The Kaster family
The Kaster family
For Kim Kaster of Spring Valley, son Matt, a 20-year-old who attends Minnesota State University - Mankato, and daughter Jessi, an eighth grader at Kingsland School, the summer of 2008 will long be remembered.

The trio became part of an elusive, hard-earned exclusive club of 89 people (as of Dec. 30) who had trekked to the far corners of the state to complete the Minnesota State Parks Geocaching History Challenge, set up in conjunction with the state's 150th anniversary, its sesquicentennial.

Kim and crew likely logged around 5,000 miles on their vehicle and countless miles on foot looking for geocaches that included cards (similar to trading cards) that featured a picture of each park and its brief history.

"We cringed at the (then) high gas prices," she noted. However, they also discovered such rarities as an old-fashioned station where their gas was pumped for them somewhere in western Minnesota.

Kim said the adventure provided a lot of memories, "good, summer family time."

They got along amazingly well, played games like "Outburst" while on the road, and debated whether the old or more recent versions of the television show "Saturday Night Live" were funnier. They would pack food to take along, but did become Subway sandwich shop fans, where the economical "$5 foot-long" was easily divided for three.

The challenge

The challenge encouraged geocachers to visit 72 state parks and recreation areas, four regional finals at selected parks and then, after all that, the finale to it all, located at Mille Lacs-Kathio State Park. The coordinates to those latter "final" caches required showing park staff all the cards they had collected in each of the four regions, and then being given coordinates to allow the search.

After finding each final, each member of the team earned a collectible coin/medallion

Kim wrote in her final online log for the challenge:

Wow, we did it!! Seventy-two state parks in one summer!! What an excellent challenge to offer (Minnesota history, hiking, and geocaching) and putting it into our wonderful state parks as part of Minnesota's Sesquicentennial.

Having only visited six state parks prior to this summer, this challenge provided a quick sampler of the unique and beautiful qualities each park contains and we are already planning return trips (but at a much slower pace!!).

Now, a bit about geocaching. The hobby, or sport, has a person using a handheld GPS (global positioning system) unit to access satellite signals to pinpoint location by latitude and longitude coordinates. With geocaching (said "gee-oh-cashing) containers are hidden by someone, coordinates taken and then listed at www.geocaching.com. Then others take those coordinates and start looking. Containers are camouflaged to make the hunt a bit tougher. Often containers are large enough to allow the trading of items. A log is also signed. Then the "find" is logged back on the Web site.

A history buff and member of the Fillmore County Historical Society, Kim shared the geocaching accomplishment by placing all of the park cards in holders and hanging them on a Christmas tree for the History Center's "Trees and More 2008." The top of the tree featured the state's sesquicentennial banner.

Kim said, "The cards were neat. We would read the information. We would like to have stayed longer at many parks to see more of their history."

That was one thing about this challenge. It had to be completed by Dec. 31, 2008, so it kept the geocachers on the move.

Perhaps best of all, a new series of geocaches will be placed in the state parks and a new challenge soon announced. Set up with the help of volunteer geocachers with the Minnesota Geocaching Association, this challenge likely will run over a few years and offer rewards in a manner more similar to the current state park passport and hiking club programs. Watch for announcements on it, or keep an eye on the Department of Natural Resources' state parks Web site.

Getting started

Many of the geocachers completing the series were what a person might call diehards, geocaching often and racking up a great number of finds.

The Kasters were an exception to that rule. They just started the hobby this past year. Kim, who works in the human resources department at IBM in Rochester, said she's always been into history. Also, at work she'd been part of a session where geocaching was mentioned.

She signed up for an account on the Web site www.geocaching.com in February, soon purchased a GPS and related mapping software, did a couple caches, then discovered the parks challenge. It was a natural for her and the kids.

"I love history. It was all falling into place," stated Kim.

On Mother's Day, the challenge officially kicked off. At the time - with Jessi's foot in a cast (Kim called her "a trooper") - they headed to Forestville/Mystery Cave, the closest park and one that's near and dear to Kim. She wrote in her log at the final find, which occurred Oct. 5:

For us, this adventure started on May 11 (as a Mother's Day gift/outing for me) with our brand-new GPS (and instructional manual) in hand trying to locate our first park cache at Forestville State Park.

Our youngest wasn't quite interested in the history challenge at first, but after making a few park finds, she was hooked. However, that meant returning to four state parks so she could collect her cards!!

Had only thought to do the Southern and Metro regions due to work, college and sports schedules, but were able to coordinate days and weekends so all three of us could do together. Like many, reaching Garden Island was the turning point in order to complete all.

Early finds

After that find at Forestville, the trio visited other parks in southeastern Minnesota, testing out the GPS and their mettle for the Challenge.

Matt decided the Challenge was for him after finding an early cache at Masonic Park north of Spring Valley, which was more of a physical challenge itself.

"It was like looking for treasure," he smiled. Jessi, meanwhile, liked collecting coins, so the Challenge series offered a nice enticement for her.

As they continued the series, each team member took on a role. Matt would typically run the GPS and also help drive. Jessi would get a map when they arrived at the park. Also, she would try to get their parks passport booked stamped, which as noted is another of the state park programs giving incentives to visit.

Kim would do the "prep work" that involved running Mapquest routes for traveling to and between the parks. Also, she would print out information on the caches, including some logs and hints.

When starting out, like a good number of cachers, the Kasters figured they would just complete the Southern Region. But that would be of note. It featured a large area across the bottom of the state, stretching to Big Stone Lake at Ortonville on the South Dakota border as the far point. Perhaps they'd do the Metro Region, too, since it was close.

They would head out on Friday and complete their weekend journeys on Sunday, when Matt often had to return to work at Don's Family Market in Spring Valley. The trips involved a few overnights - camping, motels and, yes, even a night spent in the car in the Duluth area when all lodging they tried was full.

Real challenges

As they continued making the finds and visiting the parks, there was an urge to complete the challenge. Kim stated, "Garden Island - that was the deal breaker."

Garden Island State Recreation Area (with its appropriateness to the challenge due to its location and not being an official "park" still being debated by geoachers) is located about 21 miles north of Zippel Bay and 15 miles south of Young's Bay and Resort. It had to be reached by boat.

But geocachers are extremely adept at challenges. Individuals came together online to form a group that rented a boat from Young's Bay to make the first trip and find. Reaching Garden Island by this method involved a stay in Warroad near the border, crossing into Canada, then going through a second border patrol station to re-enter Minnesota in the area that juts into Canada, called "the Northwest Angle." Then, after a boat ride to and from Garden Island - if the winds and weather held - the process was repeated in reverse.

Kasters took on this challenge over a four-day Labor Day weekend, allowing other state park caching finds in northeast Minnesota (and one in Canada for good measure) and a day's leeway for the Garden Island trip, should there be bad weather. And, indeed there was. However, the second allotted day saw the weather clear up for the trip.

(For more on the trek to Garden Island, as well as other memorable caches, see the "Journey vs. Destination" column elsewhere in this issue.)

Matt said his favorite park to visit was George Crosby Manitou. He explained, "It's in the middle of nowhere in a forest. There are primitive campsites you walk up a hill to get to. There's a boardwalk around the lake."

Jessi's favorite was Itasca. "There's so much to do there," she stated. Also, this cache near the headwaters of the Mississippi River was one of the toughest to find. They were joined by other cachers who eventually spotted it. The cache sported yet another style of hide.

End in sight

The final at Mille Lacs Kathio on Oct. 5 was the first time the trio got caught in the rain after other, narrow escapes of bad weather. They estimated it was a 2-mile hike one-way to the cache. Shortly after their arrival at "ground zero" the rain poured, however, doing little to dampen their spirits at the accomplishment.

Before returning to the park office - which takes photos of those completing the State Parks Geocaching History Challenge - Kim, Matt and Jessi first cleaned up and changed for the shot that forever will bring back memories of the cherished summer of 2008.

Kim concluded in her log after completing the final:

The memories of the parks, the crazy road trips to get to the parks, and the wonderful people we have met are endless and too many to list here. Each of us will have our own favorite park, but mine still remains Forestville/Mystery Cave.

This is the park where I visited often during my childhood. Now, with my own children, I have expanded those memories to include 4-H campouts, sledding, Christmas parties at the park pavilion, fishing, Girl Scout hikes, watching my son's cross-country team run the trails, visiting Historic Forestville town, and touring the Mystery caves (before and after they were obtained by the DNR).

Thank you to the Department of Natural Resources, Best Buy (corporate sponsor) and the many volunteers who helped coordinate this effort (including those that left hints to make future finds a bit easier.) It has been a pleasure for our family to be part of this challenge.