Treasure hunting in the 21st century

It’s a bright, chilly Saturday morning, and a band of adults and children are ambling through the woods in search of hidden treasure.

Guided by a modern-day treasure map — handheld Global Positioning System receivers and a set of longitude and latitude coordinates — they close in on their target. As they get closer to their quarry, the kids dash ahead through the undergrowth, rummaging about in the snow until they discover a shoe box-sized metal container.

“We might need a grownup to open this one,” calls out Justin Widerski, 10, after trying several times to pry it open.

“There’s no grownups here,” replies his laughing mother, Sheila Widerski.

What they’re doing is geocaching, a growing hobby that uses satellite navigation technology to track down a “cache,” typically a waterproof container with a logbook and perhaps a number of small prizes.

Participants, or “geocachers,” log on to the Internet to find lists of cache boxes hidden and posted online by other players. After entering the latitude and longitude coordinates of each cache into a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, the search begins.

On this afternoon, the Widerskis, who are fairly new to the activity, have joined a few of their more experienced friends to look for caches in the Reservoir Woods in Roseville.

“I just like the hunt, the treasure hunt part,” says Sheila, a Minneapolis resident who in the geocaching community goes by the online handle “Ernie.”

“I like the hunt, but I also like traipsing around the woods with my buddies,” adds her husband Dan, known as “Bert.” (“She keeps making fun of my unibrow,” Dan explains when asked about his nickname.)

As the group heads along the snow-packed paths toward one of the caches, the GPS devices give a reading of how far away the destination is and what direction to go. Using satellite signals, the devices can determine a person’s precise location. The technology usually is accurate within 10 to 20 feet, which makes it relatively easy to find some caches. Others are designated for their higher level of difficulty, whether they’re well-hidden or simply harder to reach, such as caches on islands or under water.

Once a cache is discovered, geocachers write their names and comments on a logbook inside. For younger hunters there are often a variety of prizes for the taking — small toys, bouncy balls, badges, key chains — but only as long as something is left in return. Later, they’ll log their visit online so that others can read about their adventure.

For the two Widerski children, Justin and his sister, Schyler, 8, it’s their first time on a geocaching hunt. “It’s really fun,” Justin says. “It’s just fun to find things, and it’s cool to see what’s in there.”

Geocaching, which started in Oregon in 2000, takes place just about anywhere. In fact, there are currently 242,239 caches hidden in 221 countries, according to the www.geocaching.com Website. Minnesota alone is home to more than 3,000 caches.

“It goes on all over the world,” says Bill Roehl, the 27-year-old president of the Minnesota Geocaching Association who’s known as “Silent Bob.”

Participants range in age from infants up to 80 years old, while the males in their mid-30s are the most well-represented demographic, Roehl says at a breakfast event in Roseville where players chat and get to know each other.

A basic GPS device can be purchased for around $100, and used ones are even cheaper. That plus access to the Internet are all that a prospective geocacher needs to get started.

Ian Stevens, or “King Boreas,” had participated in the annual hunt for the St. Paul Winter Carnival medallion for years before he heard about geocaching. Now he’s one of the more prolific geocachers in the state.

“The thing I liked about geocaching is I could do it every day,” says Stevens, 55, of Columbia Heights. “I’d never really traveled much around Minnesota before — that’s changed a lot in the last 10 years.”

Like Stevens, Roehl says he enjoys the camaraderie and the opportunity to see different parts of Minnesota that are off the beaten path.

“I do it because it’s fun, and it gives me something to do,” Roehl says. “Normally, in the winter I wouldn’t be outside, so this gets me out there and I see parts of the state I haven’t seen before.”

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