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The Sporting Life Goes Techno

There's new adventure in using the Web and global positioning systems to track down treasure in the wild.

February 13, 2001|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Really, Holly Hirzel led her 59-year-old father astray only once, down the slope of prickly pear cactuses. (And he only got a tiny injury on that detour, just a scratch.) Which isn't bad, considering that Holly, 29, the CEO of a video-game development company, had never before relied on the synch of 12 orbiting satellites to find her way to a secret spot--or anywhere, for that matter.

On a recent Saturday, Holly and her dad, a canning company manager, set out from her Santa Monica home on a high-tech treasure hunt known as "geocaching." Each took along a Global Positioning System, or GPS, which is a hand-held receiver that works with a network of satellites to pinpoint one's location on the planet.

Geocaching, which is also called an "adventure game" and even a "sport," was invented thanks to an adjustment in satellite signals that sharpened the accuracy of GPS units. Worldwide, thousands of geocachers are using the satellite-based navigation system to hide or seek plastic containers or metal boxes filled with freebies, such as a cell phone with Caller ID, glow-in-the-dark watch or Stevie Nicks CD (The rule: Take a goody, leave a goody).

The locations of stashes--in 44 states and 22 countries--are posted on the Internet by latitude and longitude coordinates. Destinations include islands, caves and volcanoes and might call for mountain biking, canoeing or cross-country skiing. (One cache-in-the-works requires scuba diving.)

Geocaching is a curious convergence of online and outdoors, another way that techies are extending their cyber communities into the wilderness. The game is a Net spinoff with the same sort of quirky appeal of Burning Man, a huge, freewheeling annual festival in the Nevada desert that first gained fame on Web sites. What sets geocaching apart, though, is its crossover appeal to Boy Scout troops, search-and-rescue squads, hunters and others.

Eight months ago, geocaching took off with tech heads, as sort of a video game sprung to life. Now it's popular with families, says Jeremy Irish, 28, who runs http://www.geocaching.com, the game's main Web site. He's not sure why geocaching caught on in so many corners of the world, including South Africa (where a Tom Clancy novel awaits a lucky someone) and Egypt (take a taxi to the pyramids and then head into the desert).

"Maybe it's the primal urge as hunter-gatherer," says Irish, a Web consultant who lives near Seattle. "And I think the sense of adventure is something a lot of us don't get on a daily basis."

*

On this morning, Holly isn't sure where the game will take her and her dad, Bill Hirzel, who is visiting from Toledo. From the Web site, Holly picks "Red Rock Cache," which has a two-star difficulty rating (out of a possible five). By plugging in her ZIP code, she knows the cache is 51 miles southeast of Santa Monica, where she lives in a guest house with her boyfriend and pet boa constrictor.

On the cache hunt, Holly will use her lemon-yellow Garmin eTrex GPS, which is the size of a cell phone. The $120 GPS device was a Christmas gift from her parents. Her dad, an amateur pilot, will use his outdated Sony GPS, which he bought 10 years ago to help him when he flies. His GPS unit is the size of a telephone answering machine.

First, Bill Hirzel reviews the meaning of latitude and longitude with his daughter and then leaves her to study maps. Holly hunkers over her pine dining-room table. She sighs, tucks her short blond hair behind her ears, taps on the table with a pen. She asks for her dad's help, then refuses it, then wants him to double-check her coordinates. He hovers, backs off, then approaches again.

"I'm thinking that it's right around here in Chino," Holly says, using a capped pen to trace a circle on the map.

"You've got to be much more specific," he tells her.

She switches to a more detailed map of Southern California. Maybe Cleveland National Forest. She turns to her father, "I'm guessing. . ."

"Don't guess," he interrupts.

She reviews the coordinates for Red Rock Cache: N 33 degrees, 42.174, W 117 degrees 38.948. This time, with the pen cap off, she marks an X over two words: "El Toro."

GPS Units Come Into Play

The game is pronounced "Geo-cashing"--"geo" for geography, and "caching" refers to a cache, or something hidden. The geocaching craze began in May, after the U.S. Defense Department stopped scrambling the satellite signals beamed to GPS receivers in order to help emergency crews. Suddenly, GPS units could nail a destination within 30 feet or better. Days later, a thrilled GPS user planted a stash near Portland, Ore., and posted the coordinates online in a discussion group. The search began with tech fiends like Irish, who also began to hide caches. In July, he set up the game's main Web site with a list of 20 stashes. Now, there are about 400.

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