July 29, 2001

High-tech trekkies
'Geocachers' wired by thrill of the chase
By LAUREEN FAGAN, Tribune Staff Writer


They took "the road less traveled."

That was the main clue offered to Wil Zambole and David Willmore as they trekked through the woods, searching for treasure in suburban Chicago's Blackwell Forest Preserve.

Or maybe that should be "teched" through the woods.

The pair use hand-held global-positioning system devices when they spend weekends "geocaching."

That's a new word for a new world of high-tech scavenger hunts, where GPS coordinates replace maps and cryptic clues and secret stash sites are listed on the Internet.

In Potato Creek State Park, for example. Somewhere in the mud near Wakarusa. Over at Chain O' Lakes. Up at Warren Woods Aviary, down at Purdue University in Lafayette.

Geocaching fever seems to be sweeping across the Michiana region, as it is across much of the nation.

Maybe it's the adventure. Maybe it's the thrill of the chase. Maybe it's just the chance to play with a fun toy.

Peter and Maureen Metcalf of South Bend display the "treasures" contained in their cache.
It certainly can't be the "treasure," which usually consists of a few trinkets to reflect the personality or interests of the people who placed them.

"There's just something about something being hidden that nobody else knows about," said Willmore, a 30-year-old computer engineer from Wheeling known only by his "Lost in the Woods" screen name to Zambole and his other online friends.

Until they met at 41 degrees 49.989 minutes north latitude and 88 degrees 10.209 minutes west longitude -- otherwise known as the picnic site, where about 60 geocachers from the region gathered to celebrate their new American pastime.

"What are we missing? What are we not seeing?" asked Zambole, a math teacher from Addison whose skills occasionally help him decipher clues -- as in "look for the right triangle," one shaped by fallen trees along the trail.

But he was momentarily stymied.

"Uh, the cache," Willmore deadpanned, as he scrutinized the sun-dappled leaves and twigs at his feet.

So. Maybe he really was lost in the woods. But not for long.

"Found it!"

High-tech tools, simple rules

Bryan Midgely of Naperville frequents South Bend when he comes here to visit his brothers, Matt and Tom. But these days, he spends a lot of time geocaching with his 5-year-old daughter, Alyson.

"When I first got a GPS, I thought it was a great way to get exercise and do something with the kids," he said. "It's been a catalyst to go visit places we wouldn't otherwise have gone."

Midgely and Kelly Markwell, also of suburban Chicago, planned the picnic for the GPS enthusiasts.

"We've got toddlers and grandmothers," Markwell said. "Young people do it, old people do it, people with babies in backpacks do it."

Which is all the more remarkable because little more than a year ago, geocaching didn't even exist.

The word entered the lexicon last May, when the accuracy for consumer GPS devices improved from reading a range of 100 yards to pinpointing a location within a few feet.

Before that time, a stronger GPS signal was available to the military, but it was degraded for civilian use.

Once the Clinton administration lifted the selective availability requirement, it wasn't long before someone figured out a new way to use the personal GPS receivers, which retail for about $120 and up.

"It got started outside Portland," said Jeremy Irish, a Seattle-area man who now maintains the game's main database at geocaching.com.

From that first Portland site, geocaching has spread to include 3,500 caches hidden in 55 nations, he said.

On the Web site, people can register a cache they've hidden, usually in an inexpensive waterproof container. Some are located in urban settings, but most are designed to attract people to the great outdoors.

"The rules are pretty simple," Irish said. When you find the cache, you take something from it and you leave something of your own.

You sign the logbook to let the owner know who's visited, when they came, what they exchanged, and where they're from.

Owners create intriguing names for their caches, post the "waypoint" coordinates for their site, offer a few clues and assign it a degree-of-difficulty rating.

That can be important information. Some caches require special skills or equipment, like rock-climbing expertise or scuba diving gear. Some involve arduous hikes over difficult terrain.

Even mundane warnings about taking along insect repellent or extra water help. And as more families get involved in geocaching, it's good to know what's a suitable search for children or older, retired couples.

The Internet site also serves as a way for people to post what they've found and comment on the experience -- the beautiful view, the history behind the item they've left, the sticker bushes they encountered.

But many notes are in the log. And they aren't always from geocachers.

Take this entry from a mystified mushroom hunter, for example.

May 7. Potato Creek State Park.
"I didn't know what this case was," begins the log entry. "Took home, brought it back. Saw it was a pretty neat and fun thing to do. Kept the mug, put in a book of poems and a veterans' flag sticker."

Local enthusiasm on the rise

Geocaching enthusiast David Willmore checks his global-positioning system device as he tries to find a hidden "cache" in the Blackwell Forest Preserve near Chicago.
For Peter Metcalf, 59, of South Bend, it's almost more interesting to read his own log as it is to search for other people's caches and sign them.

Metcalf, who stashed the Potato Creek box -- one that has since been moved -- wasn't the first to hide a cache in the region.

That distinction, as far as we know, belongs to 31-year-old Paul Pearson (aka Wandrer) of Elkhart, who placed his cache in October.

"There've been two or three that I've hidden," Pearson said. "Some are as far away as Fort Wayne."

And he doesn't even own a GPS device, he said. He started going to spend outdoor time with his dad and enjoyed day trips to the area's exotic cache-locales so much that -- like Metcalf -- he wanted to create the experience for other people, too.

"It's nice to travel to some place I never would have traveled to before," said Pearson. "Potato Creek State Park, I never would have gone (there) except for the cache placed there."

Metcalf enjoyed finding evidence of Pearson's travels, as well as the flag left by unidentified visiting Canadians and the photos and Poland stickers left by South Bend resident Wendy Haluda.

Who also doesn't own a GPS.

"My older sister in Chicago, she goes out all the time," Haluda said.

"She came into town and said there was a geocache in (the park)."

And so off went the 28-year-old Haluda, her mother, two sisters and a young niece and nephew.

"She bought this (GPS) to do this 'cause her friends got her involved in this," Haluda said. "They've pretty much gone all over the country 'cause they take a lot of trips."

For some families, the initial cost of the GPS device, anywhere from $150 to $350, seems a lot. But when they consider the expense of a day at the amusement park or even one ballgame, it doesn't seem so prohibitive anymore -- and they're having fun together, getting more fit and keeping the kids away from TV.

"The little boy thought it was really cool," Haluda said. "It was totally awesome when we found it."

Unlike his "geoguests," Metcalf had never heard of geocaching when he asked his wife, Maureen, for a GPS device at Christmas.

"I don't know how I'm ever going to top that gift," she said, laughing about her husband's "techie" ways.

Next thing she knew, they were geocachers -- with camping and day trips that offer equal time to his GPS hobby and her interest in crafts.

"We went to Purdue first and found the cache, and we were so proud of ourselves," she said.

"And I enjoy getting the caches together, doing all of our Notre Dame Irish trademarks."

Geocaching across the planet

The Metcalfs, who are both employed in the University of Notre Dame chemistry department, aren't the only ones to use a theme when creating their own caches.

In California, San Jose geocacher Ed Hall said he has alphabetized his series of locations by taking a page from mystery writer Sue Grafton.

The most recent book in her series is "P is for Peril." When Hall names his caches, "A" is for alum, "B" is for beachhead, "C" is for cave dweller.

But for many geocachers, "A" is for "Apes" -- and Hall said he is one of the lucky few to find one of the "Planet of the Apes" movie props, hidden in a series of geocaches around the world as a promotion for 20th-Century Fox's upcoming movie.

Every Friday morning, the studio posts the coordinates of that week's location, be it in Brazil, Japan or the United States. One week, the site was in Mount Diablo State Park, not too far from Hall's office.

"So I took a long lunch," he said.

Sure enough, there was a heavy, oversize, elaborately

designed spoon, complete with a "Planet of the Apes" certificate of authenticity.

"Now I'll have to look for some kind of dining scene," said Hall, who operates the brillig.com/geocaching site, itself a veritable treasure-trove of the globe's mapped cache sites.

"I don't know. I like gadgets," confessed Hall, who sounded a lot like Metcalf as he described his way of combining "techie" interests with a love of maps and the outdoors.

"I always liked the concept of a GPS unit, though I never had any reason to need one until now.

"But the idea to go out on a treasure hunt -- well, who didn't read 'Treasure Island'? With a map and an X on it? And now, you can do that every weekend."

Caching vs. "geoconsequences"

The afternoon seemed well-spent in the Blackwell Forest Preserve, as Zambole and Willmore -- fresh from the Tupperware-container hunt -- meandered around the lake.

"What's unusual, here, is to find these great hidden places in an urban setting," Zambole said. "And the world goes away for a while."

They admired the natural canopy of trees over the trail and looked to see what kind of fish were jumping.

They appreciated the lone Spanish classical guitarist, whose serene sounds hovered over the waters.

And they acknowledged that maybe not everyone -- especially those in park administration -- appreciates the geocachers in return.

Markwell and Midgely, working with their DuPage County Park District, arranged permission for the geocaching picnic and cache hunts as a special one-day event.

"We met with them about a month ago, and they see it as a benefit, to get foot traffic in the park," Midgely said. "So far, the dialogue has been really good."

In his unofficial "rules," Irish has urged GPS enthusiasts to avoid placing caches on private property without permission and to cooperate with public officials about park land.

The cachers are also reminded to protect fragile environmental areas and to adhere to the "cache in, trash out" policy by taking along a bag and cleaning the park while geocaching.

But most national and state parks have rules, too -- rules about being off the trails or about abandoning property in the park -- that geocachers violate, however unintentionally.

Those rules apply in Indiana and Michigan state parks, where officials say they are designed to protect the public and the environment.

"Our mission is to protect the natural areas for people to use, not for people to have places to have paintball games, or whatever," said John Bergman, Indiana's assistant director of field operations for the Department of Natural Resources.

"Sometimes, our mission conflicts with what people want to do."

Bergman said he is unfamiliar with geocaching activities and has not received any complaints from park managers or the public.

"The department does not have a position on geocaching," Bergman said. "Some of this activity may violate existing regulations, and some of it may not."

But GPS enthusiasts insist that they respect the environment and raise awareness of its incalculable value. They use care and common sense, and actually widen the circle of people who enjoy the outdoors.

Some of them even consider their "road less traveled" to be a new sport, one that will expand in the future and include new games and activities based on the GPS technology.

"It's like golf," Zambole explained.

"Except it's a shorter walk, with less anger."

Staff writer Laureen Fagan