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High-Tech Treasure Hunting

Geocaching Uses GPS Gadgets to Discover Hidden Goodies

Trudging through the woods near Lake Audubon, snow crunching underfoot, Reston resident Walton Bell glances down to check his hand-held Global Position System device.

Silently, almost reverently, he points out the direction. The satellites hundreds of miles overhead tell him he's almost there — almost to the elusive "Plunderer's Pillage" geocache, which he suspects is probably hidden in a tree hollow somewhere nearby.

Bell, the chief financial officer of local telecom firm HCI Communications and grandfather of two, is an avid geocacher, an emerging hobby that combines hiking, GPS technology, the Internet and riddles.

"Geocaching is all over Reston, all over Northern Virginia," Bell said. "The sport has just really taken off. They're all over the world in over 190 countries. They're everywhere."

Call it a high tech treasure hunt, geocaching involves using hand-held GPS devices to locate hidden plastic containers filled with tiny trinkets and a logbook. Geocachers download the coordinates off the Internet to their GPS device, which uses satellite triangulation to pinpoint exact locations anywhere on the planet.

A typical geocaching experience includes hiking through the woods, slogging through mud, jumping over creeks, following whichever direction the satellites suggest. Upon finding the geocache, participants are expected to sign the logbook and usually take a trinket and leave something else behind. Bell, who goes by the nickname "Tocanoe" in the geocaching world, generally leaves things like foreign currency or Spongebob Squarepants figurines.

"It's a great thing to do with the grandkids," Bell said. "It's kind of a nonsensical thing to do, but it's really fun."

The "Plunderer's Pillage" geocache, which is located at N 38 55.987, W 077 19.551 — or deep in the woods across the street from the Lake Audubon pool — is one of many geocaches hidden in the nooks and crannies of Reston and the surrounding region.

Undoubtedly, many Reston residents walk or drive by a geocache everyday, never knowing that hidden nearby is a plastic container filled with bric-a-brac, waiting to be found by one of the hundreds of geocaching enthusiasts throughout Northern Virginia.

GEOCACHING BEGAN after the Clinton administration declassified GPS technology in May 2000, giving the general public access to the precise satellite-based system developed by the Department of Defense.

Two days after the technology became available for public use, someone placed a geocache of trinkets outside Portland, Ore. Within days, a man named Mike Teague found the hidden container and posted the geocache's information on the Internet.

In July of 2000, Teague was approached by Seattle web developer Jeremy Irish, and together they developed a centralized website — www.geocaching.com — that includes detailed maps, coordinates, and descriptions of different geocaches.

The sport exploded soon thereafter and continues to grow today, with approximately 83,600 active geocaches in 197 countries, according to the website's records.

TO GET STARTED, three things are required: a hand-held GPS device, a good pair of hiking boots, and a desire to discover new things, said Reston geocaching aficionado and former Marine, Charlie Palmer, whose geocaching name is "Weary Traveler."

"It keeps me off the street. Literally," he said.

A hand-held GPS device costs between $100 and $1,000, depending on the unit's capabilities. The most common types — Magellans and Garmins — offer such functions as built-in compasses, topographical maps, altimeters, and even provide detailed information about nearby businesses, such as restaurants.

"It's great. You pay hundreds of dollars for equipment to find $5 worth of trinkets," Palmer laughed.

Palmer, who became addicted to geocaching after buying a GPS device for a trip to Nicaragua, said the sport is much harder than it sounds.

"It's not nearly as easy as it seems," he said. "Sometime the cache is as small as a 35mm film canister."

Unlike some other underground hobbies, Palmer said he welcomes the attention and hopes the sport continues to attract new geocachers.

"The more people who get involved, the better the trinkets," he joked. "And the better the trinkets, the more people will get involved."

Most geocachers are environmentally-conscious, Palmer said, and pick up litter on the way back from a hunt. Geocachers do not generally collect trash on the way because they are focused on following their GPS device.

"It's cache in, trash out," he said.

NOT ALL GEOCACHES are simply a plastic container filled with worthless goodies.

"Virtual Caches," a twist on the standard geocache, involves a location, often a historical site.

A virtual cache near Worldgate in Herndon is a tombstone of a female Civil War spy for the Confederacy. The cache, called "I Spy, You Spy, She Spied," is a 20 x 20 foot cemetery plot, obscured by shrubbery and difficult to find.

"You walk by caches like it everyday," Palmer said.

Another virtual cache begins at Frying Pan Park in Herndon. This geocache, called "Blood and Guts in Virginia," is a set of five puzzles and virtual caches that went unsolved for a year and a half.

Anastasia Staub, an employee of the American Red Cross who lives in Manassas, was part of a team of 12 that solved the mystery on Jan. 31.

Staub, who goes by "Boxermom" because she loves the Boxer breed of dogs, said she will never forget the scavenger hunt on which "Blood and Guts" sent her.

"It sent us all over the region," she said. "That's the best thing about it — that it gets you places you've never been before. You never know these places existed until you get out there and actually find it."

Next month, Staub is taking a vacation to Hawaii, where she plans to release a "travel bug," which is essentially a dogtag that can be traced online. Her coworker and fellow geocacher will release a travel bug from Virginia, and they will race across the country from opposite ends.

LAST SATURDAY, it became evident that the hardest aspect of the sport is locating the cache once the geocacher arrives at the GPS coordinates.

Because GPS devices are only accurate to within 20 or 30 feet, it took Bell about half an hour of peering into hollowed trees and stumps before the "Plunderer's Pillage" geocache was discovered inside a hole at the base of a tree.

According to the "Plunderer's Pillage" description on the geocaching website, the cache was set by "Captain Snag-a-Roll and his merry mates." The actual cache, a shoebox-sized plastic container, was filled with assorted trinkets, including a squirt gun, a spool of thread, a pink rubber ball, a sheep figurine and a green dice.

Bell signed the logbook, a flowery book that says "My Diary" on the cover, and left a Canadian $2 bill for future geocachers.

"It's amazing what people put in these things," he said.