It's the first dry and sunny Sunday afternoon in weeks, and the pleasant weather has lured Mark Vicars and his eleven-year-old son Trevor to Briones Regional Park outside Lafayette. Carrying a walking stick and wearing a waist pack loaded with a couple of water bottles, Vicars looks like any of the other hikers hitting the trails today. But for him, this isn't just a Sunday stroll -- it's a high-tech treasure hunt.
"We've got billions of dollars of technology at our fingertips," says the 39-year-old San Ramon real-estate consultant with a grin. He's referring, of course, to his sporty yellow twelve-channel Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation unit. "Here I am, getting back to nature with my cell phone, my digital camera, and my GPS."
This morning, Vicars programmed the gadget with the precise latitudes and longitudes of five different spots in the park. He then printed out a topographic map from his home computer and plotted each location on it with an X. His goal today is to reach each location, where he hopes to discover a tiny hidden trove.
As father and son venture from the parking lot, the GPS unit instructs them to go 0.6 miles to the northwest. The trail zeroes out next to a clump of trees and brush, and they start searching high and low, looking for signs that someone has been here before them. Trevor pokes at a pile of bleached cow bones. "It's probably under some bush," guesses dad.
Sure enough, they eventually find what they're looking for: a small plastic capsule wrapped in camouflage tape hanging inside a bush. Inside is a tightly folded piece of paper. "Congratulations!" it reads. "You found it! Intentionally or not."
All this snooping has a purpose. It's part of the burgeoning hobby known as geocaching. Here's how it works. First, someone hides a cache in a public place, uses a GPS to determine its location, and then posts the coordinates online -- an open invitation for other geocachers to come look for it. The typical cache is a watertight container, either Tupperware or a surplus military ammo box. Each contains a logbook along with a small collection of trinkets, which finders may choose from so long as they leave a gewgaw in return. The real reward for uncovering a geocache is a sense of satisfaction and a chance to go back online to share your accomplishment with other enthusiasts.
With its overlapping populations of geeks and nature lovers, the Bay Area is teeming with geocachers. And the East Bay, which has thousands of acres of public land, is a natural spot for squirreling away these little treasure chests. According to Geocaching.com, the most popular geocaching Web site, there are nearly 1,700 caches within a hundred-mile radius of San Ramon. Another site, Brillig.com, counts more than 28,000 caches across the nation, with more than 4,000 of these in California.
This leaves plenty more opportunities for guys like Vicars, who has tracked down almost 140 caches in less than two years. That puts him among the ranks of serious recreational geocachers. He looks for undiscovered booty on his way home from work and while he's out of town on business. "If I can't find one, I get irritated, but I accept it," he says. "Some people are in it for the count." Some hardcore geocachers can boast as many as eight hundred finds.
As geocaching's popularity and competitiveness have grown, the hiding places have grown increasingly clever. There's a cache hidden inside a newspaper rack in Dublin and another disguised as a tree branch in Las Trampas Regional Park. Paul Young, a 43-year-old from Walnut Creek, has designed a couple of untraditional caches. "My family and I were sitting down one night talking about geocaches and we wanted to do something a little different," he recalls. They wound up placing caches in the Berkeley hills and near the Carquinez Bridge, for which finders are instructed to sketch their surroundings -- art supplies provided -- and leave the results inside the cache.
One of the Vicars' favorites is a cache called "Stumped Again," which is located not too far from their first find of the day. They follow a muddy trail leading up to stand of oak trees on a hillcrest. There, Mark stops and catches his breath as Trevor hops onto a nearby log.
"Here's a clue," says Trevor, noting a reporter's expectant look. "Moo."
On the ground next to the log sits a solitary cow patty. It looks unusually dry, considering the recent weather. A tentative touch reveals it is rock-hard, like someone has gone over it a few times with shellac. Vicars grabs it with both hands and as he lifts it up, along comes a one-gallon plastic bucket that's been sunk into a buried section of PVC pipe.
Inside is a pack of playing cards, a Luther Vandross cassette, a couple of Hot Wheels cars, and a McDonald's Happy Meal prize. Vicars leaves a small Hawaiian tchotchke he calls the "Brady Bunch Evil Tiki," and signs the log with his geocaching handle, "Mr. Vic." A couple dozen entries from past finders fill the notebook, including one that reads, "It took fifteen minutes to find this piece of #@*&! Thanks for the laughs!"
Actually, geocachers can thank Bill Clinton for the laughs. Starting in the late 1970s, the US government set up a constellation of satellites that could be accessed for navigational information anywhere on the globe. By 1994, 24 such satellites were in orbit, but the system's signals were purposely degraded so that nonmilitary users could only get readings accurate to a radius of about one hundred meters -- far too large an area to search. In May 2000, then-President Clinton signed an executive order ending the signal degradation, making civilian GPS readings accurate to several feet. According to lore, the first geocache was hidden outside Portland, Oregon, two days later.
Though there are now geocaches in 150 countries worldwide, there's something uniquely American about the pastime. It seems like the perfect hobby for a goal-oriented society that loves its gadgets and isn't exactly known for getting off the sofa without a good reason; for a nation of people who are always whining, "Are we there yet?" Geocaching imbues an ordinary hike with a sense of gotta-get-'em-all purpose and the sci-fi allure of being guided by signals from outer space. As the back of Mark Vicars' Geocaching.com baseball cap sums it up, "You are the search engine."
"Geocaching is a good excuse to go out exploring, which I like to do anyway," says Paul Young, who's found 250 caches. One of the best aspects, he says, is that it leads you to interesting out-of-the-way spots in otherwise familiar places. Vicars agrees, though he adds that finding obscure caches can come with a price: "I've gotten my share of poison oak."
According to the hobby's unofficial rules, caches can only be left on public land, and geocachers are encouraged to tread lightly. Still, these bushwhacking treasure hunters have raised a few official eyebrows. The National Park Service has banned geocaching on all of its land, citing the risks it poses to historic, archaeological, and natural sites.
Locally, though, geocachers are pretty much free to do as they like. The East Bay Regional Park District has been aware of geocaching for a while, says park spokeswoman Nancy McKay, and has no problem with it. The Contra Costa Water District has a reputation for being wary of geocachers, but district spokeswoman Karen Arntzen says its recreation areas are open to geocachers, so long as they stay on marked trails.
Still, geocachers are wary of being too obvious when they're sniffing out new spots. Vicars says he generally avoids looking for caches while other people are around. Urban caches, in particular, often call for what he calls "cover." "If I'm searching for a cache in a neighborhood park," he says, "I will bring my kids so that I won't look like some weird guy popping in and out of bushes."
After two hours and 4.08 miles (according to the trusty GPS) of popping in and out of bushes at Briones, Vicars and his son make it back to their red Ford Explorer, adorned with a new license plate that reads GEOCACH. They located all five caches, and Trevor came away with some loot: a plastic dolphin key chain and a pair of fold-up scissors. And who knows what tomorrow might bring?
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