Chances are that person wasn’t a burglar, but taking part in Geocaching, a new internet craze that combines geeky technology with a love of the outdoors. The hobby is simple – you buy a handheld Global Positioning System, then log on to www.geocaching.com. There, you’ll find hundreds of “caches” posted by people using internet monikers.
You punch the longitude and latitude coordinates into your GPS and navigate to the site and try to locate the hidden treasure.
Last April Ottawa hobbyists took part in Go and Get ‘Em 8, a bi-annual event that continues to attract newcomers to the Geocaching community. There were only a dozen people and a total of six caches to find when the event began four years ago, recalls organizer Tammie Winsor. Now there are 104 participants and 60 caches.
“We had to find a bigger restaurant to meet at after the event,” Winsor says. A few years ago “we used to wait a few days for someone to post a cache and go out and find it.”
Times have changed. The United States released precise GPS signal use for consumers in May 2000 and inadvertently started the Geocaching community. The first cache was hidden in Portland, Oregon in celebration of the change, and trend has been growing ever since.
“Now there’s 500 within 25 km from my house,” says David Carrierre, an Ottawa Geocacher since 2002. He is better known to the online community as “Zartimus.” The event is all about meeting the people behind the internet screen names.
“I’m always amazed at the diversity of people you get to come out,” Carrierre says. It is “a great combination of the love of the outdoors and the love of gadgets.”
Many gadgets can be involved in addition to the GPS unit, which costs anywhere between $100 and $600. Cache hunters arm themselves with Palm Pilots, digital cameras, and cell phones. Website users can have posts sent directly to their phones, then post back instantly when they’ve found the target.
“I’m sure that everyone who doesn’t know about Geocaching thinks we are a bunch of computer weirdos,” Winsor says. But she enjoys it for the hiking opportunities it provides.
“For us, we like to hike and make other people hike,” she says.
Geocaches can have multiple waypoints. Once your GPS guides you to the first target downloaded from the webpage, you’ll find a new set of coordinates to punch in and hike off to the next waypoint. Eventually, you’ll find the cache.
A mystery cache requires hobbyists to solve a puzzle before they can decode the right coordinates. Some puzzles stumped the community for months before being solved.
A cache must be a container with a log book and pencil inside – though they may not be obvious.
“I’ve got one that looks like a rock,” Carrierre says. “A lot of people don’t find it, they say it is missing.”
Carrierre’s cache for the weekend event was tucked away in a tree along the Ottawa River near Island Park Dr. A short climb up is required to reach into the nook where the container is hidden, concealed by camouflage tape. It was one of many that Ottawans were scouring the city for during the 24-hour event.
There is no prize, but some are still competitive.
“The intent is not a marathon,” Winsor says. But “some people are either competitive or they’ve misunderstood.”
Carrierre says he’s stayed up until 5 a.m. in past events to find as many caches as possible. Others are known to go without sleep for 24 hours in an attempt to find every single cache.
“That’s becoming pretty impossible,” Carrierre says of the growing event.
Others are less competitive, making a family event out of the cyber-sport. Winsor will bring her two-year-old son Finnegan to find a cache. To make things interesting, they’ll secretly take along a toy and slip it into the cache when he is not looking.
“Wow, look there is a dinosaur in this one!” Winsor will say to her son.