PRAIRIE CREEK An initial attempt to find treasure in Northwest Arkansas didn't go far or come close, but this time was going to be different.
When Wayne Williams of the Rockhouse community and I set out on a cold January day two years ago to find a lost silver mine in Madison County, we were relying on vague information associated with the 1936 trial in Huntsville of two counterfeiters.
The counter feiters supposedly were caught making bogus silver dollars with silver extracted from a secret mine rumored to be in Bear Creek Hollow, located in what now is the Madison County Wildlife Management Area.
We found a treasure trove of scenic waterfalls, bluffs and small caves, but no sign of precious metal.
On Thursday, however, we were certain there was a treasure to be found in the region based on the assurance of the new "Cache In With The Natural State" program announced last week by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
In conjunction with the growing popularity of "geocaching," the agency issued a news release inviting treasure hunters to find caches of prizes that would be hidden in various regions of the state from month to month, with Northwest Arkansas picked for January.
Included with the news release was a treasure "map" in the form of coordinates - N36 19.108, W093 58.128 - pinpointing the location of a cache that could contain such prizes as gift certificates for meals, lodging, guidebooks, posters, toys and other neat stuff.
Within minutes, I called Williams, explained the program and read off the coordinates for him to check out with his computer's Maptech topographical mapping software.
It didn't take long for him to call back.
"The best I can figure, the coordinates are close to a cove on Beaver Lake not too far off Highway 303 between Highway 12 and Rocky Branch," he said.
The area also sounded like it might be a part of the Hobbs State Park Conservation Area, prompting a call to the park and a short conversation with Steve Chrychel, park naturalist.
"We are participating in the new geocaching program and have taken the responsibility of monitoring the cache site," Chrychel confirmed.
He also confirmed that alongside Arkansas 303 was the trailhead for the Shaddox Hollow Trail, a short and scenic 1.5-mile loop leading down to Shaddox Branch and close to Beaver Lake.
Terry Fredrick of Fayetteville, a bushwhacker of vast experience in finding hidden places in the Ozarks, was easy to enlist for the hunt.
I thought we formed a formidable search team when we got together the morning of Jan. 11 at the Arkansas 12-Arkansas 303 intersection.
"Let's just say we are three older guys who are hard up for something to do," Williams cautioned.
Nevertheless, we would have technological advantages on our side, including detailed topo maps of the terrain along the trail and, most importantly, Williams' high-end GPS unit.
As we gathered our gearinto one vehicle for the short drive to the trailhead, Williams talked of what he had learned about geocaching by visiting the Web site www.geocaching.com.
"It's a lot more popular than I thought," he said. "According to the Web site, there is something like 544 cache sites within a 100-mile radius of Rockhouse, including several in the [Madison County] wildlife management area."ON THE TRAIL
Any doubt about the cache being somewhere along the Shaddox Hollow Trail was dispelled when we reached the trailhead and ran into Al Knox, the park's trail maintenance supervisor, who was just coming off the trail.
"When Steve [Chrychel] said y'all were coming out here to look for the cache, he told me I'd better go out and make sure it's still there and has something in it," Knox said. "It's there, but I almost needed help finding it."
Seeing our smiles over the anticipation of finding treasure, he added, "Hope you don't have your hopes too high."
After registering at the trailhead, we followed a sign indicating the trail loop should betaken to the right. It started out slightly downhill and soon swung to the left to run mostly straight and level along the spine of a ridge forested with large oaks and pines.
With Williams occasionally checking his GPS, we hadn't hiked more than 15 minutes before the trail made a big curve to the right.
"Hold up," Williams said. "According to the directional arrow on my GPS, the cache site is somewhere down this hill to the left."
Trusting in technology, we left the trail, started down the steep hillside, angled toward a small drainage and followed it down to come out on the rim of the sheer bluff.
"The GPS says the site is somewhere directly below us," Williams noted.
Since there didn't appear to be an easy way to get down the bluff without risk of falling, we followed the rim of the bluff to the right. Within 150 yards, we came back to the trail at a place where a series of steps led below the bluff.
At this point, the little trail began to feature some nice scenery as it followed the bot-tom of the bluff downhill into Shaddox Hollow.
At a point where the bluff line curved to the left and the trail followed it, we saw a spur trail to the right leading to a long, narrow cove of Beaver Lake. Although the GPS indicated we were going off course, we took time to check out the lake views.
Back on the main trail, we followed it up the narrow hollow between the bluff on one side and a small creek on the other. With a bed dominated by slab rock, the creek promised to be a scenic one in wet weather.
Noting the many large trees in the hollow and along the trail, Williams said, "It's a good thing we are out here in winter because if these trees were in full leaf, the GPS wouldn't be nearly as accurate."
Fredrick agreed, saying he had once become completely turned around by relying on his GPS in a thick forest. That's why he now carries a low-tech compass as a backup on his bushwhacks.
As it turned out, we would have trouble locating the site for a different reason.
SEARCHING DOWN AND DIRTY
We had only gone a short distance along the trail beside the creek when the GPS directed us toward the bluff.
"It says we should be within 100 feet or so," Williams noted.
At that point, the bluff abovethe trail featured a rock shelter overhang with low roof, as well as small ledges, narrow crevices and piles of large slab boulders. Altogether, there were plenty of places to hide a cache.
However, once we climbed to the base of the bluff, the GPS refused to lock in on the exact coordinates. Williams went back and forth along 50 yards of bluff to no avail.
Showing me the screen on his GPS, Williams pointed out that it was most accurate when it could consult with up to 10 satellites, most of which were showing as blank squares on the screen.
"We had no trouble getting good readings up top, but down here, as you can see, four satellites are being blocked by the bluff and two more by the high ridge across the creek. That affects our accuracy greatly," Williams explained.
We began a wide search covering about 50 feet along the bluff, looking in likely places before concluding the cache was not easily visible.
Initiating a more determined search, we began looking under slabs of rock and poking into piles of leaves.
Fredrick was in a tight spot and on his hands and knees when - Eureka! - he found the cache. Consisting of a military ammunition can about the size of a lunch box, it was stashed in a dark space between two boulders, partially buried and partially covered with gravel and leaves.
Inside the can, we found a log book in which we enteredour names right below that of "Al Knox," thereby counting coup on the cache.
As for treasure, the can was packed with a variety of gifts: meal tickets for the Flying Burrito Restaurant in Fayetteville, a golfer's picture frame with golfing objects in bas-relief, locomotive medallions from the city of Rogers, a picture postcard, a 2007 Arkansas Tour Guide, a small woodcarving, certificates for a poster and picture book to be redeemed at the Hobbs headquarters and children's toys like strings of beads and sunglasses with star-shaped frames.
The fun of finding the cache surely outweighed the preciousness of the loot it held.
In the mode of "it's better to give than receive," we followed the geocaching tradition of leaving something behind - in this case, a nice Arkansas Democrat-Gazette coffee mug.
Leaving the cache site, we followed the trail along the creek until it curved to the left and started climbing easily along a rock-bordered draw leading back to the trailhead.
It occurred to me then that the short loop was a pretty nice little treasure in itself.
In hindsight, we decided the cache would have been more easily found if we had taken the trail to the left instead of the right.
According to the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, more than 2,000 geocaches are hidden in Arkansas, steering people to some of the Natural State's scenic and historic settings featuring waterfalls, caves, wildlife and trails amid diverse terrain and picturesque landscapes.
Their coordinates can be found at www.geocaching.com.
Through the "Cache in with the Natural State" program, new caches in locations throughout the state will be unveiled each month, with thecoordinates released the sites www.Arkansas.com and www.arkgeocaching.org.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission also lists caches on its Web site, www.agfc.com, leading enthusiasts to nature trails, hatcheries, and nature and education centers.
Those new to geocaching are encouraged to abide by theetiquette of the sport:
Sign the logbook.
Don't move a cache. Tread lightly and be mindful of the environment when approaching or leaving a cache. Take something only if you leave something. Don't leave food, weapons, alcohol or anything harmful or inappropriate. Follow the CITO rule: Cache In, Trash Out.
Three Rivers, Pages 116, 117 on 02/04/2007