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rottnpagan in geocache_canada

American article but still valid.

Geocaching: Treasure Hunting in the 21st Century

By Karen Wiens

In the woods just off I-495 near Franklin, Massachusetts, eight people amble along an undulating dirt road, illuminated by flashlights and the moon. They don’t know exactly where we are going on this April evening, nor do they know how to get there. They do know what they hope to find: a newly-hidden canister containing a small blank notebook and a number of tradable trinkets. They also know what will guide us to our destination: a print-out from the Internet with a series of cryptic directions and the small piece of equipment they carry—a GPS receiver.

These nocturnal wanderers are introducing me to a game called Geocaching (pronounced geo-cash-ing). The canister we are seeking was hidden by a geocacher known as Fezziwig377, a Franklin resident. A hider’s goal is to create an experience for others: whether it’s a satisfying challenge to find the cache, a scenic view, or a secluded stream. My companions found the entry Fezziwig377 posted online at geocaching.com, indicating the latitude and longitude at which to begin the hunt.

On this night, the geocachers are pursuing a “multi-cache,” in which they seek an initial location, based on given coordinates, but must follow additional directions to find the actual cache. Koneko, of West Barnstable, Massachusetts, one of tonight’s adventurers, read from the instructions, “Once at 0.35 miles, and looking SE, turn on your light and follow my foot steps.” The flashlight beams danced among the trees as we tried to figure out what that meant. “There it is!” someone yelled, and the group ditched the path, scrambling up a short incline. “It” was a 1.5 inch-long, glow-in-the-dark footprint, tacked to a tree with a reflector pin. I chased after the group, wondering what I had gotten myself into—trailing after people I’d just met, not even knowing their real names, tromping through a forest and relying on small electronic gizmos to find an object that could be miles or a couple of feet away.

Eventually we ended up back on the main path, so charged with adrenaline we were almost jogging. “No FTFs on this one!” someone yelled. “It’s a team effort!” First-to-find is a high honor in this community: the first to sign your name in the cache’s logbook and to gain special recognition on the cache’s Internet webpage.

Geocaching.com, one of the most well-known of the websites for the game, boasts 255,056 active caches in 221 countries. Members can post new caches online, search for caches in a particular area, record having found a cache, and e-mail other geocachers. Cachers’ real names are withheld—the use of screen names adds to the feeling of community (out of respect for the geocacher culture, screen names are used here to protect the intrigue of anonymity). Plug in a zip code into the website, and it may be surprising how ubiquitous these caches are.

Coordinates posted online will lead you to a location on a map, but to get yourself to the spot on the ground you need some high-tech equipment—the GPS unit itself and the satellite network it depends on. The Global Positioning System used for navigation, whether it is geocaching, hiking, sailing or research, is owned and operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. A GPS receiver needs data from at least four satellites to register its location, additional signals increase accuracy. The satellites, which circle the earth at 20,200 km, continually broadcast information about position and time. The GPS receiver registers when a signal left the satellite and when it arrives at the receiver. Based on the time delay from multiple satellites, the receiver calculates the latitude and longitude. GPS receivers, which can cost as little as $100, direct you to within 20 feet of a particular location. After that, it’s time to resort to a geocacher’s instinct. “You get to the point where you can’t drive down a road without thinking, ‘That would be a good place for a geocache,’” said Mustcache of Uxbridge, Massachusetts.

A GPS satellite system has been fully operational since 1995, but the average Joe could only use it to obtain an approximate location. In the interest of national security, the signals had been scrambled. On May 1, 2000, the GPS signals were no longer jumbled and the accuracy jumped tenfold. According to geocaching.com, a GPS enthusiast hid the first stash of trinkets in celebration two days later, and within three days it had been visited twice. The sport of geocaching was soon established and has grown by about 20-30 percent each year. “The coolest thing about it is I find a lot of new places to go hiking, to go for a walk, to go mountain biking, that I would have never been to,” said Fezziwig377.

The sport has also grown in variety, as participants added new aspects to the game. A basic cache is waterproof and contains a logbook. It might be as small as a film canister. Larger caches, such as ammunition cans, might include objects for trading or “Travel Bugs:” objects that hitchhike with geocachers from cache to cache, tracked online through unique identification numbers. The game has expanded to include social event caches, mystery caches that require solving a puzzle and many other variations.

A plastic McDonald’s toy may not seem fair reward for an hour’s driving and hiking, yet the sport continues to grow more popular. David Somers, psychology professor at Boston University and avid treasure hunter, thinks part of the appeal of geocaching is that it is participatory entertainment. “You get off your butt and you go DO something!” he said. It’s an excuse to go hiking or to convince your kids to get out in nature. Treasure hunting is ingrained in our culture, in books and movies, and people want to feel that exhilaration for themselves. Through geocaching, “You’re getting the same cerebral experience” as reading or watching treasure hunts, but you also get an emotional rush and a sense of adventure, said Dr. Somers.

He’s not kidding. After charging up a hill in the middle of the night, a cacher triumphantly shrieked, “I found it!” We excitedly recounted our trek as we took pictures and signed our names in the brand-new logbook. A group FTF—we were the “Nightstalkers.” In the cache were glow sticks and a button that read, “I use multi-million dollars of military hardware to find Tupperware in the woods…what do you do?” Nightstalker Koneko is within reach of locating her 2,500th cache. “It’s an addiction,” she said. I understand. I’m getting a GPS receiver for my birthday, and a NASCAR Travel Bug and I are heading to Indianapolis to visit the Speedway.

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geocaching.com

July 2011

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