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Geocaching: Worldwide treasure hunt is bountiful in these parts

A scavenger hunt on a global scale

Mark and Joyce Halloran unveil one of the North Conway village geocaches they found using their GPS. Rachael Brown. (click for larger version)
April 15, 2010
Mark says a friend from Massachusetts, Bob Anderson, kept urging the Hallorans to become geocachers.

"We resisted for awhile because we were trying to finish the National Parks. After that project was completed we started and have been at it ever since," says Mark.

"It's addictive," adds Joyce.

Just what is geocaching? The Hallorans explain, beginning with the history.

The Global Positioning System was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense for military use. Up until 2000, the signals were scrambled or dithered so that the signal changed every second and a civilian could not get a true reading of their location, explains Mark. "You would never know where you were," he says.

On May 1, 2000, President Clinton issued an executive order to turn the dithering off. Civilians using GPS were now able to experience an accuracy of 30 feet.

Dave Ulmer, from Portland, Oregon, decided to test the accuracy of a GPS device on May 3, 2000. He published a coordinate on a website and challenged the public to find a bucket of trinkets he hid in the woods. The next day, the bucket was found and geocaching was born, says Mark.

According to gpsgames.org Ulmer's original bucket is still in the same spot, along with the trinkets, the log book and the general rule: Sign the log book, if you take something from the cache container, leave something in its place.

Geocaching is big. So big, there are over 1,035,088 hidden caches throughout the world and three to four million people worldwide who participate in these high tech treasure hunts. Mark and Joyce are big among the geocachers. "We are in the top 500 in the world," says Mark. They are actually number 150 and number one in New Hampshire. The Hallorans have located over 9,000 geocaches and have 148 geocaches hidden in New Hampshire, with many in the North Conway area.

It doesn't take much to get involved. Mark says to become involved the first step is to visit www.geocache.com. "There are free memberships, but to get the good maps and information you need a paid membership, and there are different levels of membership," he says.

With paid memberships, a geocacher can download 500 pocket queries (list of coordinates) at one time. "Anytime we go someplace, I download the coordinates for the geocaches into our portable GPS, which also gives driving directions. We have thrown our road maps away," says Mark.

Nicknames play a role, too. "Everyone has a nickname," says Mark. Mark is known as Hipointer and Joyce is known as Capiti. Mark got his nickname because he reached the highest point in 50 states — only 21 people had done so at the time. Joyce's nickname rhymes with sweetie. Another New Hampshire women from Boscawen is nicknamed Meandmydogs. Bob Anderson, from Massachusetts, is Bushwack Bob. One nickname you don't want is Muggle (from Harry Potter books). Muggles are outsiders, or those who do not geocache.

Not much is needed to set up a geocache, but there are rules.

Mark explains that a geocache cannot be set up in national parks, on military sites and can be no further than 100 miles away from the geocacher's home. "You have to submit your geocache to the geocache website to be reviewed and approved," says Mark. He adds that geocachers must maintain the caches, checking for leaky boxes, making sure boxes are stocked, checking logs — hence the reason for the 100-mile limitation.

Cache boxes range from Tupperware containers to film canisters to varying size ammo cans. Of course, cache items should be small, inexpensive and not dangerous. Examples include compasses, pencils, trinkets, small toys, batteries. If you take something, you must put something back.

Friendships develop along the way and new places are discovered. "You can appreciate places you have never been, right here in North Conway," says Joyce.

"People find each other and start trading stories, sharing experiences; we have made good friends, especially in Florida," adds Mark.

Geocaching attracts people from all ages, all backgrounds. "This attracts all ages, all educational levels," says Joyce. "But most people are like us — retired and active outdoors. It is also an inexpensive way to have a good time with grandchildren outdoors; kids love to find toys in the caches," she adds.

Some people are really into geocaching, like the man from Vermont who tattooed himself with the message "Find Me," says Mark.

Geocaching has found its way into the public schools and libraries. The most interest is in the geocaching trackable items. Trackable items are geocoins and travel bugs. The coins and bugs are assigned a tracking ID and travel from geocache to geocache, picking up stories along the way. Mark says children like to follow and teachers pair the trackables with history and geography lessons.

"If school children are studying the Louisiana Purchase, they can follow the coins to different states and learn history and geography lessons at the same time," says Mark. Libraries even offer geocaching courses.

It's not only the Hallo-rans who hide caches in the Valley. Geocaching has also made its way into the retail sector. This past January, Settlers' Green Outlet Village got into the geocache game.

"Our geocache site was approved in January 2010 and on February 11 was the first find," says Megan Ramsay, administrative assistant for Settlers' Green Outlet Village. Ramsay is a geocacher herself. "I did this [geocaching] two summers ago and found 10 caches. It is like a scavenger hunt, and there's a hurrah at the end when you find something," she says.

Geocachers are thankful. Both Ramsay and the Hallorans say the messages left in the log are always thankful.

"It is a great way for us to pull people in to Settlers' Green and we receive many messages of thanks, such as, 'My wife was shopping — this gave me something to do'," says Ramsay.

She adds that there is a special language, similar to text messaging. TNLN means 'took nothing, left nothing'; TFTC means 'thanks for the cache.' Joyce shares messages left after cachers have searched Diana's Baths: "This [Diana's Baths] is so beautiful! We never would have found this."

"And just think — most muggles wouldn't know anything about this," says Ramsay with a grin.

Garnett Hill
Martin Lord Osman
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