Originally created 10/12/03

Geocachers use technology to locate items left by others



At this very moment, someone, somewhere, is finding something.

Aided by 24 military satellites circling the planet, treasure hunters of all ages are seeking secret stashes all over the country with the help of a box about the size of a TV remote control.

The sport is geocaching (pronounced like you're "cashing" a check), and it's two parts scavenger hunt and one part hiking trip.

Randy Cantu, who works for the Augusta-Richmond County Information Technology department, picked up the sport in May when he used a GPS unit he'd bought on eBay to locate a cache that was highlighted on www.geocaching.com. The cache, titled "Bike the Canal," had been planted along the Augusta Canal by Patrick King of Aiken.

"I was out hiking anyway and I said, 'I wonder if I can find the cache,' and that's how I got started," Mr. Cantu said.

Mr. Cantu estimated he hunts for caches once a week. When he travels, he prints out cache coordinates in advance.

"I did some in Washington, D.C., some at Sullivan Island (S.C.), and I went to a training class in Rock Hill (S.C.), so I did a few there," he said. "When you go to these things, you'll end up in places that the locals know about but visitors never see."

Unlike traditional treasure hunts, the contents of the caches are secondary to the hunt itself.

The typical cache is a metal ammunition box or plastic container filled with trinkets valued at no more than $1 each, and a pad of paper for visitors to sign. For example, when Mr. King and his friend Tim Meesseman, a University of South Carolina Aiken junior, visited Mr. Cantu's Phinizy Swamp cache, they passed over the American flag, chip clip and green football and took a Chick-Fil-A coupon. In turn, they left behind a battery.

Bryan Rothis is one of the co-founders of Groundspeak, the Seattle-based "geo-locational entertainment company" that runs geocaching.com. The site includes directions to caches, comments from hunters and sport guidelines. He said the sport is still growing and changing in unexpected ways.

"The variations of the caches are really limited only by the creativity of the community," he said. "There are people who have used caches that look like rocks and put them out in plain site. People have hollowed out bolts and screwed them into a place with a lot of bolts. People have also taken bison containers, painted them green and hung them from tree branches."

When a cache is especially well hidden, it's not uncommon for an item of greater value to be left behind. There also are "virtual" caches that require a picture to be taken of an object and multi-stage caches that lead from one location to another.

The thrill of the great outdoors is the main reward, though. "I never get to do anything outdoors but I love technology, so it's like the best of both worlds," Mr. Meesseman said.

"A lot of what it's about is sharing experiences," Mr. Roth said. "You can create an experience for other people to enjoy."

The number of active geocachers is impossible to nail down, but Mr. Roth estimated there are between 300,000 and 400,000 worldwide, with 85 percent of the participants in the United States.

Randy Hall, director of product marketing for Thales Navigation, the maker of Magellan GPS units, said the devices used for geocaching are the same for boat, car or plane navigation, so it's hard to separate the two.

"For the industry; it's about 2 million users. Maybe 5 to 10 percent of them are strictly geocaching," he said. "It's a small but growing number."

Mr. Cantu said many people don't understand the sport or its appeal.

"They get a quizzical look on their face. It's like a scavenger hunt with a divining rod, because you've got this thing in front of you," he said.

Mr. Roth said the number of challenges the sport faces are too numerous to list. For one thing, not every park manager is keen on the idea of boxes being planted within park borders. For that, the company promotes the notion of "cache in, trash out" to keep areas litter free.

Still, as long as people use their common sense, don't leave food or weapons in a cache and respect the vegetation around it, Mr. Roth said it's a benign activity.

"It gives everyone a chance to be Indiana Jones for a day," he said."You get that little taste of adventure."

Reach Patrick Verel at (706) 823-3332 or patrick.verel@augustachronicle.com