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Taking a nature hike in the woods has turned into a high-tech game, thanks to global-positioning systems. After reading about geocaching -- a sort of scavenger hunt with a technological twist -- I decided to give this game a try.
Geocaching (the "cach" part is pronounced "cash") is a hide-and-seek game that lets you hide a cache, or container, and post its latitude and longitude coordinates on the Web so other people can find it using a GPS, a system that uses satellite signals to give your longitude and latitude.
Each cache is different, usually a collection of toys and trinkets tucked into a plastic container with a note explaining what it is. Each cache also contains a logbook so visitors can record their stop. Most caches are hidden in parks or natural areas, often just a few feet off the beaten path. Some are even virtual caches, where nothing is hidden, but clues are found on historic plaques or monuments.
A quick search on the www. geocaching.com Web site was all it took to get me started. Typing in the ZIP code for Cape Girardeau, I found about 28 caches within a 30-mile area. I scanned them for difficulty before I started out. Each cache is ranked from one to five stars for difficulty and terrain.
I borrowed a friend's GPS -- one even he doesn't know how to program yet -- and sat down at the computer to plot my course. I didn't want anything too hard, especially since I wasn't sure how this game worked.
So I settled on three caches in Cape Girardeau and one at Bollinger Mill. I quickly ruled out one of the Southern Illinois caches because it required a 2.5-mile hike through the Shawnee National Forest.
I printed out the coordinates -- I didn't know how to download the exact location, called a waypoint, from the computer -- and decoded the clues. I started at Courthouse Park. I thought it might be a trial run before I really set out and possibly got lost. It turns out I never did find the cache that night, or the next day, but I eventually did.
I've since learned that once you get close to the coordinates posted, you should slow down and let the satellites catch up with you by taking smaller steps. GPS works using a variety of satellites that help you pinpoint a position, and dense foliage or a building's roof can hamper the satellite signals.
Since I didn't use a waypoint for the hunt, I walked in circles much of the time I was out trying to find these caches, especially one in Cape Woods. Dru Reeves, who along with his children hid several of the caches around Cape Girardeau, said the Cape Woods site is the only one that's been stolen.
"I usually put the note in there and people leave it alone," he said. Every cache should contain a note explaining what it is and why it's been hidden. That way anyone who isn't playing the game but stumbles upon the hidden treasure will understand what's going on.
What is included in a cache is up to the person who hid it, and the people who visit. One of the basic rules of geocaching is to take something from the cache and to leave something in the cache. Writing about it in the logbook also is important, since the book can include clues about the cache or notes about points of interest in the area.
And using global-positioning systems, almost anyone can play the game. Reeves spent about a $100 on his GPS, not so he could go geocaching but because he likes gadgets.
"I've always loved land navigation, but I've gone all over with a compass and a map," he said. He's spent 16 years in the Army reserves and used military versions of GPS there.
Now he's abandoned his maps and compass for a GPS.
The device he uses now is about the same size as a cell phone and can get him within a dozen feet or less of his target. Most GPS systems vary on how close they can actually get you to a coordinate. For some it's as near as 3 feet -- others might be 20 feet off.
That's why Reeves suggests looking at the cache clues online first.
"The clues are invaluable, because GPS might only get you within 15 or 20 feet. And the person who placed it might have a GPS that's off, and so you might be looking in a 100-foot diameter."
The first cache he ever found was on the Sheppard's Point trail at Trail of Tears State Park. He walked on the trail for a short distance before getting to his appointed spot. But he spent another 45 minutes looking for the cache. "I finally stood on a log and looked down and there it was; I was standing on it," Reeves said.
Geocaching can be fun or frustrating, depending on how well you know your GPS. Some people buy a GPS and don't understand how to use it properly and then end up selling it on eBay, Reeves said.
"That's what scares people," he said. "If they're not successful at punching in the coordinates and don't know how to use it or read it, when they start getting near where it's at, it will jump all over the place."
But finding a cache is worth all the frustration. Caches contain just about anything -- from CDs to extra batteries, child's toys and T-shirts -- and it's free for the taking.
"A lot of people do it because they're interested in what's in it. I'm not looking for anything but the logbook," Reeves said.
And reading the logbook is probably the most fun. It's almost like taking a peek at someone's diary. The logs tell you who has visited, what they thought of the cache and what they left in it and even a little about how easy or hard they thought the cache was to find.
Laura Johnston is the features editor for the Southeast Missourian
335-6611, extension 126
Geocaching: What's it all about?
What is it? Geocaching is a hide-and-seek adventure game that uses global positioning systems. The game is pretty simple: Someone hides a cache anywhere in the world and then posts its coordinates on the Internet so other GPS users can find it.
How did it start? Geocaching started when someone hid a container of goodies outside Portland, Ore., in celebration of the government opening up the availability of the satellite signals for civilians. Mike Teague was the first person to find the container and posted its location on an Internet newsgroup site. In 2000, Jeremy Irish found Teague's Web site and the first cache. Realizing the potential of the game, Irish developed a Web site with virtual logs, maps and a method for tracking all the caches out there. So far, the game has reached all 50 states and 180 countries.
How do you play? Using the Internet and a GPS unit, you enter coordinates -- called waypoints -- into your unit for the cache you want to find. Then you set out for that location to find it.
Wouldn't it be pretty easy since you're giving away the location? You might think so. But GPS devices can be a few feet off and, though it seems easy enough to find the coordinates, it's not always simple.
What is a cache and what's in it? Caches are the prizes you find in this scavenger-hunt game. What's included in a cache depends on who's hiding it. Each one always contains a logbook so people can record their visits. Most are hidden in waterproof containers since they're usually stashed in parks or nature areas.
Can a cache move or change once it's been placed? Unless there's some instruction asking that the cache be moved, it should remain in its same location so that other people can find it. There are variations on the game -- some caches are virtual caches, meaning that you have to visit a landmark or statue and answer a question. Other caches are multicaches, which are progressive caches. You might visit one site using the posted coordinates where you find clues to another cache. Some caches even come with "travel bugs," which are trinkets or items that hitchhike their way to other caches. Travel bugs can have specific tasks or none at all -- some have goals of traveling to other countries, others just want to reach a specific location.