A Struggling Town Is Reviving Itself With... Geocaching
Wilberforce, Ontario just lost its only bank branch—now, residents are hoping an early internet trend can help revive the town.
In the town of Wilberforce, Ontario, a quick detour from the main street will take you to a seven-foot-tall wooden fork that sits at the point where the road splits into two—a literal fork in the road.
Unfamiliar passers-by may think it’s a joke. But to locals, this landmark goes by the name “Fork and Beans.” It has a logbook hidden inside its frame and it’s one of the more than 500 geocaches scattered around Wilberforce—the “Geocaching Capital of Canada,” as the town calls itself, and home of one of the most popular geocaching tours in the world.
The rise of Pokémon Go in 2016 brought with it a surge of location-based outdoor games on mobile. Geocaching, which is akin to an outdoor scavenger hunt, uses GPS to locate hidden caches with logbooks inside and predates the latest crop of augmented reality games; it was a fixture of internet culture at the turn of the millenium. Geocachers use either an app or a GPS-enabled device to search for hidden containers (usually filled with something like a notebook) that are nearby or that they’ve sought out online.
According to Geocaching HQ, a company that created one of the largest websites for the geocaching community in 2000, there are currently more than three million of these caches hidden in more than 190 countries around the world.
For Wilberforce, geocaching is more than a game from back when a low-res dancing baby was the height of online entertainment. It’s a growing industry, with new caches being hidden and special events organized every year, that is helping keep the town afloat amidst economic struggles.
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Wilberforce is in the heart of cottage country at the eastern edge of Haliburton County, in the municipality of Highlands East, and has a permanent population of 400 according to the mayor of Highlands East, Dave Burton. Its downtown core has a diner, a curling rink, a sometimes-spotty cell phone signal, and an elementary school with a graduating class of just 15 students last June. It’s one of the seven towns in the area that make up the “Geocaching Capital of Canada.”
Mary Barker is a lifelong resident of Wilberforce, and the reason for its vintage internet-tinged pitch to tourists. She’s run the town’s post office for the past 15 years, taking over for her father who ran it for 52 years prior. She discovered geocaching in the fall of 2005 after taking a one-day course in GPS navigation at Fleming College’s Haliburton campus.
That day, Barker was surprised to find that there was a geocache located in Wilberforce. After finding the cache, which was in a metal can hidden by local cottagers about a year earlier, Barker had a flash of inspiration.
“We read the logs and there had been over a hundred people that had quietly come into town, found this [cache], and not done anything destructive,” Barker told me between sorting mail and chatting with locals getting their packages at Wilberforce’s post office. “I'm thinking, ‘did these people eat in the restaurant? Did they come into the store?’”
Barker began to think about what geocaching could do for her community. “[Wilberforce] has always wanted to be the capital of something,” she told me. Nearby Eagle Lake is the self-described rhubarb capital of Ontario, and Bancroft is the mineral capital of Canada, even though locals believe Highlands East’s mineral collecting sites and geology make it more deserving of the title, according to Barker.
“Why can't we be the geocaching capital of Canada?” she said. “Why can't we claim that, just the same as everybody else claims to be something?’”
After checking to see if any other place had given themselves the title, Barker received funding from the municipality, the Haliburton County Development Corporation, and the Algonquin Gateway Business Association (AGBA) to put “Geocaching Capital of Canada” signage on the town signs of Wilberforce and the six neighbouring hamlets of Irondale, Gooderham, Tory Hill, Harcourt, Highland Grove, and Cardiff.
Highlands East Mayor Dave Burton was president of the AGBA when the signs went up in 2006, and remembers some locals being confused about the designation at the time. “I had a lot of people ask me what the heck [geocaching] was, and they were having a hard time pronouncing it,” he told me. “I had done a little bit of research to see exactly what it was. I thought, what a place for it here, we have so much outdoors.”
Geocaching began in the year 2000 when one Dave Ulmer hid a container of junk in the Portland woods and announced the location on a USENET group. From there, the game of hiding stuff in the real world and letting people online find it spread through early websites, mailing groups, and so on. These days, anyone can sign up for a free account on Geocaching.com, a longstanding hub for the geocaching community that went online in 2000, which also tracks your geocaching stats and allows you to comment on specific caches and participate in forums.
Before the days of Reddit and Facebook, geocaching was a way for people to form community online at a time when social networks weren’t multinational corporations. Today, Wilberforce is attempting to draw on the community-building power of online geocaching communities to lure tourists into their tiny town. To do this, Barker has created some special event caches to bring people from all over the province together in Wilberforce.
For example, In 2015 Barker teamed up with Wilberforce resident Joanne Vanier to raise funds for a GeoTour—a collection of up to 150 caches laid out to be found in sequence. The goal of a geocacher completing a GeoTour is to find all of its caches, while the goal for the host of a GeoTour is to draw in tourists and visitors to the area of the tour.
The Geocaching Capital of Canada GeoTour that Barker and Vanier created is currently the most popular in Canada, according to Geocaching.com, and the third most popular in the world based on the amount of “favourite points” it has received from geocachers.
As exemplified by the seven-foot Fork and Beans cache (number 110 of 150 on the tour) the caches that Barker and Vanier created are elaborate, handcrafted designs. They often require some sort of game or puzzle to be completed—a lot different from the container or empty water bottle with a logbook inside that many geocachers are used to finding.
In my time geocaching in Wilberforce on a cold, sunny March afternoon, I went from a Little Red Riding Hood-themed cache, to one that’s unlocked by the notes of a xylophone, to one that challenged me to solve a rudimentary puzzle that saved Tupper T. Turtle—the Geocaching Capital of Canada mascot—from being made into soup.
Minus a couple of caches donated to the tour, all of the GeoTour’s 150 caches were created by Barker and Vanier with the help of their husbands and a local woodworker.
“Sometimes you just have something, some toy, and you look at it and go, ‘How can I turn that into a cache?’” Barker said. “I don't want to just put out peanut butter jars, I like to make it kind of different.”
In May, downtown Wilberforce will be the starting point for the “Amazing Nursery Rhyme Race” event cache, which will see participants travel all over the municipality to complete “a gruelling adventure through the world of nursery rhymes.”
Recently, tourist attractions like geocaching and mineral tours have meant even more to the Highlands East area as a way to draw people and money into the community. In January 2017, the Scotiabank in Wilberforce—the only bank in the municipality—closed down. According to Burton, the bank closing “was a huge blow” to the local economy.
“What happens is that people will go to Bancroft to do their banking and they’ll do their shopping there as well, so they’re not shopping in town,” he said.
As the tour has grown in popularity, Burton believes it has benefited businesses in the area. “I do believe [geocachers] will come in [to town] and possibly get their drinks, get their snacks… get whatever souvenir [or] whatever they may want from the general store,” he said.
Some local businesses have made changes to attract geocaching customers. Wilberforce’s Agnew’s General Store, which was previously owned by Barker’s family, has opened a “Cache Stash” offering souvenirs and supplies to geocachers. The town’s tourist information centre offers GPS rentals for five dollars a day. Even the South Algonquin Diner in town offers a “Geoburger” on their menu.
“For us to exist here we have to be creative and [geocaching] is something that we're very creative in doing, and it has worked out well for us,” Burton said.
Along with the reception and feedback of local businesses, the response to the GeoTour from geocachers themselves has been reassuring.
Daryl Almond is a geocacher from Ottawa who’s been taking part in the hobby for 14 years. In that time, he’s found more than 20,000 caches in 24 different countries. So far he’s dedicated three days to the Geocaching Capital of Canada GeoTour in Wilberforce, finding 120 caches. He plans on returning sometime in April to find the remainder.
“I don’t think they could have done a better job of advertising a calling card to the area,” Almond said. “They’ve caught on to something, they’re making this a destination.”
This type of feedback has motivated Barker to continue to promote local geocaching.
“Even though we've been up half the night struggling to make this thing, or we can't get it to work, or have to go out and do repairs on it, we come home and we read these logs that they're writing and they're so nice and they're so appreciative of the caches, so it makes it all worthwhile.”
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