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News / Life / Clark County Life

Columbia Springs launches geocaching app to explore its Vancouver site

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 4, 2021, 6:03am
6 Photos
Geocaching Adventure Labs that provide scavenger hunters with educational challenges are proliferating all over the Portland area.
Geocaching Adventure Labs that provide scavenger hunters with educational challenges are proliferating all over the Portland area. Vancouver's newest one is "Behind the Scenes at Columbia Springs." (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

What’s 100 acres of wetlands, greenery and science education without the smiles and explorations of curious kids?

“We haven’t been able to do field trips or summer camps,” said Kylie Sahota, the outreach specialist at Columbia Springs. The COVID-19 pandemic put a stop to all that.

Columbia Springs, 12208 S.E. Evergreen Highway in Vancouver, combines a state trout hatchery with indoor classrooms, outdoor bird-watching, education stations and 2 miles of wetland trails. Staff are eager to resume all the on-site programming that usually draws visitors here in big groups, but that’s still a ways off, Sahota said.

Meanwhile, you can still explore the site on your own with family and friends — and your phone.

Columbia Springs has signed up with Geocaching, the online host of GPS-guided scavenger hunts all over the world, to launch a site-specific, app-guided tour that includes questions and lessons about the landscape here. Geocaching usually involves hunting down cleverly hidden containers with objects to trade or logbooks to record your visit, but this socially distanced version features nothing to touch. It just encourages adventurers to appreciate nature and do a little research as they explore Columbia Springs.

This form of educational, site-based geocaching goes by the name Adventure Lab. (Learn more and download the app from geocaching.com.) It’s still so new, Sahota said, that Columbia Springs is eager to take suggestions from those who stop by to try it.

That’s what the O’Rourke family did on a recent Friday. Starting in the parking lot, 10-year-old Tyler O’Rourke studied an on-screen map and determined that his first Adventure Lab destination lay westward.

Joined by his 5-year-old brother, Eric, and parents Tomoko and Quinn, Tyler marched down a forest path, checked the map again, marched back out and easily discovered the first designated waypoint on the hunt — a certain familiar but easily overlooked feature on the landscape there.

We won’t reveal any of the six Geocaching Adventure Lab waypoints at Columbia Springs. We’ll just say that the related questions, which pop up on the app, have to do with important environmental matters like invasive seeds, native plants, water quality, natural decomposition and soil nutrients. Answer each question to get guidance toward your next destination.

A speedy, tech-savvy kid might complete the whole challenge in 20 minutes, Sahota said.

“We wanted to keep it short enough to hold kids’ attention,” she said.

But the O’Rourkes took about twice as long as that as they stopped to enjoy the scenery, identify birds and take photos of the kids.

“We used to come here for Family Nature Days every month. We’ve missed that,” Quinn O’Rourke said.

Tyler summed up his evaluation of the Adventure Lab experience at Columbia Springs:

“The best thing about it is all the cool places. It would be better if it had five more places.”

He’s in luck. Many outdoor recreation sites, from Fort Vancouver to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge to state parks, are launching Geocaching Adventure Labs. Sahota said Columbia Springs is interested in creating an Adventure Lab network with local sister sites, and wonders if this might be the next wave in outdoor tourism.