Geocaching combines orienteering, hiking and gadgetry

Posted: Wednesday, October 31, 2001

-- Somewhere near the Campbell Tract parking lot in wooded South Anchorage, a hidden treasure chest awaited.

Clues were in hand to guide us:

''This interesting little spot in the woods involves a short, level hike in the woods on a wide trail, then a game trail'' to a place called ''Squirrel Town.''

More helpful were the latitude and longitude of the treasure's location, which Julia Moore had plucked from the Web site geocaching.com and plugged into her global positioning satellite receiver, one of the palm-sized devices that sell for $100 to $1,000. They triangulate satellite signals to give a user her precise location on the globe.

Now we just needed to get six little mittens onto six little hands and get our team moving before anyone started to complain or grow distracted by five inches of fresh snow.

Moore and her husband, Mike Miller, and their two kids, 1-year-old Alex and 4-year-old Mackenzie, are among a handful of Alaska families who have become addicted to geocaching, a high-tech twist on the old game of scavenger hunt. Geocaching melds orienteering, hiking, treasure hunting, high-tech gadgetry and the Internet into a clever, if not downright sneaky, way to get kids out hiking.

''It's something for the kids to look forward to, and it keeps them moving,'' said Moore, who enjoyed orienteering competitions until she became a parent. ''We've found four (geocaches) and would like to set one up now.''

Geocaching began in the spring of 2000 after the government changed the regulations governing navigational satellites. Until then, significant error was programmed into the satellites to prevent foreign countries from using the system to guide missiles to U.S. targets. The 2000 regulations removed the error to make GPS more accurate, bringing accuracy to within 20 feet.

To celebrate this change, someone hid a container of goodies in the woods outside Portland, Ore. Three days later, Mike Teague was the first to find it and posted his find on the Internet. Within a couple of months, Jeremy Irish, a 28-year-old Web designer in Seattle, found a couple caches himself, along with Teague's Internet posting.

Irish built on that, turning the search for hidden treasures into the game called geocaching.

''I'm pretty new to the Northwest,'' Irish said, ''and this gives me a way to get out and see parks and places I wouldn't have gone.''

Since Irish got the game going and the Web site established, more than 7,600 caches have been hidden across the United States. The number hidden in California more than doubled to more than 1,000. Utah has nearly 500 caches. Oregon has 300. States such as Georgia have formed geocaching associations, with regular meetings and picnics. Caches are now hidden in 72 countries, including Botswana, Croatia and Namibia.

Irish said running the Web site has become almost a full-time job, even though, at this point, it's not a money-making operation.

''I have always joked that the more people play, the less I go out to play,'' he said.

As interest in the game spreads, it continues to morph. For example, ''offset caches'' are now offered. These are not found simply by going to the coordinate site. Instead, you go to the site and find a new set of coordinates to track.

Some cache sites are becoming more obscure. Some have been hidden where only scuba divers and rock climbers can find them. Each site listed on the Web page is also rated for the degree of difficulty of finding it.

The first Alaska cache was planted about a year ago by Gary Short, a 61-year-old retired elementary school teacher in Sitka.

''I get that claim to fame. That's my 15 minutes of glory,'' Short said with a laugh. Short learned of the game from his son, who is a student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

''I designed a little weatherproof thing, '' he said. ''It's in the middle of a huge stand of old-growth trees'' near Sitka. He's gone back a few times to check its log. No one has found his stash yet.

''I've talked to people who have looked for it, and they get real close, like within 100 feet, but 100 feet in a dense woods is a lot of looking,'' said Short, who explained that the draw of the sport for him is the chance to practice using his GPS.

Since Short hid his cache, more than 40 new caches -- with names like ''Alder Weave Delight'' and ''Outer Point Treasure'' -- have been hidden in Alaska. There are now caches in downtown Anchorage, in Chugach State Park, in the Hillside foothills and as far away as Tok and Nome.

At first blush, you might ask what's the big deal. While GPS seems pretty straightforward, it can be up to 20 feet off. So when you've hit the spot, you still have to search for the prize.

One of the suggestions made on the geocache Web site is that the cache be out of immediate sight.

Anyone can hide a treasure; anyone can go hunt for it. The game starts by going to the geocaching.com Web site.

Once there, you click on your state or plug in your ZIP Code for the geocache nearest you. The coordinates are listed and there is usually a riddle or description with a clue to get you started. If you are really stumped, there is an encrypted clue that you can translate with the click of the mouse.

From here the rules are simple:

Find the cache;

Take something from the cache;

Leave something in the cache; and

Write about it in the logbook.

You can then go back to the Web site and discuss your experience on the geocache forum or add it to your register, which is plugged into the Web site.

The treasures can be anything -- inexpensive toys or trinkets, costume jewelry, hats or Legos. They are stashed in Tupperware or some other type of waterproof container. A logbook is included so you can note your discovery. Some treasure hiders have put disposable cameras in their boxes so you can leave behind a photographic hello.

Short said a popular item to put in a cache is batteries. Most GPSs take AAA batteries. Food, alcohol and ammunition are discouraged.

In some caches you might find a small item tagged ''hitchhiker.'' This is an item designated for travel. You can take it with you and leave it at your next cache stop. Theoretically these hitchhikers may someday make it around the world. According to the geocaching.com Web site, a particular candle has traveled from Australia to Arizona, and a Mr. Potato Head is out there on the move.

To set up a new cache, load up a waterproof container with trinkets and a logbook, find a place to hide it and then go to the Web site and follow the instructions for posting a cache. Each new cache is reviewed by a geocache volunteer before it appears on the Web site. That can take a couple of days.

Irish said the National Park Service doesn't allow caches to be planted on park land.

''They consider it abandoned property and will remove it,'' Irish said. ''As for state and local land, there are different opinions. Since it's a relatively new sport, there is no overriding rule.''

Al Meiners, superintendent of Chugach State Park, said he hadn't heard of the sport. The park advisory board might want to look at it, he said. Generally, to stash something in the park would require a special-use permit.

With mittens on the 1-year-old and a 2-year-old in the push cart and the 4-year-old in the Baby Jogger, we hit the trail to look for the geocache. A mountain biker swaddled in pile passed us, leaving fresh tire tracks in the new snow.

About 100 yards into our adventure, Moore fiddled with the GPS, which she is still learning. Perplexed, she pulled out her cellphone and dialed a geocaching friend. After figuring out what she was doing wrong, we proceeded down the trail.

Soon the arrow on her GPS pointed sharply to our left. We abandoned our wheeled rigs and set out on foot through the woods. We found ourselves in a tangle of low branches and encouraged the kids to look closely.

Mackenzie spotted the oversized Tupperware container under a snarl of branches. Moore peeled off the lid and revealed some color pencils, a pencil sharpener, other art supplies, some glue sticks and a Disney doll on a key chain.

''Oh my goodness,'' said 2-year-old Dash.

We left a deck of cards, some dog biscuits and a splash ball. In the log, Moore, who knows the family that planted the cache, wrote that she hoped they would find the exchanged goodies agreeable. Within an hour, we were headed back down the trail with a crew of tired toddlers.

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