Trek Ten Trails: Exploring Polk’s Backyard
By Brenda Eggert Brader

Gather a group or a single friend to hunt for hidden treasure in Polk County. Ah, these are the activities that bring good times sprinkled with laughter. The excitement of the hunt is found underneath dappled patches of sunshine that shower down through tree foliage falling onto a Florida landscape.

Trek Ten Trails is a hiking program designed to get people off the couch and outside to enjoy the natural wonders that Polk County has to offer. A challenging family- and friend-oriented activity, trekkers who hike 10 of the trails featured on the Friends of the Parks Foundation website can win additional prizes at the annual celebration.

The Friends of the Parks Foundation, a nonprofit organization formed in 1993, launched its ninth season of the Trek Ten Trails program on Nov. 5, 2016. Two new properties have been added – Holloway Park and the Panther Point Trail, according to the website.

But what makes the treks so much more attractive is the challenge created with using GPS capabilities on a cell phone to find hidden containers called caches.

“A typical cache is a small waterproof container containing a logbook (with pen or pencil),” says Don Hillman, president of the Florida Geocaching Association and volunteer who places filled caches on the properties that the Friends Foundation utilizes.

“The geocacher enters the date he found (the cache) and signs (the logbook) with his established code name,” Hillman says. “After signing the log, the cache must be placed back exactly where the person found it. Larger containers such as plastic storage containers or ammunition boxes also can contain items for trading, such as toys or trinkets, usually more sentimental worth than financial. Geocaching shares many aspects with benchmarking, trig pointing, orienteering and others.”

Hillman’s decisions on where to place the cache containers depend upon the property.

“I locate them near a big oak or pine tree and try to have the cans blend in with the environment so that people that are not looking for them don’t find them,” Hillman says. “I have a GPS I use to get the coordinates for the cache, and one from my walking instructions from the parking lot. That way you can walk right to it.”

The hiker finds the cache, opens up the logbook and finds the self-rubber stamp. He then stamps the little card, much like a passport, obtained at any library in Polk County, downloaded online on the FriendsOfTheParks.net or at the park site. Oftentimes, mementos – called swag – from the cache boxes are exchanged.

“People carry what they call swag to place into the caches, and many hand make their swag so you get some very different things out of those cache boxes,” says Marian Ryan, president of Friends of the Parks Foundation.

Hillman’s caches usually contain inexpensive swag – toys or balls. Once found by the hiker and opened, if the hiker finds something he wants he can take it, but must leave something in its place.

“The honor system seems to work pretty well,” Hillman says. “I have caches I have had out there for years. I stock them really nice. The hiker stamps his card and goes on to the next one.”

Hillman says the program is geared for the Polk County system and is listed on Geocaches.com where the hiker can go online and log what he found in the cache. “If someone puts on that site that something is not working or whatever, I will check it out,” he adds. Sometimes people who aren’t geocaching stumble upon a cache and take it. These non-geocaching people are called “muggles.”

All the interesting lingo aside, the goal of using geocaching to get people out onto local trails is working quite well for Friends of the Parks, the main mission of which is to promote and support parks and recreation for citizens of Polk County, Ryan says.

“All volunteers, funds for the program are provided through membership dues and working with the Polk County Natural Resources, Polk Outpost 27 Visitors Center, Florida Geocaching Association, Polk County Extension Master Gardeners Program and several state government agencies,” Ryan continues. “The state agencies work in coordination with us using their facilities or their staffers to lead a hike as volunteers or to work with kids. The last three years we also have been able to get a grant from Florida’s Natural Foundation.”

This season, 16 total existing trails are on existing properties, Ryan says. The trail number has been steadily growing each season.

“Not all are public parks like the Lake Alfred Mackay Gardens and Lakeside Preserve owned by the city of Lake Alfred, and Holloway Park in Lakeland that is private property,” Ryan says. “Hillman works with the property manager on finding a proper place for the cache on the property.”

Ryan says she has an email listing of over 500 people who want to be notified of trail events. Those who want to be added to that list can do it on the Facebook page, too.

Polk County Environmental Lands Stewardship Coordinator Tabitha Biehl agrees that the geocaching is a great way to get people out hiking.

“Over the years, we have expanded out to other areas, which is great,” Biehl says. “Open to the public, we make sure the trails look good. With the larger groups hiking, we increase the parking areas. We have 11 different sites that we manage that are open to the public. Their (Friends of the Parks) website is linked to ours PolkNature.com and they can look for more hikes.”

Part of the Trek Ten Trails website shows what hikes are scheduled and has printable information on the caches, directions, and fun factors, Biehl says.

“I honestly think it is a really great program they have put together,” Biehl says. “It is like the national and state ranger parks hikes where you have badges and other things. This is a local thing with validation cards with the added geocaching makes another fun part to it.”

“Out of the 16 sites, 11 of them have new cache locations – one cache location per trail,” Ryan adds. “Other private citizens can place them, too. There are very strict rules about where and how you place a cache and there are literally dozens of caches at Circle B Bar Ranch Preserve.”

To participate in the geocaching, which will prove a hiker has hiked at least 10 of the trails, start by obtaining a validation card that will be stamped when a cache is found.

Validation cards are located at the Polk County libraries, Polk Outpost 27, Circle B Bar Ranch Preserve and at Polk County Parks and Recreation Offices, and at each of the hosted guide events or download from the Friends’ website. Next, visit 10 of the 16 properties listed on the website, which has directions on how to get to the properties and each cache using GPS or read instructions from the parking lots.

“I don’t have collected records of participants,” Ryan says, “But we have had participants from 55 Florida cities and probably 35 states and 10 countries participate. But a lot of people will do it – snow birds, visitors or out-of-state or out-of-country citizens or do parts of it and have a lot of fun. It was so hot or raining this past year we didn’t have as many people. Fifty-three people got their certificates for participating in 10 treks awarded at the annual celebration.”

The annual celebration is an incentive to tackle the Trek Ten Trails to receive a document stating the accomplishment.

“We have prize drawings for people who come to the celebration and may be new to the program to see what it is about,” Ryan says. “There is a large prize drawing of gift certificates for those people who have actually submitted their list for the certificates. About 65 people came to the Circle B Workshop Building at the Ranch in 2016. We show the winning filmmakers of the International Geocaching Association film geocachers from all over the world who enter the contest. The association compiles six films for an hour-long presentation of silly or interesting videos made by the geocachers.

Although families and couples and groups go on the hikes, singles are invited to participate in hosted guided hikes complete with hunting the caches. Scheduled hikes for 2017 (taken during the cooler Florida months from fall to spring) include Green Swamp Hampton on Jan. 28, Fort Fraser Trail, Feb. 25, Holloway Park on March 18, and Panther Point Trail on April 8. All hosted hikes begin at 9 a.m. For more info or to register for the hikes, check the Friends of the Parks Foundation website at FriendsOfTheParks.net.