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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Cookies — a dozen from each participant — await the end of dinner so the cookie exchange can begin during the Chattanooga Area Geocachers party at Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department in Apison.

If a fire truck arrives as your cookies come out of the oven, perhaps you've overbaked.

If you're a member of the Chattanooga Area Geocachers, the fire truck's arrival is simply the signal that the fifth annual Christmas party is nearing an end.

More than 60 geocachers and family members turned out for the holiday celebration held Sunday night at the Tri-Community Volunteer Fire Department's Apison station. The event included a potluck dinner, a scavenger hunt and a spirited cookie exchange.

Unlike some cookie exchanges where each baker brings several dozen of a favorite cookie and everyone goes home with a mixed bag, the geocachers each brought a dozen and went home with a different dozen. For a group accustomed to using the global positioning system to find caches hidden in the great outdoors, the cookie exchange was plenty of fun to be had inside.

"It's always a good time," said longtime geocacher Carolyn Cox, who left with a container of raspberry-dipped madeleines.

Nathan Lewis, a geocacher from Ooltewah who organizes the annual gatherings, said the cookie exchange has been included in the Christmas party since 2017, except for the scaled-back pandemic gathering in 2020. The idea dates to a one-off exchange Lewis organized in 2005.

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The secret to a fun Christmas cookie exchange

"After that first exchange activity in 2005, I had lots of great feedback from geocachers who said we needed to do it again," he said. "The second time I hosted a cookie exchange event was in 2012 at a church in Chattanooga, and again it was met with raving reviews."

Eventually, to give the growing geocaching group a consistent Christmas party that members could anticipate each year, Lewis initiated Deck the Firehalls five years ago, held annually at the Apison station, where he volunteers.

"I mix things up a little each year so it's something different, but the cookie exchange is a tradition," he said.

To play, participants brought a dozen cookies, either store-bought or homemade. After dinner, they pushed tables aside, circled their chairs and awaited the start of the game holding the cookies they'd brought. Then Lewis read a story. Each time the narrative mentioned the words "right" or "left," the cookies were passed accordingly. If the word "cross" was mentioned, participants crossed the circle to a different chair, with cookies in hand. Even similar words, such as "across," "downright" or "leftover," put people or cookies in motion.

Lewis said he usually reads a story pulled from a Google search. This year, he crafted his own story to highlight a recent 12-city geocaching tour set up in the Chattanooga/North Georgia area. Each cache held a code word to be added to a "passport," and completed passports were turned in for a chance to win door prizes.

"This has been a big highlight for the group, with several out-of-towners visiting the Chattanooga area in search of these 12 geocaches," Lewis said.

He imagined this year's story as "sort of like a highlight reel for everyone who participated in the tour over the last six weeks," he said.

Lewis' directions recalled landmarks the geocachers might have noticed as they took "a left turn on Hickory Valley Road" or "stayed left of the pothole" as they went "right off Cummings Highway." A mention of going "right across Highway 27" briefly produced mayhem as participants processed the double directive.

Lewis said his parents, Rod and Pam, brought extra cookies so no one would be left out if they hadn't had time to bake or buy. He jokingly warned that a package of cookies from the original gathering in 2005 might still be circulating.

Jacqueline Jordan of Chattanooga claimed one of the extra packages so she could play. She said her first-year teaching duties left little time for the gourmet creations she has brought in the past, which have included cappuccino royale and butterscotch crunch cookies.

Two of her table mates, Danelle Murphy of Tampa, Florida, and Nicole Lui of Franklin, North Carolina, made pit stops at Food City for desserts from the deli. Some of the homemade versions were customized with the geocache logo or with smiley faces to resemble the "found it" logos geocachers post online when they locate a cache.

Geocaches can be found all over the world. The hobby of tracking hidden caches, using latitude and longitude coordinates found on websites — sort of like a high-tech treasure map — originated in 2000 when changes to the GPS improved its accuracy. Caches typically contain nothing of real value. The thrill is in the hunt.

The Chattanooga Area Geocachers group has an online meeting place at Facebook.com/groups/GeoNooga. Participants range from kids to adults, from newcomers to old-timers.

"There are some here who've found tens of thousands of caches, and some who are just getting started," Lewis said.

To wrap up the evening, a Tri-Community fire truck arrived with lights and sirens activated. Firefighters presented the geocachers with envelopes containing instructions for a short scavenger hunt in the park behind the station. The hunt led the geocachers back to the engine bay, where they received souvenir Deck the Firehalls ornaments to take home — along with whatever cookies they hadn't already eaten.

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.

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