Call it what you will: treasure hunt, game, sport, hobby, scavenger hunt. Geocaching is a bit of each, essentially a high-tech outdoor activity for anyone who owns a GPS-enabled device and wants to explore off-the-beaten-path byways.
The game (pick a name) hinges on finding "caches" - small, waterproof containers - stashed in public places by fellow players. Hiders post the cache's exact latitude and longitude coordinates online for seekers to plug into their GPS device and literally track it down.
"I've been hooked on geocaching since 2004," says Stephen Rogers, 52, a property manager from Bay Shore. His hunts have taken him as far as the Philippines, where he found 10 caches in an American military cemetery.
Indeed, geocaching is a global pursuit - there are nearly 1.2 million cache sites around the world, including an estimated 4,000 hidden on Long Island, according to Groundspeak, the Seattle-based company that operates Geocaching.com.
ABOUT THE CACHES
A cache might be hung from a tree, tucked behind a fence, wedged up against a rock or even submerged in water (but never buried). Inside, each has a logbook for the finder to record their victory and a trinket or two (a tiny car, bit of fake jewelry) that can be swapped out or left as is for the next geocacher to discover.
Though there's no actual "treasure" beyond the challenge of the hunt, enthusiasts say they find satisfaction in the comraderie that develops within the community.
"I love to read the logs, what people write about how they found the cache and their comments," says Marilyn MacGown, 53, a paralegal who lives in Muttontown. She's racked up hundreds of finds, which are recorded on geocaching.com, and she's planted 180 caches of her own at local parks and open spaces.
Geocaching can be a solitary activity, but the appeal carries over to couples and families who share a "Lewis & Clark" spirit of exploration, adventure and romance.
Yes romance. MacGown and computer operator Robert Willhoft, 47, found each other while geocaching, as did North Babylon's Jon and Liz Goldner, who married this summer.
"We'd met casually at a geocaching event, and later, when I found one of Jon's caches that was damaged, I let him know," says Liz, 34, a secretary.
Geocachers all over the world arrange free informal get-togethers so hunters and hiders can meet and exchange techniques (dozens of geocaching events are planned globally to mark Sunday's notable 10/10/10 date). Newcomers can follow along with the more experienced hunters as they seek out cache sites.
"We're very casual, like an extended family," says Jon Goldner.
ON THE HUNT
At a recent event in Brookhaven's Southaven Park, Sheila Amato, of Massapequa Park, demonstrated a cache hunt for bystanders. She entered the park's ZIP code as prompted on geocaching.com, which called up a map that pinpointed nearby caches. She plugged a set of coordinates into her handheld GPS unit and followed its directions, which sent her walking through a wooded grove.
"Here it is," she called to the delight of onlookers, reaching for a large jar hidden in the hollow of a fallen tree. Inside was a small model of a black Labrador and a dog whistle on a key chain, along with a scribbled entry in the logbook explaining the trinkets were mementos of the cache owner's pet.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE geocaching.com
MEMBERSHIP Free ($30 annual premium membership includes instant updates of new cache sites and other perks.)
Finders may take a trinket in the cache but should put something in its place.
Don't forget to replace the logbook after signing it.
Take trash bags and pick up debris in the area near the cache.
Don't trespass - get permission from private-property owners before setting up a cache.