- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 3, 2004

HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. — If you hide it, Lynn Black will find it.It doesn’t matter whether it’s an old ammunition box hidden in a cemetery or a rock made famous by the movie “The Blair Witch Project.”

Mrs. Black, of Middletown, Pa., has logged more than 7,000 finds with her Global Positioning System receiver since she became hooked on the sport of geocaching more than three years ago.

“She was the type that you could never take her outdoors before, and now I can never keep her at home,” says her husband and sometime geocaching partner, Kevin Black.

And here at Susquehanna State Park, where the Maryland Geocaching Society has assembled 50 to 75 avid cache-hunters for its annual fall picnic, Mrs. Black is on the hunt again.

• • •

Geocaching is a high-tech scavenger hunt that uses the Global Positioning System and the Internet to direct geocachers to a stash. Players “cache,” or hide, items in various locations and publish coordinates so other GPS users can find them.

Each cache is described in a page on the sport’s virtual home base at www.geocaching.com. The page contains the coordinates of the cache location (in longitude and latitude), an area map and a brief description of what to look for. Some also contain encrypted clues and a key to decode them. The clues are encrypted because some geocachers prefer not to use them.

The game is played worldwide, from Afghanistan to Antarctica, from Vatican City to Malawi, and often inspires social events. Visitors to www.geocaching.com can see, for example, that geocachers in Sligo, Ireland, met last weekend for “a friendly morning cup of coffee” and a hike to two caches hidden at the top of Ben Bulben, the mountain made famous in the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

The fast-growing sport dates from May 1, 2000, when restrictions on the Global Positioning System — originally developed for military navigation — were removed, allowing the manufacture and sale of commercial receivers accurate to within 20 feet.

The GPS receiver, a device about the size of a cell phone, receives navigational signals from satellites orbiting the Earth. Its display shows distance and direction to the destination programmed into the unit.

• • •

The basic rules of the sport are simple: Players hide containers known as “caches” at various locations.

Each cache contains a logbook and perhaps some kind of prize or item designed to be passed from player to player. Those who find the cache are supposed to sign the logbook, take something from it and leave something else in return.

“It sort of becomes a swap meet out in the woods,” says Jeremy Irish, a partner in Groundspeak, the Seattle-based company that runs the sport through www.geocaching.com.

Mr. Irish, a Web developer and programmer, was attracted to geocaching by its flexibility, he says by phone from Seattle. For the adventurous, the game can be combined with other outdoor activities, such as kayaking, rock climbing and mountain biking, or it can be simple enough for children to play in an urban park.

“It just has a broad appeal,” he says.

The number of registered users of the Web site has doubled each year and now stands at 260,000, Mr. Irish says. He estimates that there are some 13,000 to 15,000 regular geocachers worldwide, who log about 65,000 finds a week from the more than 126,000 caches in 210 countries.

Mrs. Black has found more of those caches than any other player, becoming a legend in the geocaching community under her screen name, CCCooperAgency, also the name of her family’s insurance business.

Her determination to add to that number has taken the family, which also includes the Blacks’ three children, Lucy, 21, Craig, 13, and Nina, 7, across the eastern United States from Maine to Florida and as far west as Kentucky and Tennessee.

“I don’t do anything besides geocaching. That’s bad,” she says.

“You need to set up a clinic for Geocachers Anonymous,” Mr. Black responds.

• • •

For the Maryland Geocaching Society’s picnic, several new caches have been set up in the park and listed on the Web site. Many of the people at the picnic spurn the hot dogs and hamburgers for the chance to be the first to find the trove.

Mrs. Black joins Jane Nocera of Mohnton, Pa., her sister, Beverly Deysher, Molly Graber of Mount Joy, Pa., and her friend, Carl Horges, on the hunt.

In the woods about a mile from the picnic area there’s a cache with a cryptic clue — “The root says it all” — that players interpret as directing them to look for the roots of a tree.

The limitations of the GPS units — which indicate the direction in which to travel — now become obvious. Because civilian GPS receivers are accurate to within only 20 feet, when a geocacher gets that close to a cache the receiver’s display of distance and direction becomes unreliable.

Here today Mrs. Black, Ms. Nocera, Ms. Deysher, Ms. Graber and Mr. Horges is each carrying an individual GPS unit, and as they draw closer to the cache each is led in a different direction.

Some receivers direct their users downhill toward the roots of a large downed tree, and others uphill toward another large tree.

Mrs. Black heads for the downed tree. Ms. Nocera heads uphill, reaches into a hollow and pulls out a plastic container. It’s the cache they were looking for.

“When you see the big uprooted tree, where would you run?” Mrs. Black says when she arrives.

Therein lies the challenge of geocaching: Technology can only get you so far in this game when there are human wits and nature to contend with.

“It’s how tricky the person is who hides it,” Ms. Nocera says.

“Some people come up with some very interesting ways to hide caches,” says Robert Marley, who with his wife, Sheri, hunts under the name “The Dam Trolls” and set up the new caches for the picnic.

One of the new caches they hid, nicknamed “All Buffed Up,” was a plastic tube concealed inside the branches of a small tree and suspended in the air by a strand of fishing line.

Club members say they’ve seen others that were even more cleverly concealed: two plastic ivy leaves sewn together and tossed in a patch of live ivy, and a magnetic key holder stuck on the bottom of a rock of similar color and texture.

“A lot of people like the variety of different types of containers,” Mr. Marley says. “It’s the thrill of the hunt.”

• • •

None of this, at least in Maryland, comes without some government strings. Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources regulates caches hidden in state parks, forbidding them in certain state parks and requiring advance approval for caches placed in other parks. Geocachers must file information with the ranger at the park they’ve chosen, detailing the type of container to be used, its contents and where it is to be placed.

In fact, according to Russ Cole of the Maryland Geocaching Society, one of the main missions of the group is to act as a liaison between geocachers and the park system.

A cache can be as small as an empty ballpoint pen tube with a piece of paper rolled inside or as large as a series of containers spread out over an entire town or park. They can be found both above and below ground, inside buildings or underwater, and can be either permanent or temporary.

Inside is a logbook for finders to record their names, dates and messages that verify their accomplishments. Larger caches also have swap items or prizes, usually grouped around a theme. Some contain cameras so the finders can snap photos for the member who placed the cache.

One popular item in caches are “travel bugs” — metal tags similar to military dog tags or small luggage tags — stamped with unique serial numbers. The finder logs the serial number on the Web site at www.geocaching.com, allowing the bug’s owner to track its movements from cache to cache, thereby (in geocaching lingo) taking a virtual trip along with it.

At the picnic, Robert Klimkiewicz of Elkridge, Md., has a red toy Mini-Cooper car he found Oct. 1 in a cache in Maryland.

The car, nicknamed “Sakari’s Road Trip,” was placed into a cache in San Antonio in February 2003, and Mr. Klimkiewicz has brought it to pass on to another member so it can continue on its mission: “a never-ending vacation.”

Rich Trevelyan of Severna Park, notices the Cooper as he and his son, Robbie, 14, choose items to take with them to Germany, where Mr. Trevelyan, an Air Force technical sergeant, is being reassigned. It’s a familiar sight that reminds him of when he first began geocaching.

“I had that bug two years ago,” he says, smiling.

Groups lead hunt for elusive caches

Washington area geocachers are an informal lot, prone to meeting online as often as they head for the woods on a stash hunt. Home base for all geocachers is the Groundspeak Web site at www.geo- caching.com, where visitors can locate caches and cache meets by zip code, by state, or by more than 200 countries. A calendar of all geocache events can be found at www.geocaching.com/calendar.

Also of broad interest is GeoWoodstock III (www.geowoodstock3.com), the third annual national geocaching event, scheduled for Jacksonville, Fla., in May 2005.

Most Washington area groups are now planning events for next spring and summer. Here’s a list of selected local resources:

• Maryland Geocaching Society: The second-oldest organized geocache group in the United States holds summer and fall picnics. Earlier this month it sponsored the Third Annual Capital Cache Walk around the Tidal Basin. Last spring it ran a “Cache Across Maryland” event, in which hikers hunted for “treasure” all over the state; the event may be repeated in 2005. See www.mdgps.org.

• Northern Virginia geocachers: Geocachers in northern Virginia are more loosely organized than those in Maryland. Contact joecthulhu@aol.com.

• DC Geocachers: A District-based group that keeps up its conversation through Yahoo Groups at http:// groups.yahoo.com/group/DCcache.

Tips about geocaching sport

Still puzzled by the high-tech adventure game called geocaching? Players say playing is the best way to learn, but in the meantime a good overview of the sport can be found at www.geocaching.com, its virtual mother ship. Here are high points from that Web site’s “Frequently Asked Questions.”

What is geocaching?

Geocaching is an entertaining adventure game for GPS users. The basic idea is to have individuals and organizations set up caches all over the world and share the locations of these caches on the Internet. GPS users can then use the location coordinates to find the caches. Once found, a cache may provide the visitor with a wide variety of rewards. All the visitor is asked to do is if they get something they should try to leave something for the cache.

Where does the name come from?

Geocaching, pronounced like “cashing” a check, is a combination of “geo” for geography and “caching” for the process of hiding a cache. A cache in computer terms is information usually stored in memory to make it faster to retrieve, but the term is also used in hiking and camping as a hiding place for concealing and preserving provisions.

How does one get started?

You will need a GPS unit, an electronic device that can determine your approximate location (within around 6-20 feet) on the planet. Coordinates are normally given in longitude and latitude. You can use the unit to navigate from your current location to another location. Some units have their own maps, built-in electronic compasses, voice navigation, depending on the complexity of the device.

You don’t need to know all the technical details about using GPS. All you need to do is be able to enter what is called a “waypoint” where the geocache is hidden.

GPS units can range in cost from $100 to $1,000 depending on the capabilities you are looking for, and can usually be found at camping and boating supply stores, or online.

What is usually in a cache?

In its simplest form a cache can be just a logbook and nothing else. The logbook contains information from the founder of the cache and notes from the cache’s visitors. A logbook might also contain information about nearby attractions, coordinates to other unpublished caches, and even jokes written by visitors.

Larger caches may consist of a waterproof plastic container placed tastefully within the local terrain. The container will hold the logbook and some more or less valuable items. These items turn the cache into a true treasure hunt. You never know what the founder or other visitors of the cache may have left there for you to enjoy. Finders usually take something from the cache and leave something else in return.

Where are caches found?

The location of a cache demonstrates the founder’s skill and possibly even daring. A cache located on the side of a rocky cliff accessible only by rock climbing equipment may be hard to find. An underwater cache may only be accessed by scuba divers. Other caches may require long difficult hiking, orienteering, and special equipment to get to. Caches may be located in cities both above and below ground, inside and outside buildings, and can be permanent or temporary. There also are virtual caches, where players must locate existing landmarks and give proof of their find.

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