Scavenger Hunt!

With the Global Positioning System, growing numbers rediscover it's not where you go, it's how you get there.

March 19, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

SPRINGFIELD, Va. - Leon Begeman scurries through the underbrush of a wooded suburban park here one recent Saturday morning, [mst: please leave comma: ]in hot pursuit of hidden treasure. "Three hundred seventy feet to go!" he announces to the small band of treasure hunters tagging along behind. Begeman carries no yellowed map, has no X-marks-the-spot to find the booty. His only guide is a handheld Global PositionM-W ing System receiver, which can pinpoint his location anywhere on Earth, and this geographic clue: N 38"[mst: that's 38 degrees, so need little circle degree mark.] 45.031 W 077"[mst: and here. ] 12.916. It's all part of the fast-growing new game of "geocaching" - probably the only diversion around that can boast needing a $12 billion satellite network to play. In this high-tech twist on the classic scavenger hunt, particiM-W pants use GPS technology to home in on treasure stashed by other players, [mst: this comma too: ]who publish the quick. ParticiM-W pants have hidden more than 915 treasures in 49 states and 29 countries, according to Jeremy Irish, who maintains the hobM-W by's official online home, geocaM-W ching.com. And while most stashes conM-W sist of little more than cheap trinkets - an old Steely Dan tape or a half-used box of time. In May, the first major geocaching competition is to be held in Atlanta. The grand prize: a buried suitcase containM-W ing $5,000 in cash. But the draw for most particiM-W pants, explains Irish, is not so much the treasure as the trek. "The armchair sociologist in me thinks it fulfills a person's outdoorsy types, the game also offers a chance to "share someone else's beautiful spot," notes Jay Chamberlain, a 50-year-old engineer and geocaching enthusiast from Fredericksburg, Va. Players have hidden booty in decaying World War II bunkers and sunken shipwrecks or have put them on islands, inside caves and around volcanoes. Getting to one can be as easy as a short stroll in a park - or as rigorous as a daylong trek past crocodiles and other wild hazM-W ards. Geocaching was the inspiraM-W tion of Dave Ulmer, a 52-year-old computer consultM-W ant in Beavercreek, Ore., just outside Portland. An avid snowmobiler who enM-W joys long rides through the trackless Oregon wilderness, Ulmer for years had used GPS to navigate - about all the technology was good for since the U.S. government had long limited its accuracy for non-milM-W itary uses to 300 feet, or a tad more than a football field. But, last spring, the Clinton Administration decided to making it possible for users to pinpoint their location to within 60 feet. And that's when Ulmer, lying awake one night, hit on the notion of a "year-round Easter egg hunt." He outlined the idea in an online newsgroup - sci.geo.satellite-nav - and a day or two later, the first kitchen treasure had been hidden outside Seattle. Ulmer says that even though players know the coordinates of the stash going in, geocaching is far from dull. "Sounds easy doesn't it?" he says. "It turns out it's very easy to make them very hard to find." That's because the coordinates alone don't hint at obstacles such as a gorge or a mountain that can lie between players and their treasM-W ure. And, while GPS can get a player to within a few dozen feet of a geographic coordinate, it still makes finding a tiny plastic food container challenging. As Leon Begeman found out. "OK, keep your eyes open, it's right up there," Begeman says as he combed the Virginia woods for a treasure known as the "Springfield Santa Stash." The group fanned out, kicking up dead leaves and prodding overM-W turned stumps. Nothing. "Should be right around here," Begeman says after checking his GPS again. "Maybe someone took it?" Eventually he finds it - stuffed deep inside a corrugated drainage pipe, hidden beneath a pile of sticks. Inside the container he finds PEZ candy, a yo-yo, a rubber dinosaur and other trinkets. A chest of gold doubloons this is not. But Begeman, a 47-year-old tech support worker, says his kids will love it when he brings them along next time. Players never know what they'll find. The game's only rule dictates that players get to keep someM-W thing, but must replace it with something of their own. Enthusiasts talk of finding conM-W tainers stuffed with everything from the useless to the bizarre: gaM-W rage door openers, house keys, toiM-W let paper, family photos, and, in one case, even a talking Big Mouth Billy Bass to "greet" players. One stash - presumably rated R - held a pair of women's silky black nylons. "It's a phenomenally fun use of GPS," says Pete Brumbaugh of Garmin International, one of the country's largest manufacturers of GPS receivers. And Brumbaugh thinks it's probably only the beginning, since the technology is gradually exM-W pected to find its way in everything from cellular telephones to watches. When that happens, other offbeat uses for GPS will likely follow, he says. Alex Jarrett, a 25-year-old proM-W grammer in Peterborough, N.H., already has one: the Degree ce.org). The goal of the project is to phoM-W tograph every spot on Earth where major latitude and longitude lines intersect - known as points of "confluence." Jarrett started the project in 1996, after buying a GPS receiver because he thought they were "cool," but had no clue what he really wanted to do with it. A geography nut, he dreamed up the idea of documenting confluM-W ences. "You get to see how this one parM-W ticular spot has changed over time," says Jarett, who today gets e-mail from all over the world from people who have adopted the quest. By Jarret's reckoning, there are 64,442 places around the world where latitude and longitude interM-W sect. Ruling out ones that lie over waM-W ter or at the Earth's poles, that leaves roughly 11,500 potential spots to photograph. (According to the Web site, there are three in Maryland: One near Silver Spring. One near CenM-W treville. And one on Smith Island, the only one that hasn't been phoM-W tographed.) In some cases, the quest can be risky. One confluence hunter was chased by a crazed property owner, who accused him of being "one of those Internet perverts." Another in Pennsylvania had his film confiscated by a police officer, who thought the photo might have captured a nearby state prison. "You never know what you'll really see once you get there," says Ross Finlayson, a 41-year-old comM-W puter scientist from California. He should know. Finlayson has documented more than 35 confluM-W ences so far, including the one in Silver Spring, which he visited while on a business trip to WashM-W ington a few years ago. That confluence, N 39" W 77"[mst: degree marks needed here: ], lies between the Flower Branch ApartM-W ment complex and a branch of the Montgomery County Library. Most confluences, however, turn out to be far less exciting, usually lying in the middle of fields or farms, he says. Even though there is little to see at many confluences, people conM-W tinue to be drawn to them, Jarret says. "People definitely recognize these places have power."

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