Wall Street Journal Article: "Forget Geocaching, Bench-Mark Hunting Is the New Nerdy Hobby"

Enthusiasts search for geodetic survey disks wherever they may be: cities, country roads, a man’s front yard.

Updated May 2, 2015 12:36 a.m. ET
Please click HERE for a link to the full article at Wall Street Journal.

SPRINGVILLE, N.Y.—On an overcast spring morning in this Buffalo suburb, Robert Macomber, armed with a shovel, a hand-held GPS device and a photocopied topographic map, set off into a wooded area near the local country club’s 14th hole in search of quarry that might elude a less determined hunter.

The 62-year-old telecommunications specialist had driven nearly 200 miles from his Canfield, Ohio, home for this expedition. Neither a steep climb nor the surging creek below—high from the snow melt—was going to keep him from his purpose: locating a 3-inch-wide metal disk, pegged to an old bridge abutment and stamped: “U.S. COAST & GEODETIC SURVEY BENCH MARK.”

Before the day was done, he had measured, searched and dug for similar disks outside a Buick dealership, near an old railroad bed, in a friendly man’s front yard and at various spots along a two-lane country road. Of 14 bench marks he aimed to find, he located 11.

“Some guys go hunting, some guys go fishing, some guys play golf,” Mr. Macomber said. “I look for bench marks.”

The disks he found that day are part of a nationwide network of nearly 1 million similarly marked points whose information such as latitude, longitude and elevation are maintained in a government database. Data on these points is used for a variety of surveying and engineering purposes including drawing maps and laying roads or sewer lines. The bench marks—many well over 100 years old—were placed by surveyors atop high peaks, along important roadways, on the sides of public buildings, and everywhere in between.

Bench marks “are kind of like a skeleton or basic framework” for designing the nation’s infrastructure, said Malcolm Archer-Shee, a programmer who works with the National Geodetic Survey’s Integrated Database. The NGS is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is responsible for earth science research, from tracking the weather to monitoring the environmental health of the coasts.

A few years ago, Mr. Archer-Shee wrote a computer program showing hobbyists and professional surveyors where they can find bench marks. The program pulls coordinates and a description of the surroundings from the national database into Google Earth. But much information in the database he used was outdated and the measurements—recorded before the advent of GPS in many cases—were off.

Now, thanks to the work of volunteer hobbyists like Mr. Macomber, the national database is far more up-to-date. Upon locating, or “recovering,” a bench mark, these admittedly nerdy hunters meticulously record the GPS coordinates, the mark’s current condition and the measured distances from nearby points of interest. They then file a report and digital photographs to NGS—known as “recovery notes.”

According to Mr. Archer-Shee, about 80% of the recovery information in the national database is now crowdsourced in this manner.

An avid bench-mark hunter in his own right, he also contributes reports in his spare time. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” Mr. Archer-Shee said. “When you can find one that somebody hasn’t found in 50 years, it’s kind of an ego-boosting experience.”

Many in the small community of bench-mark hunters happened upon the hobby via their interest in geocaching—a sort of high-tech scavenger hunt where players hide an object and list its geographic coordinates on the website geocaching.com. The site now includes a dedicated page for beginning bench-mark hunters.

Jennifer Galas recorded coordinates and photographed a bench mark in Acadia National Park in Maine.
Jennifer Galas, who met her husband through geocaching, said several years ago she saw a post on the site linking to the NGS database.

Since then, the Pennsylvania couple has focused their hunting efforts on bench marks. Together, they have located about 1,000. They even seek them out when they’re on vacation.

“When we go away, we don’t necessarily like to look at touristy things,” Ms. Galas said. “We like to find interesting little spots that people don’t know about.”

Kerry Brady and his wife have taken “at least six vacations where bench marks were either the primary or secondary reason for the vacation,” the Beaverton, Ore., man said. And they’ve been successful—encountering more than 500 marks across 23 states.

Mr. Brady says their destinations, among them Eastern Oregon and Northern Nevada, are “not where normal people would go on vacation.” But the couple gets a thrill out of their avocation.

In an online message board frequented by bench-mark hunters, Mr. Brady said he jokes with other users about “filming ‘the happy dance’—where you finally find one you’ve been looking for forever.”

Ken Wachter of San Diego distinguishes that kind of hunting from what he calls “urban bench-marking” or, as he puts it: “the easy ones on the sides of buildings.” Venturing into rural areas with a shovel and a metal detector, he said, is the real deal.

“It involves hiking,” he said. “I’ve dug for bench marks that were a foot and a half buried. That was real exciting.”

Their passion for this obscure endeavor connects them with the nation’s history, many of the hobbyists say. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln were surveyors, after all. In the survey’s earliest days, objects like bottles or stone jugs were buried to mark critical spots. Finding those types of bench marks, enthusiasts say, is like finding the “Holy Grail.”

The NGS’s former Chief Geodetic Surveyor, Dave Doyle, has watched the popularity of bench-mark hunting grow in recent years as people “from literally all walks of life” started using GPS devices and sharing their stories online. Mr. Doyle offers expertise to this community, answering questions in the forum and via email.

“This is a fairly esoteric science,” he said. “So every time you find somebody who says, ‘I know what that is,’ you get this big smile and you just want to hug them.”

Mr. Doyle still goes out hunting, too. Recently, he recovered a series of marks in North Carolina that had been set in 1838. “After a while, it just kind of gets in your blood,” he said.

Still, not everyone shares the excitement. Mr. Macomber’s wife, Debora, says when her husband found out about bench marks, “he just became smitten with it, he absolutely went nuts.” In roughly 10 years of hunting, he has sent in more than 6,000 recovery reports. He even looked for a few during their honeymoon in Key West.

He has recruited family members to go out hunting with him over the years, but rarely gets them to go twice, his wife said. “It’s fun for him,” she said, “but it’s not so much fun for everyone else.”