Perhaps you were standing on the sidewalk in Riga’s center recently, checking your texts or choosing where to have lunch. Little did you know that there was a small box hidden a mere ten feet away—a box so important that its exact location is marked on a world map, and people come to that very spot to find it. It is made of plastic, and contains a tiny scroll with names scribbled all over it. You were in the presence of a geocache.
Geocaching is an international scavenger hunt that uses global positioning system (GPS) technology to help players find “caches”— containers which hold a logbook and sometimes toys or coins for exchanging. Players, also known as geocachers, can hide their own caches and post coordinates online for others to find. To participate in this half-physical, half-virtual hobby, cachers must sign the logbook as verification of their discovery, then write about their experience on the cache’s online profile. To date, there are over 2 million caches hidden around the world, 4,015 of which can be found in Latvia. The very first cache was placed in the northwestern United States in 2000, and the first in Latvia, called “Patriot,” followed two years later.
Perhaps the most obvious pleasures of geocaching come when players successfully find the prized little box, or as they absorb the beautiful or historical location where the cache was placed. Roberts Zdanovskis, known on geocaching.com as Robis TA, placed his first cache “Quadra race” in the branches of a tree, requiring people to use climbing equipment to reach it and enjoy the view. Riga is dotted with hides, a term for hidden caches, near noteworthy landmarks such as Doma Church and Alexander Nevsky Church.
Geocaching maps display different symbols to represent the various types of caches existing in an area. Blue question marks stand for mystery caches, which require cachers to solve puzzles or take quizzes in order to find the cache’s true coordinates. The question marks appear in false locations on the map, which accounts for the number of hides that, upon first glance, seem to be floating in the Daugava River. Additionally, Latvia is very easy to spot on a cache map, as its entire border is lined with mystery caches (300 of them!). Apart from the opportunity for creative cache placement, mysteries allow cache owners to educate people on topics of their choice. Zdanovskis owns a cache series called “Dedication to Livland,” for which cachers must research aspects of Livonian culture. (Of course, the best symbol to appear on the map is a smiley face indicating that you have logged a cache as “found”!)
Another source of entertainment is tracking the history of a cache itself. Case in point: “Tebras 3 litru burka,” Latvia’s oldest actively-maintained cache, was hidden by user Edvins_Bauers in 2003, but remained unfound for five years. In late 2008, 12 cachers discovered its coordinates in the archives of a Latvian geocaching forum, and trekked through the woods to find it. Since then, users have logged 80 finds on the cache’s online profile.
Caching, the act of finding or hiding a cache, has grown in popularity since its introduction to Latvia, when “Patriot” was only found once before getting archived. In 2013 and 2014, the Mega Riga geocaching events attracted several hundred participants from as far away as Canada. To help celebrate, in 2013, the Mega Riga Power Trail was established, a series of 213 caches lining a forested trail system north of Upesciems—these hides are still maintained, and many have over 600 finds recorded online. All are named after Latvian cachers.
While caching in Riga is particularly enjoyable due to the close proximity of interesting hides, it can be difficult do so without being seen by non-cachers. Muggles, as they’re called within the geocaching community, are often suspicious of people hiding small objects in bushes, or they mistake caches for trash. Inexperienced cachers or those hurrying to be the First To Find (FTF) sometimes put caches in jeopardy by not being stealthy in public places. Central Riga tends to become quieter during holidays, bad weather, or at night, but Old Riga remains tricky during these times. However, it’s often a pleasant experience to loiter casually near a cache and notice somebody else doing the same, holding a GPS or wearing a hat marked with the official geocaching logo; cachers can find new friends while waiting for muggles to pass by.
Despite the problematic aspects of caching, the Latvian enthusiasm for the hobby indicates that it has space to evolve in the Baltics. Three cache owners in the country have placed over 100 caches each since joining the game; the top ten cache owners have placed over 1,100 caches collectively. 15 Latvian caches have been maintained for over a decade.
Cachers hold special events to pick up garbage while caching in particular areas, to offset the notion that geocaching is littering. Experienced players are often eager to share their wisdom with those who want to become better. All in all, caching is an exciting international adventure that has become embedded in Latvian terrain.
Photos by Emma Ikstruma and courtesy of geocaching.com Mega-Riga Power Trail