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High-tech gadgetry creates new fangled treasure hunt
May 29, 2001
Toronto Star

Caterpillars are in my hair.

Little green baby caterpillars, so small that when I try to pull them out I get caterpillar mush.

I'm in the woods near the Toronto Brickyards in the Don Valley, sliding down a steep, muddy slope, looking for a green ammo box.

Darryl Burke, a software developer from Toronto, convinced me to come.

It's a game, he said. You'll have fun, he said.

And despite the insects and mud, I am.

Burke and I are on a digital treasure hunt. It's called geocaching, and the purpose is to find a hidden stash -- in this case, an ammo box full of goodies.

Instead of old-fashioned paper maps, geocaching uses the high-tech toys of the Global Positioning System. Originally developed by the U.S. defense department, GPS is a navigational system with 24 satellites that can relay data about the longitude, latitude and altitude of any location on Earth.

The sport started just over a year ago, when the first cache was buried in Portland, Orgeon.

Now there are hundreds of geocachers worldwide, and they aren't all technophiles. The sport is also popular with teens, outdoorsmen and families with young children. Over 84 caches have been hidden across Canada with about another 2,250 around the world.

Once they are hidden, the keeper of the cache can post its location on the official geocaching web site at www.geocaching.com. A typical set of co-ordinates doesn't look very meaningful: N 45 degrees, 4.951, W 79 degrees 29.046. But punch those numbers into a GPS device, and it will give you a pretty good idea where the treasure lies.

"A GPS unit is basically an electronic compass, so anybody's who has been camping or hiking, they are used to using a compass and they know its value," said Zoran Vukasovic, business development manager for GPS software developer Northpoint Systems Inc.

"The GPS unit just takes that a little bit further. It not only shows you what's north and south, it also shows you where you are."

Northpoint makes a variety of GPS products from their offices in Toronto. The company started out with a consumer focus about six years ago, long before there was a large group of consumers who used GPS.

They have since expanded into software for the military and businesses that need to track fleets of trucks or stolen bulldozers.

Vukasovic said the consumer market has grown considerably since the government made a highly accurate GPS signal available to the general public.

Before then, the results were often inaccurate for civilians. "Just as geocaching emerged in May and June of last year, our sales and sales of GPS units across the industry started going up," said Pete Brumbaugh, senior media relations specialist for GPS device developer Garmin Corp.

"When the accuracy boomed, it made it more of a mainstream technology."

But just because it's accurate doesn't mean it's foolproof. You need to get a signal from at least four of those 24 satellites to get a good reading. Unfortunately, we've got some tree-related interference at the Toronto Brickyards.

Burke stops to check our location on his GPS device, a Garmin eMap.

It's a low-end model on the spectrum of Garmin products and costs about $140. Like most hand-held GPS devices, the eMap has a simple black and white display that shows where we are and where we want to be. Burke has labeled that spot with a dollar sign.

The isosceles triangle that represents us is practically on top of the dollar sign right now, which means we should be within 7 metres of the treasure.

Not that we can see it.

The box could be hidden anywhere in the unidentifiable scrub brush.

After a half and hour of searching the hill, Burke decides to download some clues. He's brought a wireless device -- separate from the eMap GPS system -- that lets him surf the Internet, even from a damp forest.

The hints tell us to look for the highest point on the hill, west of the chimney. The Web site also recommends going down to the bottom of the hill and looking straight into it.

Burke carefully steps down the hill and squints at it from the bottom. No dice.

Inexperienced in the sport, Burke's starting to get a little bit concerned. He tries another grid system for our GPS map.

There are many different systems for plotting points on maps using GPS. We had originally converted our location data from one system to another. But the two systems don't match up exactly -- in fact, they can be pretty far off.

Burke things it's the conversion that has led us astray.

The new numbers put the treasure a couple hundred metres away from our current location. We head out toward the new treasure site.

Burke soon finds the box tucked in to the side of a hill, covered in dusty leaves.

Opening it is a real rush because we're not sure what exactly will be inside. Each person who finds the cache takes out one tiny treasure and leaves one behind. The idea is to keep the stuff in the box family friendly, so that kids can geocache, too. This cache was left by U of T student Neil Caton.

He heard about the sport a few months ago online, but there weren't any caches nearby. So Caton buried three caches of his own: two in the city and one up north near Algonquin Park.

Caton hasn't gone hunting for someone else's cache, because for him, it's all about giving back.

Caton's cache has been visited by people from as far away as Pittsburgh and New York. Lots of visitors means lots of great little treasures in the cache.

There's lots of stuff to choose from: a deck of cards, some perfume, some play jewelry.

I choose a key chain with a picture of the Toronto skyline and leave behind a brand new Lego kit, complete with Lego ninja. Burke takes a toy car and adds a golf ball and one of those silver relaxation balls.

Every geocache has a log book, basically a pad of paper and a pencil, so that each person who finds the cache can write a little note about their journey.

This cache also has a disposable camera, and pictures of successful cachers are posted online by Canton.

We close up the cache and cover it back up with leaves. It's ready for the next geocacher to find the box and share the loot.

I hope they like ninjas.

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