Cache and carry

In this high=tech treasure hunt, players use GPS devices and a bit of their own smarts to find hidden delights

April 15, 2006|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

On a recent Sunday as Druid Hill Park was filling with cyclists, runners and folks just hanging out, Bill and Ellen Saks crunched through leaf litter, unobtrusively, they hoped, searching for the perfect spot to hide the park's first official geocache.

The middle-aged couple from Pikesville had filled a utility box with treasures: a lightstick, an Outer Banks key chain, a purple carabiner clip, a Chevrolet T-shirt and a Northrop Grumman mini-mouse pad. Most important was the waterproof log book in which treasure finders could record their visits.

Bill Saks selected an accessible site - not too deep in the woods - that involved a slight rearrangement of tree limbs and loose bark. After checking the coordinates on his hand-held Magellan GPS device, he concealed the cache, carefully camouflaged it, and named it Droodle Drop. (Droodle is Bawlamerese for Druid Hill.)

Now the site was ready to welcome the growing community of geocachers. Geocaching is 21st-century treasure hunting that uses a high-tech toy - a global positioning system receiver - to direct seekers toward a destination through satellite tracking. It's challenging and competitive, with many participants vying to be the first to discover a freshly created cache.

On the day Droodle Drop was posted on the Internet, John Stephens, known to geocachers as "Alpha Orionis," became the first to find it.

Less than an hour later, the second "finder" arrived: "There should be more caches in this park," "Eagleblazer" wrote. "Maybe I'll add one soon."

In less than a week, Droodle Drop acquired a caching history and provided common ground for folks who might not ordinarily connect: a secretary at the Torah Institute of Baltimore, a firefighter from Hampstead and a software engineer working in Hampden.

Such serendipity is magical for "Baltimore Bill" and "Knitting Ellen" Saks, one of Baltimore's premier geocaching couples. The Sakses, who have planted many caches around town, hope that Droodle Drop's Web posting will also entertain visitors with little-known history and local color.

If not, Bill Saks can give you at least 20 other reasons that geocaching is a splendid thing to try.

"It's something to do with a friend or your family ... or on a business trip," he reads from a list. "It's better than shopping. It's outdoors. It's exercise. It's a challenge. It's a neat `tech' thing to do. You meet interesting people and there's a sense of community."

It's been known to pull computer geeks into the woods and coax suburbanites downtown. More than 200 caches are hidden within 10 miles of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Some are cleverly concealed along busy streets or near historic monuments. Others are under logs, in the cracks of stone walls and the hollows of trees. Some are "easy" finds, suitable for grandparents and grandchildren on an afternoon's outing. Others warn about feral cats and spiders.

Created six years ago by computer consultant Dave Ulmer as an adventure game for GPS users, geocaching works this way: "Hiders" conceal caches and post their coordinates on an Internet site, usually geocaching.com.

After downloading these coordinates, "seekers" use their GPS units to direct them to within 60 feet of a cache. At that stage, when satellite tracking isn't as accurate, the game switches over to a low-tech system of educated guessing.

When you find the cache, there are four basic rules: Take something from it, deposit something in it, write about it in the log provided - and leave the surrounding area no worse than you found it, Saks says.

"Geocaching gets me out of the house and going places I'd never go to," says John Stephens, a software engineer who works in Hampden and often "caches" on his lunch hour.

The first person to find Droodle Drop, Stephens learned about the site from geocaching.com. The Web site tracks the growth of the sport, lists locations of approved caches created by its subscribers and allows cachers to contact one another through pseudonyms.

On a recent day, the Web site posted information about more than 250,000 caches in 221 countries. Some cachers send in thoughts and comments about each cache they visit.

"Great area for a hide!" Stephens wrote on the Droodle Drop page. "Thanks Bill and Ellen for all your great hides ... I feel like an explorer chasing down the sites and history the two of you put together!"

In just a few years, the Sakses have found more than 700 caches and planted almost 40 of their own.

"Placing caches allows us to show off our favorite haunts," Bill Saks says. "It's a challenge to plant new caches in interesting places in novel containers."

Some of the containers, large enough to be filled with goodies, can be spied fairly quickly. Others require the sixth-sense skills of an uber-hunter: No bigger than your thumbnail, one of the Sakses' "nano" caches can barely accommodate a tiny scroll with the names of its finders.

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