A Modern-Day Treasure Hunt

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 2, 2009

The hand-held Global Positioning System device clicked down the number of feet separating the three treasure hunters and their target, an old red caboose at Bladensburg Waterfront Park.

They hit "ground zero" near the back of the caboose and split up to meticulously scan every inch of the wooden sides and metal steps for any sign of an airtight plastic container filled with small trinkets. It was just one stop along the Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail, a modern-day scavenger hunt that kicked off yesterday.

"We're looking for anything out of the ordinary," said Rodney Tracey, a flooring production manager from Waldorf.

As Tracey bent down to explore the caboose's underbelly, he spotted a black plastic box wedged behind a metal pole.

"Found it!" he shouted to his wife, Katherine, and sister-in-law, Fran Wall.

The three popped open the box and scrambled to find the guestbook inside. The small notebook was blank -- meaning they were the first to find it.

"A 'first to find' is really coveted," said Katherine Tracey, a retired police officer. "People sometimes get into fights over it."

Geocaching is a still-young sport in which global positioning devices are used to locate hidden containers called "geocaches" or "caches" in parks and other public spots. To play, participants hide a container containing a guestbook and cheap trinkets and list its location using latitude and longitude coordinates on the official geocaching Web site, geocaching.com. Others type those coordinates into their GPS and head out to find it.

"It combines outdoors/REI stuff with technology," Katherine Tracey said. "And boy, I have learned so much about these small towns and places. . . . I know this region so much better because of geocaching."

The searches can be quick and easy, such as one for a large plastic container hidden inside a hollow log yards from a parking lot. But some searches require geocachers to ford rivers, hike miles, solve complicated puzzles, work in teams or locate hard-to-find containers, such as a fake screw with a tiny roll of paper inside.

There are only a few rules to the game: Record your visit in the guestbook. If you take one of the trinkets inside, make sure to leave another of equal or greater value. And pick up any trash as you go.

Early yesterday, the Maryland Geocaching Society released the coordinates for the Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail, a series of more than 70 caches hidden in cities and towns across Maryland. The trail will become a permanent fixture and is the largest course the Maryland Geocaching Society has organized. The goal was to introduce geocachers to towns and cities they would not normally visit.

There is no fee to participate, and in most visitor centers in Maryland, players can obtain paper passports to mark their travels along the trail. In each hidden cache is a stamp that geocachers can mark their passports with, along with a code word that they must write down. The first 500 treasure seekers who locate at least 22 caches from 11 regions will receive a "geo coin." Each coin is marked with a serial number that geocachers can register on the Web site before leaving it in a cache. They can then chart the coin's journey, perhaps even around the world, so they can later locate and reclaim it from another cache.

The Traceys geared up for a day of geocaching yesterday by downloading the coordinates onto their global positioning devices, loading up backpacks with bottles of water and trinkets to leave in the caches, and dressing in heavy layers and hiking boots. Wall drove over from her home in Alexandria to join them.

The Traceys got hooked on geocaching about 2 1/2 years ago when their daughter explained how much her young children loved hunting for caches. Last year, the couple found more than 3,000 caches, 500 of which involved complicated puzzles. They have also started creating and hiding their own caches and have about 35 active ones they routinely check.

For Christmas, Rodney Tracey bought his wife the latest global positioning device -- a Garmin Colorado -- which has been the envy of their geocaching friends.

The sport has taken the couple to an array of locations: an Adams Morgan alley, a North Carolina blimp factory, an archeological dig site at the airport, a rock quarry, an island near Richmond and dozens of parks. Along the way, they learned odd facts about small towns, became well-versed in U.S. history, made friends whom they refer to using geo-nicknames such as "Johnny Cache" and logged thousands of miles on their truck.

"You do a lot of U-turns when you're trying to find caches," Katherine Tracey said. "That's one thing you learn quick."

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