Finding the geocache

Searchers hunt for prizes in global positioning adventure

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— The availability of reasonably priced handheld GPS devices for cross-country navigation combined with the allure of online communities has spawned a new form of recreation in the mountains and canyons of Colorado.

Geocaching is catching on in Routt County -- anyone who is skeptical can visit geocaching.com, type in the 80477 zip code and find the coordinates for caches hidden in the mountains surrounding Steamboat Springs.

They also will be able to read enthusiastic comments from people who have taken their families into the woods on a "treasure hunt."

"My guests really enjoy the adventure of geocaching. It gives them something else to do in Steamboat," said Lynn Atkinson, proprietor of Alpine Rose Bed and Breakfast.

Recently she stashed a new cache behind an evergreen tree on the trail above Fish Creek Falls.

Geocaching could be described as adventure hiking for GPS users.

The word geocache is pronounced "geo-cash." The acronym GPS stands for global positioning system.

The devices use satellites to triangulate and pinpoint locations by latitude and longitude. They can guide users to within 6-20 feet of known coordinates.

Some GPS have their own maps, built-in electronic compasses and voice navigation, depending on the complexity of the device.

The hunt begins when someone hides a waterproof box or sealed PVC pipe in the woods.

The person hiding the cache records the precise longitude and latitude where it sits, out of sight, but on top of the ground. The site is given a name and the coordinates are posted on the Internet, inviting people to seek it out.

Skilled GPS users can punch the coordinates into their GPS at the trailhead and guide themselves to the correct vicinity. Some cache originators offer clues; others make it as hard on seekers as possible.

Typically, the cache contains prizes of modest value. People who locate the cache are expected to take along a replacement prize to exchange with anything they want from the cache.

Geocaches should never be buried but left above ground, and some of the things that should never be placed inside them are self-evident. For example, any kind of food is a no-no because of its potential to attract wild animals.

Atkinson's new cache up Fish Creek is contained in a bright orange plastic "ammo box" which is sealed by a rubber gasket.

She stuffed it with a corkscrew, an old cell phone, a VHS tape of the 1975 film "Shampoo" starring Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn and Julie Christie; a miniature cowbell, a Steamboat souvenir spoon, a deck of cards, a nature guide, a paperback self-help book and a disposable camera.

"It's a great way to recycle stuff," Atkinson laughed.

The disposable camera isn't intended to be removed from the cache.

Instead, finders are asked to take pictures of themselves and leave the undeveloped film as a record of their success.

There's also a notebook and pen to serve as a registry for cache finders, and provide them with the opportunity to record their impressions.

Officials at the Medicine Bow/Routt National Forest take a circumspect position on the subject of geocaching. They are concerned that geocaching could result in user-created trails in the National Forest.

And in some respects, a geochache is litter. However, the Forest Service does not have a policy specifically addressing geocaching.

"Geocaching is extremely popular and is rapidly growing in Colorado and Wyoming with hundreds of caches on National Forest lands and some in designated wilderness," USFS spokeswoman Diann Ritschard said. "The Forest Service recognizes that geocaching is enjoyed by a growing number of people, but that some limitations may be necessary to protect natural resources."

Ritschard said her agency is considering several options for managing geocaching. Regulations prohibit leaving property on the forest for more than 14 days. There are more specific prohibitions about storing property within certain wilderness areas, she said.

The speed with which people have learned to communicate via e-mail and the Internet helped the popularity of geocaching grow faster than Forest Service and other land managers could react.

At least a dozen geoacaches are hidden within a half-day's drive of Steamboat, and several are right on the edge of town.

"Bruce's Box" was hidden by the Whiskey Park Gang on Aug. 2. It's located just off Bruce's Trail between mile marker 147 and 148 on Rabbit Ears Pass.

The cache is contained in a Tupperware container with a blue lid. It's about the size of a shoe box.

It contains a logbook, pencil, camera, a Hotwheels car, Silly Putty, emergency blanket, fisherman's clippers, a guardian spider, ninja nerd coin and bug spray.

On a system of five stars, with five being the most difficult, the Whiskey Park Gang rates the cache with two stars in terms of difficulty searchers will encounter attempting to locate it. They give it three stars in terms of difficulty of surrounding terrain.

The waypoints that searchers need to enter into their GPS to find the cache can be downloaded at www.geocaching.com.

Ritschard suggests that the natural beauty of the forests and mountains surrounding Steamboat should be sufficient reward for geocaching enthusiasts.

"Virtual caches -- a beautiful view, a neat tree or a special rock formation -- are encouraged rather than physical caches," she said.

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