Geocachers use GPS in high-tech scavenger hunt
Aug 19, 2012 (Independent Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
CONCORD, N.C. -- The two soldiers drew their guns down on Gary Horton as he drove through a public hunting area.
Horton was searching for a hidden cache, but he wasn't looking for trouble.
Horton is a geocacher, someone who uses a GPS device to track coordinates to find a "cache" or container with a log book to record his discovery of the hidden cache, which sometimes holds personal trinkets. It's a modern-day scavenger hunt, using GPS coordinates to find the caches.
On this particular geocaching trip, Horton, of Concord, had driven to an area near Lumberton and stumbled upon a location used by the military for training exercises. The two soldiers let him pass to collect his cache. But before he could find the latest prize he had to pass another batch of soldiers who opened fire on him. Fortunately they were firing blanks, but it still unnerved Horton.
Determined to find the latest cache and get the information he needed to show he found it, Horton got out of his vehicle and wandered around. Unfortunately he stumbled into an area rigged with tripwires and smoke bombs.
"I wasn't expecting that, so I'm running around and I look and here's all these service men dug in laughing," Horton said, remembering the adventure. Even then Horton still pushed forward, looking for the cache. He found it, an old ammo box by some pine trees.
He still remembers what he wrote in the log book that day.
"I got hijacked, I got shot at, I got blown up, I'm signing the log, getting the hell out of here and going home," Horton wrote.
20k caches in N.C. alone
It's one of many adventures that Horton has had since he discovered geocaching. The website www.geocaching.com allows people like Horton to log on and find out where caches are hidden and also allows people to create caches that can be hidden all over the world.
He has now found more than 10,000 caches. Sometimes they may just have information that is used to log onto geocaching.com and show what he found and type in a comment. Sometimes people leave behind trinkets and treasures.
And they can be everywhere. During a recent visit to the Independent Tribune office, Horton logged on saw that there were more than 19 caches in downtown Concord.
Horton caught the bug after he saw a TV show on geocaching more than 10 years ago. It was around that time that the government allowed GPS technology to go to the private. That led to the geocaching phenomenon with people hiding caches all over the world for people to find and go online to discuss.
"The saturation is tremendous," Horton said. He said he did a geocaching program in 2000 and his research showed that back then there were only about 16 caches in North Carolina. He said today there are more than 20,000 caches just in North Carolina.
Caches can be anywhere -- on an island or anchored underwater. Plus, geocachers love to make it difficult to find the caches, so they are often disguised.
Horton has made a cache that looks like a bolt that he plans to put in a guardrail. He also drilled out a stone to turn it into a cache and plans to hide it in a pile of rocks. He calls that cache "Sweet Revenge," because for him its revenge for all the times he's spent hours looking for a well-hidden cache.
"We have one on the international space station," Horton said, admitting nobody will be "finding" that one any time soon.
Smartphones make it easy
Jim Drewitz, a public relations officer for McCurtain County Tourism Authority in Oklahoma, is a fellow geocacher and has seen more and more people hit the parks up using the GPS devices to go hiking and geocaching.
"The start of the GPS and the Smartphones opened up a whole new adventure in outdoors," Drewitz said. "It's not just hiking. It is hiking, looking for a specific spot."
Drewitz said even if a cache doesn't have any trinkets, it's still worth finding.
"It is the satisfaction you have in finding a cache," he said. "When you set a goal and achieve it, there is tremendous pride."
Now, with Smartphone's having GPS applications, anyone can become a geocacher, limited only by the expense of traveling to find caches.
Horton has gone as far as driving with a friend for 10,000 miles, going to 22 states in five days looking for caches. He's also traveled to Alaska and London in search of caches, which sometimes can just be a really cool location that the GPS coordinates guide him too.
"The little out of the way, really cool places that it would take you, the statues, the monuments, historical places that are not on your normal tourist list," Horton said.
Some caches may have trinkets, like sunglasses, or a baseball card or some odd item left behind by the last geocacher. The rule is if you take something out you put something back that has equal or greater value, keeping people coming back looking for the cache and then going online to talk about it. But the caches are often so well hidden the average person will walk right by them.
"I like to put it right in front of you and make you work hard to find it," Horton said. "It's just the competitive part of it, of, 'I can hide it where you can't find it, but its right here for everybody to walk past and have no idea.'" Horton has even gone so far as to create a fake right-of-way marker and hide a cache inside it. He's even hidden a few at Frank Liske Park and other places.
Geocaching at Liske Park
Jordan Kime, of Concord, is a Cabarrus County park ranger, and she recently held a geocaching crash course at Frank Liske Park, with her class walking right by the cache that Horton hid. He said it's so well hidden some people have had to go back and search for more than a dozen times before finding the cache.
Kime is still a little new to geocaching, but was able to guide her class through the park discovering the plastic containers that another park ranger had hid earlier that day. She first discovered geocaching while in college and her classmates went on an expedition.
She said that with so many different people and personalities geocaching you never know what the last person has left behind in the cache you may discover.
Kime added that caches can be hidden all over Cabarrus County.
"If you want to only drive 10 miles there could be 50 caches in that area, just depending on where you are," she said.
But the GPS devices are not 100 percent accurate, adding to the challenge of finding the caches. The GPS will probably get a geocacher within 10 to 20 feet of the cache, but then they have to start looking to find it.
This is something that 13-year-old Sammy Stapp found out for himself. He participated in Kime's geocaching class at Frank Liske Park after he had just competed in a 5K at the park. When he was using the GPS he followed the coordinates and then had to look for the containers which were hidden all around the park just before his 5K run.
"I ran by two of them," he said. "It's kind of weird, because you didn't even notice them whenever you were going past them the first time."
His father, Andy Stapp, did say there was one "hazard" of geocaching -- paying attention to the GPS screen that indicates which direction to go and actually paying attention to which direction you're walking in.
"It's kind of like texting and walking," Andy Stapp said as he tried to navigate through the woods. After about an hour the family had found several different containers, leading up to a treasure chest full of different treats. Sammy Stapp grabbed himself a pack of Pop Rocks at the end of the trek that had them wandering for about a mile through the park.
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