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, 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 Positioning System receiver, which can pinpoint his location anywhere on Earth, and this geographic clue: N 38M-0 45.031 W 077M-0 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, participants use GPS technology to home in on treasure stashed by other players, who publish the latitude and longitude of their hoard on the Internet.

Less than a year old, geocaching is catching on quick. Participants have hidden more than 915 treasures in 49 states and 29 countries, according to Jeremy Irish, who maintains the hobby's official online home, geocaching.com.

And while most stashes consist of little more than cheap trinkets - an old Steely Dan tape or a half-used box of Kleenex - the game is about to go big time. In May, the first major geocaching competition is to be held in Atlanta. The grand prize: a buried suitcase containing $5,000 in cash.

But the draw for most participants, explains Irish, is not so much the treasure as the trek. "The armchair sociologist in me thinks it fulfills a person's basic need to explore," he says.

For 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 hazards.

Geocaching was the inspiration of Dave Ulmer, a 52-year-old computer consultant in Beavercreek, Ore., just outside Portland.

An avid snowmobiler who enjoys 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-military uses to 300 feet, or a tad more than a football field.

But, last spring, the Clinton Administration decided to drop the restrictions on civilian GPS, 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 treasure. 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 overturned 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 something, but must replace it with something of their own.

Enthusiasts talk of finding containers stuffed with everything from the useless to the bizarre: garage door openers, house keys, toilet 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 expected to find its way in everything from cellular telephones to watches. When that happens, other offbeat uses for GPS will likely follow, he says.

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