Lucky families find togetherness along the way By Hilary Masell Oswaldphotos courtesy of Hilary Masell Oswald Jeannine and Christopher Riske bask in the glow of finding their cache in a Hinsdale park. Above, Ben Ballmer finds his cache in Michigan's Sleeping Dunes National Park.
The romance of treasure hunting meets the high-tech world of global satellite positioning devices in a new game for adventurers of all sizes and spirits. Geocaching is the name of the game, and it is challenging individuals and families all across the world to join in the hunt.
Just like hide-and-seek, geocaching requires a hider and a seeker. Armed with a handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device, the hider heads out to find a perfect location to stash a small waterproof container, filled with trinkets and treasures. He uses his GPS device to figure out the latitude and longitude coordinates of his cache and, when he returns home, he logs those coordinates and a brief, tantalizing, description of the area into the Web site www.geocaching.com.
The seeker visits the site to find a cache in her area. The site allows a visitor to search by ZIP code, so seekers don't have to travel too far to find a hidden treasure. And caches are ranked by difficulty: the more stars attached to the cache, the more difficult the hunt.
Once the seeker learns the coordinates of a cache, she grabs her own GPS device and heads outside to find her treasure. She enters the "waypoints"-the coordinates-of the cache into her device, and she can see where she is in relation to that particular spot in the world. Obviously, there are many ways to get to one location, so geocachers must use a map to help them determine the best way to approach their treasure.
So what's the fuss all about? Families in Chicagoland who are avid geocachers describe the thrill of anticipation: Where will we go? What will we see along the way? What will we find?
Many caches are hidden in unusual places. Adventurers can find treasures near the Route 59 train station in Naperville, beside a rare bamboo grove in Hinsdale and at Evanston's Lighthouse Beach Park. Traveling adventurers can find caches in all 50 states and in more than 190 countries.
The thrill of the hunt So how do GPS devises work? Here's the basic explanation: the Global Positioning System is a network of 27 satellites that orbit the earth in such a way that at any time, there are four satellites visible to the device. Using radio signals from the satellites, the device reads the distance between itself and these four satellites. From that information, it figures out where exactly it is on earth. (For a detailed explanation, and a kid-friendly analogy, visit www.howstuffworks.com and search for GPS.)
Margo Scholl, Rob Ballmer and their sons, Alex and Ben, arm themselves with a few coordinates whenever they go on a road trip these days. These Evanston natives know that a wild family adventure doesn't have to cost a lot of money or involve man-made special effects. They bought a used GPS device several years ago-when new, the devices sell for about $100-and 8-year-old Alex, a technophile, is a pro at guiding his family through any terrain. Ben, 4, whose interest is more literary, follows his brother, shouting, "Tell me when we're going north ‘cause then we're going to see Glinda the Good Witch. When we're going east or west, those are the ways to the wicked witches."
Margo speaks about geocaching with affection, but she reminds parents that there are no guarantees. A GPS device can guide adventurers to a spot within about 20 feet of the cache, but eventually they must rely on their eyes and curiosity to find the spoils.
"That's the best part," reports Jeannine Riske, 13, of Western Springs. "I get so excited when I realize that we're near the cache and we start looking for the treasure." Her 9-year-old brother Christopher favors the moment of triumph, when he pulls the cache out of a log or a stump.
Their parents, David and Mary Ann Riske, introduced their children to geocaching several years ago because they wanted an activity that combined hiking and technology. They reminisce eagerly about their adventures, which have taken them to the near-top of Pikes Peak, through a marsh and across a pond via boat.
The Riske family doesn't just find the caches; they hide them as well. Mary Ann, a fourth-grade teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Brookfield, uses geocaching to teach her students about longitude and latitude. David hides the caches while she teaches her students how to use the GPS device, divides them into two groups, and gives each team a set of coordinates. "Geocaching is a great way to teach kids about spatial relationships, and we talked about how GPS devices work, which is an interesting lesson," she says.
Families who participate in these treasure hunts for the 21st century echo the same refrain: geocaching gives them time to be together, away from the typical distractions of life. It gives them a chance to explore, problem solve and laugh.
And while finding trinkets in a log in the woods is fun, the real treasure seems to be the journey.
Quick tips to get started Many local outdoor stores sell GPS devices. Visit one in your neighborhood and ask for a demonstration.
If you embark on a geocaching excursion, remember to take a flashlight, extra batteries for the GPS device and a compass. And pack a few trinkets to drop in the cache. Veteran geocachers know to take a treasure from the cache and then leave something for the next visitor.
Don't leave food in a cache. It will inevitably be pillaged by wild animals or hungry college students.
Many geocachers include a small notebook in their caches. Feel free to jot down the date, your name and any interesting stories about your journey.
Hilary Masell Oswald is a writer living in Naperville.