|Modern Treasure Hunts for the Whole Family|
By DAVE CALDWELL
NOT long after Morgan Lawless, now 13, took up geocaching last year, he asked his mother, Lisa, if she could drive him to a cache near their home in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and let him seek hidden treasure by following Google maps on his iPad Touch.
They found themselves in the parking lot of a suburban shopping center that she says she had probably been to hundreds of times. But the hunt did not end there. They walked around a bush to pinpoint the cache, and there, much to her surprise, was an 18th-century graveyard.
Then there was the time Morgan searched for a cache near Rye Playland, also in Westchester County. They wandered off the grounds of that amusement park and found a bird sanctuary, with egrets and roaming deer and a panorama of Long Island Sound.
“We never would have found the place if it weren’t for geocaching,” said Ms. Lawless, whose son has since acquired a more accurate global positioning system device to pursue his hobby.
It is a hobby that has developed only since May 2000, when President Bill Clinton announced that GPS technology, developed for the Department of Defense, would be available to the public, partly to pinpoint emergency locations. Almost immediately, geocaching sprang up as a high-tech treasure hunt among a few enthusiasts in search of not-very-valuable trinkets and more precious bragging rights.
It’s evolved since into a family- and budget-friendly adventure, a chance for Mom and Dad to do something with their children before being officially declared “uncool.” And the only equipment needed is something most parents and kids already have, a smartphone. GPS applications are available for about $10 for iPhones, BlackBerrys and Androids, enticing more people to try the hobby.
Such affordable technology, along with the growing number of “stashes” to find — 21,000 within 100 miles of Times Square — has made geocaching easier for Morgan Lawless and other youngsters. Most caches contain souvenir coins or trinkets of small value, like a toy plastic animal, and are placed by those already involved in geocaching.
Morgan remembers finding his first prize, which turned out to be not a prize but a bag filled with trash. He was disappointed, but not deterred. Now, he said, “my favorite part is probably being on the hunt — searching it and finding it.” In the year he has been participating, he figures he has found 150 caches and even come up with a few of his own.
“It’s become a very family-oriented, safe game,” said John Pritchard, an assistant principal at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, who has been geocaching since 2003. That’s when he looked for a cache in Brooklyn as a way to help students prepare for the Science Olympiad.
He said the activity was particularly accessible in New York City, where it can easily be undertaken year round: a searcher just needs a GPS unit and a MetroCard, he said with a laugh. Additionally, the caches are easier to find in the fall and winter when there’s less foliage and fewer competing hunters.
“It’s really easy to get into,” said Brett Rogers, a financier who lives on the Upper West Side and has involved two of his three children. “Most children get the concepts almost immediately; you can hand them a GPS receiver, or a GPS cellphone, with a map, and they know what to do.”
Though adventurers can take part on their own through Web sites like geocaching.com, where stashes and coordinates are posted, formal events are also held by groups like the Metro New York Geocaching Society, and this year the Boy Scouts of America added a geocaching merit badge.
On a crisp, cool autumn Sunday morning, a geocaching event at West Hills County Park, in Suffolk County on Long Island, drew Morgan; his 10-year-old sister, Samantha; their parents; and about 100 other cachers, as they are known. The size of the group surprised the organizer, Marilyn MacGown of the New York society, who had expected about a third as many. They were all trying to discover the whereabouts of 15 caches.
Sean Murray and his 10-year-old son, Jack, from Manorville, N.Y., arrived for their very first geocache hunt armed with a smart phone and an iPad. Morgan, meanwhile, was using a more sophisticated $300 GPS unit.
“You can use an iPad or an iPhone, but it just doesn’t have the accuracy of a GPS device,” Morgan’s father, David, said. “But it is a good start.”
After they were given the coordinates, the rookie Murrays had trouble getting their bearings. To the rescue came the Lawlesses, patiently providing a tutorial that would result in Jack’s finding his first cache.
They entered the coordinates of the nearest and easiest cache. The group crossed a picket fence and came upon a trail used only minutes before by riders on horseback. (Nonplayers in the vicinity are called “muddles.”) Jack Murray suddenly stopped.
Caches are hidden, though not buried, and include at least one clue and sometimes more. The hint this time was “Triple.”
With only a little prompting, Jack found a tree just off the trail with three trunks. He searched the bottom of the tree and found a small plastic sandwich bag under some twigs. Inside were a few trinkets and a small paper logbook, which he signed (although many geocachers enter their finds on geocaching.com, which keeps statistics). If a cacher likes the trinket, he can take it and replace it with something else.
Jack’s prize was a silver plastic skull-and-crossbones ring. He held onto it and put a dollar bill, folded origami-style into a star, in the bag instead. Smiling, they moved on to the next cache.
The activity is as intense as the cacher makes it. Ms. MacGown, organizer of the Long Island hunt, has found 7,000 caches. Mr. Pritchard goes to events mostly to socialize. Mr. Rogers, the financier, likes coming up with more complex “puzzle” caches, but he also carries small toys, buttons and foreign coins because making trades is a big part of the fun for his children.
Morgan, meanwhile, has become more involved. He has his own cacher name, buzzy_cacher, and has been devising his own hunts, one with a James Bond theme and the latest one related to “Mission: Impossible.” And what did he want for Hanukkah? Geocaching gear, of course.