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Extreme Geocaching Catching on in Seattle

Here are the code words: "Dada, did you find my green, bouncy ball?"

If you hear my 7-year-old saying that to my husband as you walk by, they're most certainly not searching for a lost ball. They're trying to present an innocent front as they peer behind trees, underneath benches, or other odd places during their hunt for a new geocache. Keeping the caches secret from passersby is all part of the game.

The puzzle-solving sport sounded so simple and innocuous when I signed up Benjamin, then 6, for a week of geocaching summer camp at the Evergreen School in Shoreline. He would use his wits and a Global Positioning System (GPS) device that uses satellites to mark his location precisely, exploring parks, beaches and other public places to discover pre-hidden "caches." Finding some caches required simply reading straightforward directions; others would require riddle solving, code-breaking, research and an astonishing eye for detail. The cache, once discovered, might include just a tiny logbook where he could record his name or, perhaps, a little box of treats to trade.

Here's what I didn't know: That one of the pine cones hanging from a tree near Woodland Park is man-made (with a logbook hidden inside.) That one of the fences near a major children's attraction conceals a makeshift pinball machine that shoots out a logbook. That a trash can along a major street in North Seattle has a false bottom hiding a geocache box. That there are 19,888 geocaches in Washington state at last count, and my kids – aided, and then abetted, by my husband – would keep crossing more off the list, until even a simple arboretum trip to admire the spring magnolia blooms would bring on the question, "Do you think there are geocaches here?" (The answer: Yes, three within an easy walk. We found two of them.)

Benjamin requested his own GPS for his birthday. And, as we began talking with friends about the obsession, it was like waxing enthusiastic about a great new book you only recently discovered about a kid named Harry Potter. His school pal, Andrew, we learned, had spent an entire family "staycation" hunting down geocaches around the region. Every day meant a trip to another city or lake or trail to explore. His buddy, Lucy, had her own geocaching handle. One of his oldest friends, Ariadne, now 9, had gone geocaching at her school's overnight camp.

The sport is relatively young, starting in 2000, when the U.S. government allowed open public access to data from its positioning satellites. Its Web site, tracking more than a million caches worldwide (http://www.geocaching.com) is headquartered in Seattle, with local founders.

For kids, the appeal is clear. It's a chance to explore new places outdoors. It's a treasure hunt, notes Alice Kaderlan of the Seattle YMCA, which offers regular geocaching camps. "But kids also learn how to use a compass and about direction, latitude and longitude, which is also very engaging, especially for kids with a scientific bent."

As I'm discovering, it has the same multigenerational appeal as chess, where kids and adults can play together at any level, but adults can also take it to as cerebral and extreme a level as they like. Which can be extremely extreme. Did I mention the day my husband rented a wetsuit to dive 15 feet underwater to place his latest invention? (It was found the next morning by another dad, who wrote online that he dropped his kids off at school before shaking the dust off his old SCUBA gear.) And I don't think any kids could crack his five-part "math and science" cache, which he sent to an engineering professor and three computer geek friends to have them double-check his equations.

But my son is perfectly happy to set out on expeditions with his dad, and to create a cache at his own comfort level. He concealed "Small Woods, Big Tree" on an easy nature walk near our house. As people find it and log it online, he likes to see reactions like these:

"We really enjoyed our hike to the lake. I wish we brought a picnic!"

"Beautiful spot along this creek. I would never have come to this park but for geocaching..."

I think he enjoys the semi-secret nature of it, the idea that he is looking for something no one else around him knows is there. Although I haven't caught the geocaching bug myself, I can relate. I was a kid who was always lost in books, as familiar with Oz and Narnia as my own back yard. I see geocaching adding that same magical sense to my son's life that is one of the best parts of childhood – that feeling that every tree could be hiding a treasure, that an ordinary signpost could have a secret double meaning, that a new and delightful mystery is waiting around every corner.

Rebekah Denn is a writer in Seattle. Her 3-year-old is still learning not to announce loudly that he is out looking for geocaches.


Getting Started


For the first time, "GeoWoodstock," a worldwide gathering of geocachers, is being held in the Seattle area. It'll be at Remlinger Farms in Carnation on July 3, with tons of activities organized around it, including a hike to a 2001 cache hidden near Snoqualmie Pass as part of a promotion for the Planet of the Apes movie. www.geowoodstock.com.


A geocaching camp is a great way to learn the basics, and many Seattle-area organizations regularly offer them.
This summer's camps include:

• Auburn YMCA, July 12 through 16, and Northshore YMCA, July 26 through 30, both for youth ages 10 to13 (details online at www.ysummer.org).

• Campfire geocaching camp, Aug. 17 through 22, for kids in grades eight to 10 (www.campfire-usa.org/camp/classiccamp.htm).

The Pacific Science Center plans to start offering GPS-themed birthday parties in the fall. They're calling them "educational scavenger hunts," not geocaching events, but kids will learn how to use a GPS.

Try this online beginner's guide: www.geocaching.com/about/default.aspx.
Basic membership at www.Geocaching.com is free, and gives access to many, but not all, geocache descriptions and locations.

If you don't want to invest in a GPS (they start around $80, though used ones are usually available on Craigslist), you can manage with a smartphone, although it won't be as accurate. The iPhone has a $9.99 geocaching app: www.geocaching.com/iphone/.

The "Geomate.jr," ($69.95), aimed at families, is not a stand-alone GPS, but comes preloaded with cache locations: www.rei.com/product/788357.

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