Joshua Johnson acknowledges he didn’t grow up in an outdoors family. His parents worked weekends, and activities such as camping and hiking simply weren’t part of the program.
Johnson, 40, said he spent more time staring at the screens of his Atari and Nintendo than he did roaming the woods or wading through the waters of a nearby lake. But in addition to the video games, he also was a fan of a popular film about a bunch of kids who encountered all sorts of obstacles as they searched for pirates’ hidden treasure.
“One of my absolute favorite movies growing up in the ’80s was ‘The Goonies,’ which was all about seeking out treasures with your friends and finding hidden places,” said Johnson, who lives in Burnsville with his wife, Tammy, daughter Reese, 18, and sons Jonah, 15, and Hayden, 11. “That part of it eventually drew me to searching for hidden containers all over the world. I always had that adventure in me, but this hobby sort of gave me an outlet.”
This hobby? That would be geocaching, which is a location-based game that involves using global-positioning technology to find treasure caches. (The treasures aren’t actually treasures; the reward is in the discovery.) Participants who use the official website — geocaching.com — have access to the coordinates of more than 3 million hidden caches. Johnson hasn’t found them all, of course, but he’s recognized as a leader among geocachers, having discovered geocaches in places as far removed from Minnesota as South Korea.
His YouTube channel (geocachingvlogger.com) has nearly 43,000 subscribers and has been viewed more than 7 million times. He posts a new adventure every week and takes particular delight in wowing people as he tramples through Minnesota’s snow-covered landscape throughout the winter.
“Geocaching in the winter is very unique,” said Johnson. “People are like, ‘How do you even do it in the snow?’ But it’s really fun. Some people put geocaches on islands in lakes. Being in Minnesota, we can walk across the ice to get to a geocache. If we were anywhere else, we’d need a boat or canoe or whatever. In Minnesota, it’s really a year-round activity, and we’ve learned there is no such thing as bad weather — just bad clothing.”
Johnson, who works for Youth Frontiers in his day job, talked in a recent conversation of the lasting impact of his passion. Below are edited excerpts:
On geocaching celebrity
I’ve been geocaching now for 10 years. Seven years ago, I decided I wanted to capture more of my kids’ events in an easy way. So I went on Craigslist and bought a Flip camera; I actually met the guy in a parking lot. Then I decided to film a geocaching adventure. I put the video on YouTube, and I couldn’t believe the number of people who where watching it. Some of the adventures I post are local and some of them are far from home. But they’re each about six minutes and amount to little vignettes of my life as a geocacher.
On connecting with his kids
When [Reese] was younger, we would go to these geocaching competitions and there would be all these people who wanted to meet her or take pictures with her because they had seen her on my YouTube channel. She was almost like a minor celebrity. She went out with me more when she was younger, but now she’s so busy. But when she gets older and has kids and starts looking back, I hope she remembers all those fun adventures her dad took her on. Overall, it’s been a really good way to spend time outdoors with my kids.
On cool adventures
One of my most memorable ones was to this2-mile tunnel that goes through a mountain in Washington. It’s an old railroad tunnel and you walk through it and can’t see any light until you’re halfway through. So you’re in there with a headlight and walking to the other side. It’s a little creepy but very cool. I also had the opportunity to geocache in South Korea, and a couple of weeks ago I was geocaching around the Alamo in Texas. Several years ago, I rappelled off the side of a cliff in Duluth to find a geocache. Closer to home, some of my favorite spots are Lebanon Hills in Eagan and Whitetail Woods Regional Park in Dakota County.
On the activity’s staying power
There are 3 million of these things hidden all over the world. There is no lack of things to find, and it’s a great, big world out there. People hide geocaches where they want to take people, so you get exposed to all kinds of new and different places. And you can learn a lot, too. If I hadn’t been geocaching around the Alamo, I likely wouldn’t have taken the time to learn about its history.
Joe Albert is a freelance writer from Bloomington. He also works for the Department of Natural Resources. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.