Meet Mary Barker, the Wilberforce woman who’s making Haliburton world-renowned for geocaching.
Wilberforce, Ontario, County of Haliburton
The roads to Wilberforce are winding and majestic, flanked by high pine trees and birches, nestled between the hard rock and calm lakes that make up the Canadian Shield. Mary Barker knows these roads and waterways well, having lived her whole in Wilberforce, halfway between Bancroft and Haliburton, and in the heart of Ontario’s Highlands.
Mary loves the community so much she has dedicated much of this century to helping it prosper through geocaching, a hobby that gets visitors out to discover a region’s hidden gems. While Mary is many things – grandma, hockey supporter, Canada Post master, and daughter of the original Agnew’s General Store owners (a well known store in Wilberforce) – locally, many people know her as the driving force behind Highlands East becoming known as the “Geocaching Capital of Canada.” Here she explains her work and why she’s so dedicated to her community.
Geocaching isn’t something everyone may have heard of. Can you explain how it works?
Geocaching is a family friendly outdoor game. It is often referred to as treasure hunting with a high-tech twist because you use the website and either a GPS device or a cell phone to play the game. A geocache is a container with a small inexpensive prize inside that someone has hidden. They record the coordinates on the geocaching website so you can find it. When you find the geocache, you sign your username inside, swap swag (the prize), record your find online, then go find another cache.
Sounds exciting! How did you and other volunteers and municipal leaders go about making Highlands East a popular geocaching area?
We designated the Municipality of Highlands East as the Geocaching Capital of Canada (in 2006) and then to justify the designation, we created a very popular GeoTour of 150 awesome caches and an additional 100 GeoArt puzzle caches (a special GeoEvent takes place every spring).
Geocaching Capital! That’s a distinguished title. Why is this region such a good place to enjoy geocaching?
Highlands East has a lot of crown land, pristine lakes and plenty of back roads, as well as many historical sites; all good places to hide geocaches. The ‘slim’ population makes hunting and finding the caches possible without having to use stealth to avoid ‘muggles’.
I’m guessing ‘muggles’ isn’t a Harry Potter reference! Geocaching seems like a fun way to get to know a community; would you say that’s true for Highlands East?”
Geocaching is bringing people to the area and they are staying in our accommodations, eating at the restaurants and visiting our businesses. The GeoTour usually takes three to four days to complete if you are doing a full-out dawn to dusk assault. Many geocachers prefer to come three to four weekends over the course of a year to complete the GeoTour. This brings people back again and again to our local businesses.
By the time a geocacher finds all 150 GeoTour caches they know the area better than some of the locals because finding caches takes them to remote corners of the municipality. They’ll visit every beach, boat launch, historical site and many local businesses throughout the seven hamlets that make up the Geocaching Capital of Canada; Irondale, Gooderham, Tory Hill, Wilberforce, Harcourt, Highland Grove and Cardiff.
What would you say to someone who’s about to embark on a geocaching adventure in this area?
I would tell anyone about to embark on a geocaching experience that geocaching is a wholesome outdoor family activity and one of the best places to play the game is in Highlands East. Our Geocaching Capital of Canada GeoTour, is ranked number one in Canada and is the fourth most popular in the world by favourite points. I would suggest visitors check out the game at the Geocaching Capital of Canada website and be sure to drop by the Visitor Information Centre in Wilberforce this summer, where staff will explain how to play the game.
Well said. As a lifelong resident of the region, what are some places you recommend visitors check out in Highlands East, whether they’re geocaching or not?
Our Red Cross Outpost Historical House Museum offers a glimpse of our past. Exploring the nooks and crannies of Agnew’s General Store (turning 100 in 2021) is a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. North Bay Beach on Paudash Lake is a great place to have a picnic. Enjoy a meal at the South Algonquin Diner in Wilberforce and admire the historical mural across the street on the side of the fire hall. Spend the day canoeing or kayaking one of the numerous lakes. Dig up precious gems at the Dyer Mine mineral site. Find the “Damsel in Distress” geocache and discover the ruins of an old Graphite Mine.
I’ll put those on my to-do list. One last question: you are obviously extremely passionate about your community and about geocaching. What motivates you to be so dedicated to the cause?
It’s about what geocaching has done for the community. It has helped our community flourish. That’s why we’ve gone to all this work, but we’ve had a whole lot of fun doing it.