S.Md. Geocachers On Adventure's Trail

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 4, 2009

In five secret locations in Southern Maryland are five plastic containers filled with trinkets, a small notebook, a rubber stamp and a code word. To find these treasure-troves, you will need a Global Positioning System device and a sense of adventure.

The containers are just a few of the more than 70 hidden in cities and towns across the state for the Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail, a modern-day scavenger hunt that kicked off Thursday.

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

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 with a guestbook and cheap trinkets and list its location using latitude and longitude coordinates on the official geocaching Web site, http://geocaching.com, then other participants type those coordinates into their GPS devices and head out to find it.

The Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail aims to introduce geocachers to towns and cities they would not normally visit and boost the economies of those places.

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 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.

On Thursday morning, Tracey, her husband, Rodney, and her sister went in search of a cache hidden in La Plata. First the group downloaded the latitude and longitude coordinates into their hand-held GPS devices.

Then they put on hiking boots, piled into a truck and began to follow the turn-by-turn directions on their device.

They drove through downtown La Plata and were directed to a parking lot. Out of the car, they began walking toward the woods. They ended up at a hollow log, where they discovered an airtight plastic container filled with La Plata pens, pins and other small prizes.

"The rule is: If you take something, leave something," Tracey said.

The team logged their visit in a small notebook using nicknames they selected on the geocaching Web site and marked their passports with the stamp. Unfortunately, another team reached the cache before them. Otherwise, they could have claimed FTF or "first to find."

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

Although most of the caches along the Maryland Municipal League Geocache Trail are easy to locate and ideal for beginners, searches elsewhere 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.

Last year, Tracey and her husband found more than 3,000 caches, 500 of which involved complicated puzzles. The couple also creates and hides their own caches and have about 35 active ones they routinely check.

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

The sport has taken the couple thousands of miles to an array of locations: an Adams Morgan alley, a North Carolina blimp factory, an archaeological dig site at an 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 and made friends whom they refer to using geo-nicknames such as Johnny Cache.

"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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