocache to original location