When I worked as a naturalist, I frequently taught orienteering classes. Kids would learn how to navigate with a compass and map, and practice their skills searching for markers we’d hidden on the nature center property. Later, as GPS devices became available to the general public, a few creative cats developed an activity known as geocaching. As in orienteering, people hunt for hidden objects in parks and public spaces, but they do so using hand-held GPS devices instead of maps and compasses. Now, with the proliferation of smart phones, geocaching has skyrocketed in popularity. There are literally millions of caches hidden around the world and anyone can search for them – usually for free.
Last week, I decided to introduce my son to geocaching during a visit to Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park. We started by downloading a free app called “Geocaching.” When you open it up, the app automatically finds your location and shows you a map of nearby hidden caches. Click a button to navigate, and you can see your progress on the screen as you get closer to your chosen destination.
Some caches are large and easy to find; others, known as micro-caches, can be almost impossible to spot. Caches usually have a log sheet inside to write your name or initials when you find the hidden treasure, and are sometimes filled with trinkets such as stickers, toys, or coins. The cache we set out to find was described as a large cache and relatively easy to find. Indeed it would have been easy, if it weren’t for the goats.
Charlie and I excitedly watched our beacon move ever closer to the hidden cache as we hiked down a trail into the woods. 350 feet to go. 300 feet to go. 100 feet to go! Then we heard a plaintive bleat from behind the trees. Had I heard a goat? Two minutes later, dozens and dozens of goats came trotting out of the woods, crying, calling, and chattering at the tops of their little lungs. A long fence ran along the side of the trail, separating us from fifty goats and one hidden cache.
Washington County Parks uses goats to help manage nonnative, invasive plants, including buckthorn, garlic mustard, and honeysuckle. The goats are voracious and undiscerning eaters and act as a natural alternative to spraying plants with herbicide.
In Cottage Grove Ravine Regional Park, the goats are provided by Diversity Landworks LLC and are targeting garlic mustard from May through July 1, and buckthorn between July 20 and Sept. 1. South Washington Watershed District provided funds to help pay for the goats and has also worked with the county to address erosion and drainage issues at the park. You can also find goats at Lake Elmo Park Reserve, where they are helping to clear out invasive species for an oak savanna restoration project.
It turns out that parks departments aren’t the only ones using goats for buckthorn control. Many private property owners are also turning to goats as a way to reduce chemical use and avoid endless hours of pulling. Run a quick internet search for goat rental in Minnesota, and you’ll find several options to choose from, including: Goat Dispatch (goatdispatch.com), The Munch Bunch (www.munchbunchgoats.com), Diversity Landworks (www.diversitylandworks.com), and Goats on the Go (www.goatsonthego.com). The companies will usually provide fencing along with the goats, and will give a cost estimate based on the area to be grazed and length of time that the goats will be needed.
Though my son and I weren’t able to find our cache last week, we spent at least 30-minutes talking and laughing with the goats and decided they were a much better discovery than a peanut butter jar with a log sheet. I still think that orienteering with a map and compass is an invaluable life skill – especially for people who enjoy wilderness adventures such as canoeing in the BWCA – but definitely look forward to more adventures with geocaching.
Want to meet the goats at Lake Elmo Regional Park? Sign up for a free tour on Aug. 11 or 12 at https://www.co.washington.mn.us/3278/Goat-Grazing-Tours.