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Geo Whiz

Jonnie Veatch, Scott Hoffman and Josh Fritz stand at the site of their Platte River geocache.
John Johnston

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.

Some complaints surfaced when early geocachers showed a predilection for ammunition boxes: After September 11, park rangers weren't keen on finding abandoned ammo containers lying around. But since then, savvy geocachers have traded up to Tupperware, clearly labeling it as a geocache, including an explanation of the sport and listing a contact phone number or e-mail address.

Lapaglia, who started the Colorado Association of Cache Hunting Enthusiasts to help foster geocacher-friendly policies, scoffs at officials' fears. A disproportionate number of the 38,702 geocaches planted globally are located in secluded areas, he points out, rather than on sites that are prime terrorist targets. "Yeah, someone's really going to walk twelve miles into the wilderness to plant a bomb," he says.

CACHE's first meeting this past July attracted fifty people. The group's next meeting is planned for this month; naturally, members will have to find it using their GPS units and coordinates from the Web site.


Coffee finished, the EdFredO Clan is out the door, heading northeast along the Platte.

Fritz, whose moniker on the boards is agentK12, finds the spot he's seeking and climbs down to a rock outcropping. He planted a cache here before (South Platte River I), but it was stolen. "I think it was a transient who took it," he says. "But they replaced it with a bag of clothes." He shifts boulders until he finds a sheltered, secluded recess in which to place the container.

While Fritz fusses with rocks, Veatch looks for trash, collecting a discarded McDonald's bag. "Those geese just don't need this," he says.

Geocachers take trash removal very seriously. They say they are better stewards of open spaces and urban parks than many other patrons: They don't litter, they pack out others' trash, and they're considerate of nature.

"I just think geocaching is environmentally friendly," Fritz says as they head toward a spiral of rocks near the starting-point lot. "It's not like we ruin the environment. There are strict rules. We pick up trash; I always take a trash bag with me."

At the rocks, Fritz looks for a place to leave a film canister that holds the clue to the C coordinate, one with protection from the wind and low visibility from the trail. Even though Denver has no official policy on geocaching, he doesn't want to tempt fate. Finding a satisfactory spot, he notes the coordinates on his GPS unit and calls for the other two, who've gone off in search of a trash can.

The next clue location is a dud. It's a staircase that's so well-constructed -- except for one piece of stone that lies on the ground -- there's not a single crack or crag in which to hide anything. After hunting through the brush, the team improvises: Instead of leaving a canister, the men devise a simple math problem to post on the Web site. When cachers arrive at this site, guided by the clues printed off geocaching.com, they will count the number of stairs and divide by four. The answer is their missing A coordinate.

That's exactly the type of solution that Dave Sutherland, education and outreach specialist for the City of Boulder's open space and mountain parks department, would like to encourage. "We're not hostile to geocachers; that's not our intent," he says. "But it is illegal for geocachers to leave something. It counts as litter. If geocachers were willing to limit themselves to that type of activity, then I wouldn't see a problem with that."

There are virtual caches during which players use their GPS units to locate interesting on-trail spots, such as historical sites (Veatch's favorites) or unique architectural artifacts, but there is no actual treasure to retrieve. Yet for traditionalists, finding the physical trinket is the heart of the game. "Of course they'd be more happy with virtuals," Lapaglia says of parks officials. "But there's no danger in these containers. If they want clear, we've done that. It's sad that there isn't a better understanding of what's going on. Maybe if we can get rangers to experience the exhilaration of the find, maybe that'd go a long way."

Hoffman replaces the staircase's missing stone and starts searching for the next location. Up the path, Fritz finds a stand of aspen and cottonwood trees; a sign indicates that the area is called The Grove. After debating whether to plant something off the trail, Fritz decides to tuck the film canister containing the D coordinate down in the grasses at the sign's base. It's just barely off the trail, so they hope future hunters won't trample the native grasses too much.

Because many of Colorado's parks are heavily trafficked and environmentally sensitive, some rangers think any sport allowing off-trail hiking is absurd. "One of our problems is that geocachers typically go off-trail when they set their courses," Sutherland says. "The open space and mountain parks system is so heavily used -- about 3.5 million visits per year, which is more people than Rocky Mountain National Park and concentrated in an area that is about a seventh of that -- that when people go off the trail system, they can do a lot of damage. It breaks up habitat for animals and plants and decreases the breeding success for nesting birds."

Boulder and Colorado Springs have almost identical policies on geocaching. "With an estimated 1.7 million visitors annually, Garden of the Gods is one of the most difficult parks to manage," read the geocaching guidelines for Colorado Springs. "Not only does the high volume of human traffic impact the park, Garden of the Gods also contains some of the most erosive-prone soils in El Paso County. There are currently seventeen miles of designated trails and over 34 miles of 'social trails' [paths created by going off approved areas]. Many of the social trails (as well as some of the designated trails) become gullies after several rains, and then become a major drainage issue. Three of the four geocaches located within the Garden of the Gods were off designated trails and only encouraged off-trail use."

But one member of CACHE successfully negotiated permission to geocache on Douglas County's thirty miles of trails. "The biggest thing that gets 'em crosswise is going off-trail," says Tom Welle, senior park ranger for Douglas County. "So we came up with the agreement that if they let us know what they want ahead of time, we'll work with them to find a place where it can be more challenging. We want them to recreate on our property and take care of our resources, too."

Jefferson County has a slightly more formal process, asking geocachers to submit a special-activity permit. Two have been submitted so far; one was approved, the other was not. "I approved the first one because it was in an area that didn't feel like we were going to get impacts from social trails," says Stanton La Breche, Jefferson County park services manager. "It was hidden well enough from normal travels not to be accidentally discovered."

The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation has no policy specific to treasure hunting. When asked about geocaching, spokeswoman Judy Montero e-mailed this message from safety manager Ron Sanders: "It's unlawful to dig or drive stakes into the ground. The concerns are damage to sod, watering system, roots, etc."

CACHE hopes to preempt any Denver ban on geocaching by working with the city and emphasizing urban hunts, like the one the EdFredO Clan is just finishing up.

There's just one problem remaining: While wandering back toward REI, Veatch notices that there are now eleven orange markers visible on the river rather than the ten they'd seen while approaching from the other direction. They realize this will throw off geocachers trying to solve the math problem -- count the markers and divide by two, then subtract one -- that gives the missing F coordinate. But not to worry: Fritz decides he'll send future geocachers to the top of the bridge, where they'll see only ten.


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