Armed with a map, camera, pen and notebook, I tromp into a thicket of trees in Riverwood Park in search of a hidden treasure.
But instead of an "X" marking the spot on a tattered paper map, a checkered flag marks the coordinates I'm seeking on a global positioning unit (GPS), a sort of digital map.
It's a sunny afternoon in early September. I step through vines and over shrubs, keeping my eyes glued to the ground in search of my target and glancing at my GPS to make sure I'm still in the right area. Birds chirp as if they're teasing me, saying, "warmer ... colder ...".
Then I see it, the white lid of a plastic container peeking out from between two rotted logs. My heart leaps into my throat. I've done it. I've found my first geocache.
Geocaching is an activity that has been gaining popularity since the early part of the decade as GPS technology has become more precise and service coverage more reliable.
It works like this: People take small, water-proof containers into the woods and hide them. Inside is a log book with a pen or pencil and often, various toys or trinkets. The person who hides the "cache" registers its coordinates on one of a variety of Web sites, the largest of which is www.geocaching.com.
"Cachers" go online and write down the coordinates, enter them into a GPS, and begin their hunt. When you find one, you're supposed to write your name and the date you found it in the log, along with any other notes about your journey to the cache.
People bring toys, rocks, shells or customized markers with their names on them to trade in and out of the cache. In the log book, you note what you took and what you left.
Geocaches range in size from "micros," usually a film container or something similar, to the size of a pencil box, to tubs about the size of a shoebox. There are dozens of them in and around Hastings, some hidden in city parks and many hidden at Schaar's Bluff.
OK, back to Riverwood Park.
I remove the logs from the top of the cache and open the lid. Inside are a variety of toys including a couple Shrek figurines. There's also a wooden coin that I'd see again later in the day with the cacher's name on it, "Grizzly Wheelers," and a drawing of a German shepherd.
I note in the log book that it's my first find and I'm working on a story about geocaching for the Hastings Star Gazette.
I'd come unprepared and didn't have anything very cool to trade, so I pulled out my wallet and left a four-cent stamp that'd been in there for a while.
From when I parked my car, found the cache and walked back to my car, I'd spent about a half hour on this hunt. Although it was my first successful find, it was not my first attempt.
The day before, I wrote down the coordinates of a cache called The Great Wall of the Old Mill Ruins, which was located in Old Mill Park.
This one was a three out of five on the difficulty scale (the Riverwood Park cache was a one and a half), so I should have known better than to try it for my first attempt.
Almost immediately I learned the hard way a lesson I'm sure most rookie cachers have to learn - look up. While watching the screen of my GPS, I smacked the side of my head on a tree branch.
I leave the paved path, heading toward the coordinates on my GPS. Thorny branches scratch my arms as I try to move them out of my way to walk. It's a humid afternoon, but the trees provide a decent amount of shade. The Vermillion River gurgles in the background, just down the hill from where I'm searching. The smell of damp dirt and wood flutters across my nostrils with each breath. I feel somewhat isolated and alone as I struggle to seek out my target.
Then I realize I'm not as alone as I'd thought. About 20 yards away, a white-tailed deer chomps away on branches, paying me hardly any mind whatsoever until I stop what I'm doing and begin to watch her. With my telephoto lens pointed in the doe's direction, she watches me curiously, but doesn't sprint away as the camera's shutter begins to click rapidly.
I know I'm in the right area, but I can't seem to find anything. Questions begin to run through my head that I realize I should have answered before coming out into the field for my first hunt: What does a geocache even look like? Is my GPS precise enough to do this? Should I have started with an easier cache? I need a hint.
I give up after about 20 minutes of hard searching and walk back to my car empty handed, with a decent sweat going and a pair of forearms full of scratches.
The next day I hit Riverwood Park and make my first find, then travel down by Lock and Dam 2 in search of a geocache called The Dam G-Cash.
The forest isn't as thick around this one, and (thankfully) there are fewer plants with thorns than in Old Mill Park. I search for a while but begin to think I'm going to be thwarted again. I'm close to giving up, but the description of the cache I found online keeps playing back in my head: "This is a fairly easy cache, good for kids."
I think to myself, "If a kid can do this, I can do this. Keep looking." Then I see it. A pencil box covered in camouflage duct tape peeks out at me from under some logs.
This time I've come prepared with a small, rubber spider that I trade for a beautiful, polished agate. I note the date, time and who I am in the log book, cover the cache again and head back to the car.
I'm ripe with geocache confidence and head back to Old Mill Park to find the cache that eluded me before. But after another 15 minutes of hunting and few more scratches for my forearm, I again, come up empty.
I know it's out there. According to the cache's registration page online it's been found 109 times, twice since I was unable to find it the second time. But rest assured, I don't plan on giving up. I'll be back there soon to hunt it down.