Monday, December 29, 2014

Darkness Falls

A long time ago, in the woods far away...

So begins the description of a difficulty 5, terrain 3.5 Star Wars themed night cache in Greensboro, North Carolina. That cache is called "Darkness Falls" (GC14WGB), and was the target of a group of geocaching friends last Saturday night.

If you are not familiar, a night cache is a geocache that is designed to only be found at night.  Typically at the posted coordinates are a series of reflective marker that are used to guide the geocacher to the cache itself.

This particular night cache is a 5 stage multi-cache, with each stage on a different section of trail, up to a half mile from parking, each parking spot being miles from each other, and using different takes on using the reflective markers in interesting ways to increase the difficulty of the hides.

Our group consisting of two members of Team Awesomesauce: hoosiersunshine and FailedApparatus, and two other cachers from South Carolina: MSWahoo and the C from C&S 143, met at the parking coordinates for the first cache just after night fell, which on Saturday was around 6:15PM.

From there we hiked down a dark path to the coordinates of the first stage. Once there we looked around for the tell tale markers that gave away the cache position.
When we found the container for the first stage, it contained a clue on how to open the final container, as well as the coordinates for the next stage.  Each stage would be a mile or so away from the next, so we hiked back to the cars, drove to the next parking area, then hiked back into a different set of woods for the next stage.  Each stage seemed to be a longer hike, and a trickier hide.

Once we got to the coords, we'd begin looking for the reflective markers, and hunt down that stages container, in which contained coordinates for the next stage.
You may wonder what these markers look like. The next photo has a picture of two of them on a tree (a white square, and a yellow circle).  The markers are not large, and do not reflect a lot of light, so they were difficult to spot at times.
The last time I was in Ontario I bought a 3-in-1 flashlight from Cache At Night that alternates between a normal light, a UV light, and a laser.  I tried all the options on the tags.  The picture above with the markers is how they look with the normal light.  The UV light did not seem to reflect anything at all, so no pictures.  The following is the reflected laser light.
The third and fourth stages were far enough into the woods that there were several caches between parking and our target GZ, so we naturally grabbed those as we passed by them.  MSWahoo was particularly good at finding them.
You may think that a bunch of folks running around the woods at night would cause some attention from the locals. You would not be surprised, then, to find out that as we prepared to enter the trail for the fourth stage that a police car rolled up behind us.

A pair of cops came up and asked us what we were doing. As soon as FailedApparatus said "geocaching", a wave of relief seemed to come over the younger officers face (the older one needed some explaining to know what geocaching is, but seemed cool with the idea as a whole).  We were then given the standard cop warning of "be careful out there", and then we headed off down the trail.

A few minutes later we had the cache in hand, and the coordinates to the final.  It looks like hoosiersunshine is signing a log, but she's actually reading out the coordinates.
So far, at each stage, the coordinates brought us to a place where we found reflective markers to guide us in.  We were, therefore, a bit surprised when we got to the coordinates for the final stage and we found no reflectors.  We also had to bushwhack off the trail farther than we had for the other stages.

We fanned out, looking for reflectors that the description said would be there, and double checking we had the right coordinates (a great reason to take pictures at each stage so you do not need to double back to get the information again).  Nothing seemed to work.

After about 15 minutes the rest of the group had seemed to wander back towards the direction we came from.  I decided to cast my attention a bit farther afield, playing my flashlight all over the place. I finally decided to use my geosense and headed over to a series of fallen logs, when my flashlight revealed a wonderful sight.

"Hey, there is an ammo can over here!" I called out.

"Are you serious?" C of C&S 143 asked.

Up to this point I was not having a super awesome cache find evening.  In the 3 hours it took us to do this cache, I had not found any caches in the dark, nor been the one to find any of the reflective markers. Everyone else seemed to have had a find, but I was striking zero the whole time.  So I was relieved to open up that ammo can and confirm that, yes indeed, I had found the final for Darkness Falls.

Satisified with our caching victory, we all hiked back to the parking area. This cache proved to be more physically difficult than I expected, with an estimated 2 miles of walking in the dark, tripping on tree roots and such - all that on top of an already grueling bike'n'hike (see yesterdays post) I had earlier that day.  This is all to explain why my 'hike' was more of a pitiful stumble (think Frodo walking through Mordor to get an idea of the level of patheticness in which I shuffled my feet down the trail).

Once at the cars, we headed off to the nearest restaurant that was still open (It was almost 10PM at this point), which turned out to be a Longhorn Steakhouse.
After consuming the delicious flesh of the bovine, and a crackin' good parmesan mushroom risotto, I drove the 2-ish hours home.  It was 1:30AM before my head finally hit the pillow, and I was a walking zombie the next day, but dang it all, it was worth it for having had such an awesome geocache experience.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Good Ol' Bike'n'Hike

If I seem a little lethargic and worn out today, there is a valid reason.

The picture to your left is a screenshot of the Google Fit app running on my phone yesterday.  As you can see I vastly exceeded my daily goals.

I had plans to meet some geocacher friends in Greensboro at 6:15PM to do a night cache.  Since Greensboro is over 100 miles away, I decided to make a day of it by geocaching along the way towards Greensboro.

I looked at the maps and saw two trails that looked like fun along that route.  One was a 2.2 mile (one-way) trail that wound thru some of the hills of the piedmont called the Girl Scouts, Hornets' Nest  Council Trail, just east of Statesville.  The other is a series of trails at the Piedmont Environmental Center in High Point.

Either trail could qualify as a good days geocaching adventure in and of themselves.  To make things a little more daunting, I also needed to save some endurance for the night cache, which promised more hiking.

So as any rational human being would do, I decided to do it all.  I figured I could bike the first trail using the Geobike Of Destiny, and hike the second trail on foot.  My logic being that the thing that gets the most tired after a day of hiking is the bottom of my feet (being a fat guy has disadvantages in this area), and biking the first half would keep me off my feet, thereby giving me more endurance.

I was not proven entirely wrong.

So I started my day just before sunrise, piled my gear into the Geovan Of Destiny, and started down the road.  At which time I was greeted with this rather stunningly nice sunrise, which seemed like a good omen.
When I got parked up at the first trailhead, I pulled out my bike and headed down the trails.
There were 17 geocaches along the route.  A geocaching couple I know hiked this trail the day before, and DNFd 3 caches, which I didn't bother trying to find.  One other was a puzzle cache I did not get the chance to solve. As a result I found 13 caches along the trail.  Along the line my GPSr hit its own milestone: 1000 cache finds using this device.
The first 2/3rds of a mile along the trail has a lot of hills, and windy bits with steep drop-offs on one side. I am not a super-awesome trail rider so this setup made me nervous, but I pressed on. The remaining part of the trail was thankfully mostly flat-ish, so the going was easier.

By the time I hit the hilly/windy bits of the trail on the way back I had gotten much more comfortable on the bike, and managed to make the return trip quickly and easily.
The ride successfully completed, I then drove an hour over to the Piedmont Environmental Center to start the hiking portion of the day.   The second physical cache I found there had this jaunty smiley face ball in it, which also seemed like a good omen.
Good omens are fickle beasts tho, as somewhere along the way I slightly sprained my foot by stepping on a root incorrectly while DNFing a cache,  I ended up DNFing 3 caches, but found 7, so it worked out quite well.

I also got some wonderful views of a river, like this one:

When I was one with the trails it was almost 2:30PM.  Some of my friends had hit town early so we all met up to eat a late lunch, then did some park and grabs until it was time to do that night cache. The lunch break and a couple hours of easy caches allowed me to rest up enough to tackle that night cache.

So all in all my theory of biking and hiking to extend my endurance mostly worked.  While biking and hiking use different muscles in my legs, and the fact that biking keeps weight off my feet,  definitely extended my range. However my legs are now recovering from both a grueling trail ride, and a decently challenging hike, all at the same time.  So please forgive me if I don't get off the couch for the rest of the day.

Actually, according to the Google Fit app, I don't have to exercise again for the rest of the year - so I have that going for me - however tomorrow I will be bike commuting to work, so I better make the best of this day of rest to recover from what was a wonderful, albeit exhausting, day of geocaching.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Salamanders Of Columbia

The main streets of South Carolina towns seem to encourage being infested by small animals.  In Greenville they are infested with cute little mice.   In Columbia it is the salamander.

This is actually appropriate as the salamander is South Carolina's state amphibian, and Columbia is the state capitol.

10 salamander statues have been placed along Main St.  During Team Awesomesauce's latest adventure we did a multi-cache that took us on a tour of five of them.

I love finding features of towns like this.  It gives the place a lot of personality.  The following are several photos of the salamander statues we say.  Hopefully someday you will go check them out for yourself.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My First Birdhouse

I am by no means a crafty person.  The Good Lord blessed me with a lot of skills, but working with my hands was not one of them.  I have, however, collected a fair number of tools in my rather humble shop (hand-me-downs from my father, or presents, or just things I needed for other tasks), and I have been, on occasion, looking for inspiration to do something with those tools.

Most projects I come across are way out of my league so they were intimidating, so I never bothered trying.  I didn't want to waste my time, or the wood, on something I'd likely screw up.

A week ago I stumbled across these plans for a $2 bird house, made from a single 5'x6" fence picket. This seemed both cheap enough to not care about screwing up, and easy enough for a beginner like myself to accomplish.  I figured it would make a decent project to keep myself occupied over the Christmas break.

So I headed over to Home Depot and picked up 10 boards (at $1.56 a piece) and yesterday I set upon my mission. To turn this:
...into a birdhouse.  I do have an ulterior motive for this project.  Many geocache hides use a bird house as camoflage. They also make a good base to make puzzle caches out of (I actually have such a cache, tho I purchased the birdhouse pre-built).  So knowing how to do this would be handy in my secret life of geocaching.  However for now I would stick to building a stock birdhouse and worry about making geocaches out of it for the next attempt (one reason for buying 10 pieces of wood).

I started by cutting up the wood (4 - 9", and 2 - 6" pieces).
 The wood was very rough (as you can see from the image), so it was hard to slide easily thru my table saw, which made for some not super-awesome straight cuts (tho they were mostly OK).  Next time I think I'll find a way to make the sliding easier (perhaps pre sanding the wood? - advice welcome).

Then I pieced the bits together using staples from a nail gun, some wood glue, and some clamps.
The staples didn't seem to hold the wood very well, so I stuck in a couple screws to help hold it all together.

Once the glue had dried, I sanded up the outside of the house. Finally I put some paint on the outside (green exterior latex I had lying around for painting geocache containers). I left the inside raw wood, as my understanding is that this is healthier for birds.

This is the final product.

Not to shabby for my first attempt at woodworking, if I do say so myself.  Next time I will likely skip the staples and go straight to screws, as they hold better.  Otherwise I am happy.

I am going to let the paint cure, then mount it somewhere in my back yard - hopefully some bird will make use of it in the spring.

Now for my next trick: figure out how to make a door for a geocache...

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Team Awesomesauce Rides Again

I am blessed with a great group of friends who like to go on geocaching adventures.  So far we've done a weekend long power trail, and some geo-art.

We call ourselves Team Awesomesauce (for obvious reasons), and we are: Yours Truly, HoosierSunshine, FailedApparatus, NCBiscuit, and the enigmatic NinjaChipmunk.

This past weekend we went on another adventure. We started in Charlotte North Carolina, and ended up playing geocaching trivia in Columbia South Carolina. This is the story of that whirlwind adventure.

We started in north Charlotte where we found a puzzle cache, a challenge cache, and a well hidden micro.

While we were in the area we took advantage of the season and found a cache that was placed in a valley that is covered in kudzu during the summer months.  The vegetation was a lot more navigable this time of year, so the going was easier.
We then headed over to Rock Hill SC where we did a couple multi's, a puzzle, and some gadget caches.

The coolest cache was a Letterbox Hybrid called I'm Not Lost, I'm Geocaching (GC4J01E).  The cache involved following a series of arrows from the cache description to work your way across the campus at Winthrop University.  You really should check that cache out for yourself.

After lunch we drove the 75 miles over to Columbia South Carolina where we did some more fun caches.  The first was at this really cool mural of a tunnel.
That cache was interesting for an unusual reason.  The mural is on a 3 storey building overlooking a parking lot owned by a church.  While we were there the church was having all of the cars in the parking lot towed.  As a result we had to dodge several tow trucks, and one really angry car owner,  while finding the cache.

Once we found it, we took a few moments to admire the fire hydrant where Clifford The Big Red Dog goes for walks.
We then checked out the state house, festivally decked out for the holidays, then took a walk down main street in search of another rather cool multi-cache.
Along the way we decided to become street performers to earn some gas money.  We were not successful.
One of the last caches we did was a cool gadget cache.  The cache is a 5 gallon bucket suspended 10ft in the air via a rope that is attached to the tree with a padlock. Another rope hung down from the bucket. To open the cache one needs to pull on the bucket rope, at which time you get dumped on with ping pong balls.  Also in the bucket is the log book, and a key to open the padlock (and allow you to reset the cache.)
We had so much fun we did the cache three times.  Most of us were impressed.

Shortly after this we headed over to Fuddruckers to attend the It's All Just Trivial event, hosted by HoosierSunshine and FailedApparatus.  This event is part of a series of events where teams of 2-6 geocachers compete by answering a series of geocaching related trivia.  It is some of the most fun one can have an event, and you should all come check it out.  Keep up with future events here.

After the event we all headed back to our various houses, and closed the book on another fantastic Team Awesomesauce adventure.


Early Monday morning there was a level 3 earthquake in the hills near my house in western North Carolina.  I have lived here 6 years, and this is the first earthquake I've heard of that has been anywhere close (the only other one I've heard of was centered near Washington DC).

The geocaches in that area are fairly sparse as well, but there is one very close to the epicenter - it is a multi with the final even closer to the epicenter.  Suspicious, isn't it?

I can't confirm that the geocache caused the earthquake, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty overunderwhelming.

What do you think? Have the caches in western North Carolina gone rogue and started an offensive via geological faults, or just a coincidence?  Is Elvis still alive?  You decide.

(note: This is a great area of (non)logic to apply the Chewbacca Defense.  If Chewbacca lived on Endor, then the caches are alive and targeting us!)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

12-13-14 15:16:17

This picture was taken on 12-13-14 15:16:17.  The last sequential date/time for many, many years (using American, non Y2K compliant, date formats).

Scenes From A Puerto Rican Beach

These are scenes from the beaches of San Juan, mostly taken while I was just walking around, as one does when one is near a beach in San Juan and armed with a camera.

These rocks were just outside the hotel.
Surfing seemed to be a big activity on the beach.  These two fellows are surveying the beach before getting into the water.
One of the few surfers to actually get on their feet on their boards.
The hotel I was staying at.
Scenes of a sunrise.
The surf was high, and active.  This beach, just down from the hotel, provided a lot of good surf watching opportunities.  I could have stayed there for hours.
More scenes to the left from the awesome beach.
The view to the right.
San Gerónimo de Boquerón from across the bay
San Gerónimo de Boquerón, one of the many old forts in Puerto Rico.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Aricebo Radio Observatory

During my recent trip to Puerto Rico I had the privilege of visiting the Aricebo Radio Observatory: cause science!

The observatory is a gigantic dish that collects faint signals sent from across the universe, directs them to a detector, where they are collected, analyzed, and other science-y things.

At 1000ft, the dish is the largest of its kind in the world.  To put that in perspective, one could hide 5 regular geocaches under this dish and not violate the saturation guidelines.

Sadly tho there are no geocaches under the dish, although there is a virtual cache at the visitors center.
The dish has been featured in movies and TV so you may recognize it even if you are not a science nerd.  It was featured heavily in the movie Contact, Species, and Goldeneye.  It was also featured in an episode of the X-Files.

The collector is suspended in the air via cables strung from 3 large towers.  The collector is huge - the ball at the bottom is over 6 stories tall.

The dish itself is also suspended above the ground.  While the collector can move 360 degrees, the dish is stationary.  Another interesting feature of the dish is that the panels are actually made out of a metallic mesh - this allows sunlight and rain to fall thru the dish, which both takes care of drainage, and allows vegetation to grow underneath the dish.

It is rather  hard to get a decent shot of the entire dish due to its size.  I used the panoramic feature on my cell phone to get this shot.  Note: the hole in the bottom of the dish is larger than the size of a city bus.
The one thing that surprised me when visiting the dish is that I expected it to be gleaming white, not brown - tho apparently the dish is due for a cleaning.

So that is the Aricebo Radio Observatory.  If you get the chance I highly recommend taking the chance to check out this engineering marvel that is, quite literally, unique in the universe.