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Geo Whiz

GPS units help treasure hunters on a cache course.

Josh Fritz and Scott Hoffman sip lattes in the REI Starbucks, killing time as they wait for their buddy, Jonnie Veatch, to arrive. The three met during elementary school and have stuck together through high school, graduation, college and even marriage. Fritz and Hoffman are hitched to sisters, and they tried to marry off Veatch to the third, but she wouldn't have it.

Meeting like this has become a ritual since Veatch first read about geocaching in ComputorEdge magazine last February. Essentially treasure hunting for big kids, geocaching involves using Global Positioning Systems to find hidden loot. Players go to www.geocaching.com to choose a treasure, or "cache," from a lengthy list -- there are approximately 230 planted within a fifty-mile radius of downtown Denver and more than 600 across Colorado -- and then download their selection's latitude and longitude coordinates and relevant maps into GPS units.

One of the most memorable geocache hunts that Fritz, Hoffman and Veatch went on took them an unexpected four hours, and everyone but Fritz ran out of water. "It was very tough terrain," he remembers. "Jonnie got a leg cramp halfway up and had to wait just below the peak. Goat Mountain is my favorite cache, but I don't think the others cared for it."

That's where the adventure -- and challenge -- of geocaching starts. GPS units work as the crow flies, so a cache listed a mile away could be on the other side of a river or miles of switchbacks, making the game more interesting -- and challenging -- than just finding a spot on a map.

"These aren't any more difficult than driving a car," Jim Reeb says of the units, which retail for about $100. "Most can get it down to within five to seven feet of the object. Usually it's within ten feet."

Reeb is considered "the old man" of Colorado geocaching, having picked it up in July 2001. The sport itself was started by Mike Teague after the Clinton administration removed the GPS signal degradation called Select Availability on May 1, 2000. That day, Teague hid a small treasure outside of Portland, Oregon, and posted its GPS coordinates on his Web site. Seattle resident Jeremy Irish found the cache and contacted Teague about adding maps and forums. The project grew, and Teague turned it over to Irish, who now runs the Web site with Bryan Roth. Today there are 1,786 registered geocachers in Colorado alone.

When Veatch finally walks through the doors, dressed in an Australian-style oilcloth duster, Hoffman and Fritz tease him about misplacing his GPS unit. Again. But Fritz, the leader of the EdFredO Clan, as they're known on the geocaching.com message board, is always prepared. He plunks his backpack on the table, and out come water bottles, a first-aid kit, a GPS unit, a cell phone, trash bags and the tools for creating a "South Platte River II" cache -- their last geocaching adventure before Hoffman moves to Minnesota with his wife, Beth. The multi-cache hunt Fritz designed will require geocachers to solve trivia questions and math problems at six locations along the Platte. The answers will give hunters the missing GPS A, B, C, D, E and F coordinates of the treasure. A list of clues, as well as instructions directing them to a starting-point parking lot along the river, will be posted online, so hunters will need both GPS units and word-problem-solving skills to find the treasure.

The quart-sized clear plastic container the EdFredO Clan intends to hide is brimming with trinkets: a Hard Rock Cafe golf ball and tees, a $5 gift card to Starbucks, a bag of marbles, a glow-stick ring and necklace, a Christmas brooch, a Dominik Hasek trading card, an American flag pin, a "Where's George" $2 bill, a log book with pen and pencil. Etiquette dictates that cachers take something from the cache, replace it with another item, sign the log and then post their experience.

"You shouldn't place anything you wouldn't want a ten-year-old to find," advises Michael Lapaglia, a 47-year-old Centennial resident and design engineer. "I lean toward camping gear. Things like portable clothesline reels."

Still, several Front Range municipalities have banned geocaching -- not because the hikes could endanger hunters, but because the caches themselves could prove a danger. "Once the coordinates are posted in a public forum, anyone has access to the cache and could put anything in the cache they wish," Colorado Springs senior geographic information software analyst Scott Thompson posted on geocaching.com last July. "If a person put a harmful substance in a cache, and the next cacher was injured, the City could be liable if a lawsuit were filed."

There are guidelines for hiding caches on geocaching.com, and Irish and Roth have been refining the rules to stave off the threat of outright bans. They've clarified that caches should always be on designated trails, never buried, and not hidden by active railroad tracks or under public structures deemed targets for terrorist attacks. They enlisted a group of ten volunteers to approve new cache postings, checking for accuracy and noting those that people have complained about.

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