The article should be available for a few days free at the website:
Treasure hunting for the modern man
High-tech game brings to life fantasy of search for pirates' gold
BURLINGTON (May 20, 2006)
The satellites will guide us to the hidden skeletons.
Way up in orbit, six satel-lites chatter mathematically among themselves.
A millisecond later, they beam a message down to us.
"N43° 25.536 W79° 53.040," they say.
I don't know what this means.
My fellow skeleton hunter, thankfully, does.
"This way," says Electro- QTed, summoning me to follow him down an overgrown path into a forest just outside Burlington.
I venture into the unknown.
Almost everything about this journey is unknown to me, which is why I've aligned myself with ElectroQTed, a veteran of the hunt.
ElectroQTed is the code name of Ted Spieker, a 45-year-old electrician from Waterloo.
We are geocaching.
Guided by global positioning system (GPS) data gleaned from satellite signals, we are trying to find a hidden treasure, or cache.
We know there is a cache -- in this case, a plastic canister tucked amid a macabre collection of bear skulls, caribou antlers and whale jaws -- hidden nearby, because the person who hid it said so on the Internet.
Posted on www.geocaching.com are the latitude and longitude co-ordinates needed to find tens of thousands of caches hidden all over the world, including this one, fittingly called Skulls, Antlers and Teeth.
There is a fast-growing global subculture of tech-savvy geocachers, hiding and seeking such packages. Roughly 4,500 caches are hidden in Ontario alone, with hundreds in and around Waterloo Region.
The pastime is not unlike using a map to find hidden pirate gold. Except in geocaching, the "map" is expensive electronic gadgetry and the treasure is, for the most part, frivolous dollar-store knick-knacks.
Spieker glances at his hand-held GPS receiver.
Its display screen is filled with presumably useful information, like how many satellites are feeding us information, how fast we're walking, where we are now and what direction we should head if we want to find a hidden pile of bones.
"I don't know where to go," Spieker admits as we come across two narrow foot paths that diverge in the woods.
Embracing cliché, we take the one less travelled, hoping it will make all the difference.
Spieker forges ahead, hurdling stumps and ducking under low-hanging branches, his eyes frequently glancing at the screen of his GPS receiver.
"We're closing in," he says. "Thirty-eight metres away."
He's in his element. The word "hobby" doesn't seem to quite sum up his dedication to geocaching.
Just a day before this search, he found his 1,300th cache, which makes him the most successful geocacher in Waterloo Region.
He's out every weekend, usually with his wife Laurie, trudging through the wilderness looking for cleverly hidden plastic containers filled with cheap trinkets.
And this is a guy who, admittedly, has "an absolutely horrible sense of direction."
It all started a few years ago when he bought a GPS receiver, for no other reason than he "thought it was cool to be receiving signals from space."
But at first, all the receiver was good for was telling him where he was at any given point, which was usually his own backyard.
He soon discovered the burgeoning world of geocaching and got hooked on the game of high-tech hide-and-seek.
"I was never big on going out for walks before this," he says. "But hide a piece of Tupperware at the end of the walk and I'm there."
Geocaching is a pastime unique to the information age, made possible only by the proliferation of the Internet and the increased availability to the public of signals from military satellites.
Ironically, though, the appeal of geocaching for many, including Spieker, is that it encourages exploration of natural areas.
"Before geocaching, I never set foot on the Bruce Trail," Spieker says. "Now I'm hiking every weekend. The real bonus of geocaching is seeing all these beautiful places you might not see otherwise."
We're on the Bruce Trail now and, according to the satellites, we're within a dozen metres of the skeletons.
We look around, hoping to glimpse something unusual amid the trees, fallen branches and scattered leaves.
Caches are often hidden in hollow trees, dangled from branches, or obscured in camouflage containers in hard-to-reach nooks between rocks.
"The beauty of it is, they're often hidden in plain sight, but only if you know what you're looking for."
A collection of animal bones should, in theory, be easy to spot. But geocachers take pride in cleverly hiding their treasures.
"Look," Spieker says, pointing to a pile of rotting wood a few metres away.
A dozen or so branches are lying atop a gnarled stump, a little too symmetrical in their arrangement to have gotten that way naturally.
Sure enough, as we remove the branches, a veritable animal graveyard comes into view in a hollow of the stump.
"I gotta say," Spieker marvels, "this is a first."
Tucked behind the antlers and skulls is a clear plastic container, which Spieker opens.
Inside it are trinkets and badges left by other geocachers -- a dozen have found this one before us -- and a note from the person who hid the cache.
"Over the years while working up north," the note says, "I have collected these skulls, jaw bones, teeth and antlers."
Spieker recognizes the code name on the note, Dex4.
"He's a retired hydrologist," Spieker explains. "And he's like the Johnny Appleseed of geocaching. He drives around on a motorcycle and has hidden more than 100 caches all over the place."
As the rules of geocaching dictate, we sign the logbook, tuck it back in the container, and carefully rearrange the bones and sticks as we found them.
Another geocacher will be on the hunt for this one before long. Like us, they will be guided here by a sense of adventure, a few fancy toys and some helpful satellites.
"How can you not enjoy this?" Spieker muses as we walk back through the woods to his van.
"Geocaching is the most fun you can have with $12-billion worth of American military equipment."
TREASURE TROVE OF FACTS ABOUT GEOCACHES
Geocaching is the information age variation of letterboxing, in which participants follow hidden clues from one location to another.
Instead of following written clues, geocachers use GPS receivers to track down packages left at sites with specific co-ordinates.
A decent receiver costs about $500.
The most established website for the pastime is www.geocaching.com
An estimated 200,000 geocaches are hidden in more than 200 countries worldwide, with more being placed every day.
Geocachers are encouraged to follow a code of ethics, which demands they respect nature, stay off private property, and pick up litter they come across.
Geocachers refer to non-geocachers as "muggles," a term borrowed from the Harry Potter books.