Going on a treasure hunt; ‘X’ no longer marks the spot

Sammamish’s Cook family has found a new, adventurous hobby that gives additional meaning to their family hikes and helps bring them together.


For the Reporter

Sammamish’s Cook family has found a new, adventurous hobby that gives additional meaning to their family hikes and helps bring them together.

The hobby? High-tech treasure hunting. An online game called geocaching has adventure seekers trying to locate hidden containers. “X” no longer marks the spot. These new tech explorers use G.P.S. (Global Positioning System) devices to find hidden treasures. The secret containers can be found anywhere from mountain peaks to the middle of bustling city centers. It is likely you walk by one every day. Geocaching is the first activity to combine G.P.S. technology and the Internet for real world treasure seeking.

At geocaching.com, searchers are invited to enter their zip code, or if known, a specific geocache code, and click “go” to begin the game. Coordinates of latitude and longitude are given, and the G.P.S. savvy are in hot pursuit. The hunt is on. The sport is gaining in popularity locally as well as worldwide, and geocaches can be found on every continent including Antarctica.

Pam Cook says geocaching is not only a great family adventure, but promotes a sense of accomplishment.

“We’ve lived in Sammamish nine years and we have discovered new places within a 10-mile radius we never knew existed.” Her husband, Pat, is a Microsoft Flight Simulator general manager. He thought geocaching would be a great way to get his family outdoors, off the couch and away from the lure of television and video game systems.

Their children, Katherine, 16, Daniel, 14 and Sarah, 12, enjoy this active form of “outdoor gaming.”

Pam says the game is quickly gaining interest.

“We were out geocaching the other day and we saw other hikers with G.P.S. devices. We knew exactly what they were up to,” she says with a grin. On the contrary, some geocachers use the Harry Potter-inspired term “muggles” to describe unknowing people who are not “in on the game.” Precautions are taken to prevent “muggles” from observing geocaching activity or unknowingly becoming aware of a geocache.

Typical geocaches are small boxes, usually plastic or metal containers. They often hold a logbook, pen and trinkets. After locating the geocache, the treasure box is opened. Geocachers sign and date the logbook, often writing a few sentences. Frequently there are little treasures such as small toys, shells, coins or mementoes. But you should give in order to receive.

One geocache can be found at Sammamish Commons.

Sarah Cook slyly took us to the spot and pointed it out. Our group took a small airplane and left some blackberry honey sticks from the Farmer’s Market. There are 651,189 active geocaches on Earth from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. The Web site includes tips on how best to enjoy the activity, and a guide to finding your first geocache and hiding a geocache of your own. Certain requirements are necessary to list a new cache.

Some geocaches are accessible only a few months out of the year, otherwise buried under 20 feet of snow. Some can only be reached by kayak like those at Beaver Lake, Pine Lake or Marymoor. Some are even located underwater. Online, you can select difficulty of both the terrain and of the geocache itself, as many have puzzles and clues that must be solved in order to receive coordinates. Other geocaches contain riddles that may lead to another geocache.

There is even a geocache hidden in the Sammamish Library. The librarians have full knowledge and get a kick when people come in and try to find it. Pat Cook says the puzzle is very clever.

“It’s in plain sight. It’s in a fake book which is even listed in the card catalogue. It has a lock which can’t be opened until the clues are solved. There are prizes inside too,” he says chuckling.

The Cooks have discovered 183 geocaches and routinely log their entries. Pat has a friend who was a charter member of the fledgling geocaching.com. Eight years later, Pat says, his friend has located nearly 7,000 geocaches personally and placed some 200 of his own.

Some geocaches have geocoins, which are trackable tokens. After a journey, the coin’s number can be entered and information is given on where that token has travelled. On the next outing, a geocacher can stash the coin elsewhere and even receive e-mail alerts when it moves again. Some geocoins have travelled more than 70,000 miles. The Cooks found a coin in Sammamish, transported and placed it in Vancouver, Canada and have since followed the coin’s progress to Germany, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

Travel bugs are themed geocache objects accompanied by dog tags. These items come with a goal such as a bug collection making its way to Sequim. Geocachers are encouraged to add to the collection before re-hiding it. Geocachers avidly follow the story and track the movements by receiving regular e-mail updates.

Geocachers use online nicknames or “handles.” The Cook family is known as the “Cookers.” Buried under a rock, hidden in a tree stump or stashed in a public building, the thrill is in the quest. Other geocache sites in Sammamish can be found at Ebright Creek, the baseball field at Bill Reams Park and one in Sahalee, which was placed by a Boy Scout troop. Many others are hidden around.

Geocaching.com was founded in 2000 by Jeremy Irish, the president and co-founder of a Seattle-based, privately held company called Groundspeak. The company mission is to get people outside and away from their home entertainment systems. Groundspeak staff constantly strive toward this goal. The company is involved in developing location-based tools that work with G.P.S. Groundspeak enables people to share location-based experiences using the Internet.

The Web site also encourages good planet stewardship with a “Cache In, Trash Out” program. It is an ongoing environmental initiative dedicated to cleaning up garbage from parks and other geocache locations.

A directory of benchmark locations is also available. Unlike geocaches, a benchmark is public property, protected by law and is used in surveying.

A low-end G.P.S. runs $80, with more expensive ones costing up to $500. Pat Cook originally bought a G.P.S. unit for serious applications for use as a member of the Mountaineers and as a volunteer for a Search and Rescue team. He and his family plan to continue their new activity locally and wherever their travels taken them.

Geocaching tips:

• Common items to take on a search include compass, G.P.S. receiver, extra batteries, camera, first aid kit and mobile phone.

• Be aware of the terrain, dress appropriately for the weather and take along food and drink.

• Always tell someone where you are going. Safety comes first, so err on the side of caution.

• Select a search to meet your specific needs, goals and interests. Perhaps you want a serious hike, or maybe you’d prefer a short, family walk. Be sure to review the attributes of the search you select.

• Upon returning from a search, hide-and-seekers are encouraged to log their experience online and even share photos. In one recent week, 62,000 account holders shared 442,759 new logs.