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'Geocaching': High-tech scavenger hunting

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 5:50 a.m.

Looking, looking, looking, down a dirt access road, puddles in the ruts. Past a mound of broken picnic tables, a tire pyre, an old upholstered chair. Well off the Mammoth Park trail map.

Still looking.

Sandy Harmening leads the way. She looks down at the GPS - a Global Positioning System, a digital compass the size of a cell phone. The display shows her coordinates (40 degrees north, 79 degrees west), her distance (about 200 feet) and her destination, marked with a dollar sign. The arrow points left.

Off she goes, followed by her brother-in-law, Greg Harmening, and Greg's wife, Margie. They're from Mt. Pleasant. Sandy's from Scottdale.

Single-file now, through a thicket, sneakers loosing wet leaves. Up the hillside, off to the right, under a thorny branch. The arrow spins. They're close.

Very near here - in a tree stump, maybe, or the crook of an elm branch, or an old animal burrow - someone has hidden a geocache, a stash of stickers, Slinkys, key chains and Happy Meal toys.

If they find it, the Harmenings will sign the Zip-locked log book, take a souvenir and leave something for the next group. Then they'll go look for another one.

"This is a way to stay close to home and still see different places," says Greg, a cyclist and occasional sailor. He bought a GPS to navigate on water, then stumbled into the geocache Web site, www.geocaching.com . Now he's hooked on cache hunting.

"No matter where you go, you can punch the ZIP code in and find one to look for," he says.

The game - part sport, part scavenger hunt - started in May 2000, when the federal government unscrambled the signals from 24 satellites, making GPS units accurate to within 30 feet. An Oregon man hid a cache outside Portland, then mentioned it to an Internet newsgroup. Three days later, two people had found it.

As the price of basic GPS units dropped to near $100, day-hikers and campers joined in. What started as hide-and-seek for techno geeks grew into an all-ages, end-of-the-rainbow hunt, with almost 9,000 caches hidden in all 50 states, and in 80 other countries.

Some are in parks or old quarries, or along bike trails. Others, like the "Heroes of Flight 93" cache, at the crash memorial in Shanksville, Somerset County, are left in public. Still others are on islands, in caves or underwater. Some hold coordinates for others, extending the search; one California cache moves every eight days.

The coordinates and compass points usually get searchers within 30 feet of the stash. "From there, it's pretty much like an Easter egg hunt," says John Motto of Greensburg, who goes out with his nephews.

Getting that close can be tricky, though. A GPS shows straight-line distance - a route Pennsylvania's terrain rarely allows.

"You get out there, and the arrow points up this mountain, and it's, 'Now what?'" says Jason Parkhill, a technology services administrator at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington County. "Part of the challenge is finding the best trail. No one wants to walk through thorn bushes for a tenth of a mile."

Many, in fact, prefer the hike to the find. "It's not about the treasure," Motto says. "It's about the walk. Finding something at the end just adds a bit of suspense."

"People are natural explorers," says Jeremy Irish, the Seattle dot-commer who runs the geocaching Web site. "But there isn't much on the planet that hasn't been explored and documented. This is an outlet for all that pent-up adventuring we all have inside ourselves."

Most caches are kept in Tupperware, or in ammunition boxes. Most are clearly marked, with an explanation of the game inside, so non-players who come across them won't carry them off.

Almost anything can be left in them: stickers, Superballs, pins, batteries, Band-Aids, lottery tickets. Cracker Jack stuff.

Food is discouraged, to keep animals away.

Irish promotes a "cache in, trash out" policy, encouraging gamers to collect and carry out any litter they see. He also warns people to steer clear of private property, including national parks.

The National Park Service forbids geocaches. Rangers have fined cachers at at least four park sites, including the Grand Canyon.

Pennsylvania state parks allow the activity.

Gene Patterson, a network administrator at the nuclear power plant in Shippingport, hid his first cache in an old strip mine at the edge of Brush Creek Park in Beaver County. It's a favorite place, off the normal path, and he wanted more people to see it.

"A lot of people don't get into that part of the park," he says. "I pretty much grew up there."

He filled the cache with lava rocks, Heinz pickle pins and old Duquesne Light postcards, complete with fake nuclear fuel pellets. They've since shown up in other caches around the region.

Unusual trinkets quickly take on a life of their own, appearing in one cache after another. A small ceramic chicken has made the rounds. So has a toy car with the Krispy Kreme logo. The Monkey Cache, a bin filled with pieces from a Barrel of Monkeys game, started in Linn Run State Park; the monkeys are now in 12 states, with another in Canada.

"There seems to be a really strong competition to get things like that, or to be the first person to get to a cache," says Mark Michrina, a North Carolina cacher who found a software-themed cache there. (He left a CD-ROM of "Where in the World is Carmen Santiago?")

Michrina spent part of the summer in Indiana County, caching with his in-laws. He flew home with an Air Force uniform stripe he found in a Keystone State Park cache. It started circulating in Ohio.

The Harmenings, back on that hillside in Mammoth Park, don't find anything that exotic. They do get the cache, under some stones beneath a spruce tree; it's a plastic container painted to look like a UFO. Inside are a number of toy aliens, a flag, a sheriff's pin, a computer microphone and one of Gene Patterson's Duquesne Light postcards.

Sandy takes the pin and some stickers and leaves a rosary. Greg and Margie sign the log book, then help cover the cache.

They hope to make the Shanksville cache before dinner; Greg has some holy water he'd like to leave there. For now, though, they linger, enjoying the new view, quiet as the morning fog burns off.

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