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Geocaching: A modern-day treasure hunt
A Web site and a GPS become your digital map to find a hidden geocache
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Elachee Nature Science Center volunteer Erik van Dyck sifts through a geocache container that he found on the West Lake Trail at the Elachee Aquatic Center. Once the cache is found, geocachers are to take something from the cache, leave something in the cache and write about it in the logbook. - photo by SARA GUEVARA
On a recent Thursday morning at Elachee Nature Science Center, Erik van Dyck was searching for something that was off the beaten path.

Specifically, van Dyck was looking for a geocache, a hidden container found through an activity known as geocaching.

What started as an idea for a challenging, high-tech treasure hunt involving an Internet forum and a GPS, or global positioning system, has evolved into the worldwide sport of geocaching.

"The military has had GPS technology forever, but until May of 2000, they scrambled the signals so for civilian use it wasn’t nearly as accurate. Then in May of 2000 they decided to make GPS available to civilians, so that’s when geocaching started," said van Dyck, an avid geocacher.

Van Dyck said he got involved with geocaching when someone suggested he try it out.

During a Boy Scout camping session, van Dyck said he tried to geocache the old-fashioned way.

"I spent two hours stumbling through the woods looking at coordinates based on a map," he said.

He didn’t find the geocache, but the challenge remained. So the following weekend, van Dyck bought a GPS, went back to the camping site and found the geocache.

Since then, van Dyck has been hooked. He volunteers at Elachee, occasionally leading geocaching expeditions. Van Dyck also is involved with the Georgia Geocaching Association, which meets once a month and often hosts geocaching challenges. Later this fall, van Dyck said Elachee would host a geocaching competition in which some 70 geocaching enthusiasts would race to uncover geocaches planted specifically for the event.

With more than 5,000 geocaches hidden in Georgia, geocaching is an activity that can be enjoyed by all ages. The basic tools needed to geocache are a handheld GPS, access to geocaching site geocaching.com, a mode of transportation and a bit of time.

To start, you enter a ZIP code into the Web site to find geocaches hidden in the area.

When you plug in the corresponding coordinates, your GPS gives you the longitude and latitude of the geocache, and from there the geocacher follows the GPS directions.

This is easier said than done. Those who hide geocaches have a few tricks up their sleeves, prompting the development of difficulty ratings to appear on the geocaching Web site.

After searching the geocache hot spot for a bit, van Dyck refers to the information sheet he printed about the geocache. A cryptic hint points him toward a fallen tree. Some geocaches, like this one, come with a puzzle to solve, and some are multistage affairs. Oftentimes the most difficult geocaches to find are the most inaccessible ones, van Dyck said, such as geocaches hidden in Lake Lanier that are only reachable by boat.

It doesn’t take much longer before van Dyck spots the geocache — a metal box disguised by branches.

Geocachers usually bring a trinket to place in the geocache box, take a trinket from the box and sign their name in a little notepad enclosed in the geocache to log their find. They also log the find on the Web site, which helps hiders and finders track the geocache.

Van Dyck notes the contents of the geocache — which is almost filled to the brim with the trinkets of past finders — before he puts it securely back in its hiding spot for future geocachers to discover.

Van Dyck finds reasons for geocaching’s allure simple.

"It takes people on really neat hikes; it’s great exercise, and it’s good to have a destination," van Dyck said. "You feel like you’ve accomplished something when you find it."

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