The sport of geocaching is experiencing growing pains as it adapts to a post 9/11 world.

While conducting a routine inspection on September 27, an Idaho Department of Transportation inspector noticed something strange on the Rainbow Bridge, located 13 miles south of Cascade on Highway 55. A green bucket held in place with a system of ropes and wires was suspiciously perched underneath one of the struts of the bridge. To be safe, the Boise bomb squad was called in and the highway was closed, stopping traffic for almost seven hours.

Around 2:15 p.m., 33-year old Scot Tintsman from Meridian showed up at the scene to tell police that the object was a "geocache." The bomb squad was called off, the bucket removed and traffic resumed just before 4 p.m. with travelers wondering, "What the heck is a geocache?"

Geocaching is a popular sport--some call it a hobby--where players use handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) units to locate containers stashed in the wilderness and secret urban locations. With technology prices dropping and companies making smaller hand-held GPS units, more and more people are enjoying this modern technological version of a scavenger hunt. But a sport this young still experiences growing pains and players still struggle to learn the rules of the game.

The sport of geocaching, and civilian use of GPS technology, has only been possible since the year 2000 when the U.S. military descrambled their GPS) satellites, allowing citizens to access the signals to pinpoint their location on earth through triangulation. The technology was previously reserved just for military use in tasks like pinpointing troops in the field or tracking and guiding missiles.

President Bill Clinton, in a statement on May 1, 2000, announced the cancellation of the intentional degredation of the signals, based on a recommendation from the secretary of defense and coordinated with the departments of State, Transportation and Commerce and the director of Central Intelligence. This change gave civilians access to a mapping tool accurate within two to three meters. Previously, the signal would only be accurate to a football field-sized area.

Clinton said his intention was to improve worldwide transportation safety, scientific research and commercial interests. It could also allow emergency responders to have pinpoint accuracy to locations, as long as someone at the location had the GPS coordinates.

Just two days after President Clinton officially deregulated the signal, a container was hidden outside of Portland, Oregon, with the coordinates posted online on a satellite navigation newsgroup. According to the logbook, the cache was visited twice within three days. Mike Teague, the first finder of the cache posted the information to his personal Web site. In July, Jeremy Irish approached Teague with a proposed name, geocaching, and a redesigned Web site. By September, Irish was running the site by himself, and he is now the developer and Web master of geocaching.com, the mother of all geocaching Web sites.

Geocaching Web sites have varying guidelines as to how they approve the caches posted to their databases. While Geocaching.com is perhaps the best known site, there are others like navicache.com, Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint (www.brillig.com/geocaching), which focuses on mapping geocache locations, and opencache.com, a community-run site that keeps an open-source attitude toward geocaching, avoiding the individual-ownership approach of the other sites by. But by far, the most visited one is geocaching.com, and is still growing in popularity.

While distinctly grass-roots and with an air of anti-commercialism, in the last year, the sport has dipped into the capitalistic pond. The Jeep 4X4 Geocaching Challenge involved the company hiding 5,000 miniature Jeep travel bugs in caches across the lower 48 states. When a geocacher found one of the little Jeeps, they had the opportunity to sign up for the challenge and have the opportunity win not only Garmin GPS units (another sponsor of the contest) but ultimately a new seven-passenger Jeep Commander.

At a recent Treasure Valley Cacheaholics Anonymous (TVCA) meeting at Ben's Crow Inn (the event could only be found via GPS coordinates posted to www.idahogeocachers.org), a small group of geocachers gathered to discuss new caches, share information and listen to a guest speaker. Geocachers signed the log book for the meeting using the nicknames from their profiles on geocaching Web sites. Founded by BOOMHWR653, IDTIMBERWOLF, IDN8IVS and ZEROEDIN in 2003, TVCA now has about 30 active members. Captain Mike, a retired National Guard reservist, manned the logbook and has placed about 41 caches around the area he maintains. One, called "A Walk on the Wild Side" is series of eight caches spread over a four-mile area around Tablerock. But the real excitement of the evening was the guest, Sergeant Dave Hambleton.

Hambleton, commander of the Boise police bomb squad unit, came in talk about geocaching and how the geocaching community should have more open lines of communication with local police so that incidents like the one at Rainbow Bridge don't occur again. Hambleton told the group there had been only one other incident involving a geocache in the last five years--out on Pleasant Valley Road--and explained what they consider a suspicious or possibly dangerous package: basically, just about anything.

"When we get a call on something suspicious, we have to treat it like a loaded gun," he said. Something as small as a film canister (a favorite container for "microcaches") can be turned into a small grenade, so they have to take every call seriously.

He added that the location is important when determining the danger to life or property. "I just learned Sunday a friend of mine was geocaching and he was thinking of putting a cache over near the Caldwell airport. He has permission from some folks but I told him it was a really bad idea, because someone is going to think it's suspicious and the Nampa bomb squad will get called out on that," Hambleton explained.

One geocacher at the meeting said, "It probably wouldn't be approved if it were at the airport."

Another replied from the back, "There are already three at the Caldwell airport." Everyone laughed.

Hambleton added, "It's all in the placement. If it's in a high pedestrian area, obviously it is going to be more suspicious. An airport will be a high-target area, infrastructure--power, gas, water--any of those things."

Because geocaching is a free sport (except for the cost of a GPS unit), and because there is no overseeing authority establishing the rules of the game, geocachers tend to police themselves and set up their own rules and ethical guidelines. To have a cache approved and listed on geocaching.com so that others may find it, there are several guidelines that must be followed.

First, geocaching.com states there is no precedent for placing caches--meaning, just because someone else has done it and it was once accepted doesn't mean it will be in the future. Second, a person must have permission to place a cache on private land. This guideline is a little more vague on public land. Depending upon the governing authority, cachers may need to have permission. Many governmental agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, state land authorities or federally managed areas do not have a stated policy and it may be OK, but geocaching.com will not list caches on land maintained by the U.S. National Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (typically wildlife refuges). Third, caches are also not supposed to be buried, and they cannot deface public or private property to be hidden. Caches should not be placed in close proximity to active railroad tracks, military bases or public structures such as dams, bridges, elementary and secondary schools or airports.

Finally, caches are not supposed to be placed within one-tenth of a mile (528 feet) of each other, except in rare exceptions. With more caches being placed, more guidelines to the sport are likely to be created.

Since August 14 of this year, 50 new geocache sites have been placed in the Boise area, according to Buxley's Geocaching Waypoint. As of December 12, geocaching.com identified 220,384 geocache sites around the world (16 are in Antarctica) with 66 percent of them (135,075) in the United States. Idaho contains 2,955 with over 692 in the Boise area alone. Geocaches tend to be concentrated in and around population centers. However, even in Tuscarora, Nevada which has a population of about two to three people per square mile, there are over 30 geocaches within a 45 mile radius.

With catchy names like "Token Ring," "Garrett's Treasures Redux," "Mira Frosty" and "You Must Be This Tall to Cache This Ride," the numbers of geocaches is increasing dramatically. However, leaving goodies hidden in a special location is considered littering by some. Federal guidelines state that burying or abandoning personal property in national parks and forests is prohibited. Geocachers, however, say that caches are maintained by the cache owner and therefore not abandoned. Regardless of the details, many parks and forest rangers recognize geocaching as a legitimate recreational activity and accept it. Some government officials, however, believe that geocaching should not be allowed in certain areas, such as designated wilderness. The Wilderness Act of 1964 established these areas as being untouched by human presence or development. By those rules, however, virtual caches or earthcaches are allowed there (see Glossary on page 16 for definitions).

The geocaching community is adamant about their leave-no-trace philosophy and have set up a global cleanup program called Cache In, Trash Out, or CITO. The first CITO event was held in April, 2003 and geocachers around the world participated. Since then, the event has grown and in 2004, there were 160 cleanup events in 41 states and 10 countries where geocachers went to a specified GPS location and picked up trash along the way. The overall attitude of geocachers' leave-no-trace philosophy is that if you find trash while hunting down a cache, pick it up. The overall effect may be a cleaner environment in areas that don't see as much foot traffic.

Captain Mike said he recalls only one incident in Idaho when another organization, the Idaho Grotto Society, a spelunking group that catalogs and voluntarily oversees the protection of Idaho's caves, got upset about a geocache inside a well-known cave. Once the groups talked it out, and TVCA explained their leave-no-trace policy and concern for the environment, all was well.

This attention to conservation, protecting the environment and creating opportunities to share unique places has caused some geocachers to become obsessed with the sport. One local geocacher, BENTHEREFOUNDIT, is known among the TVCA group as having the most found caches of anyone in the group and allegedly doesn't plan on giving up his title. Others do it only part time.

Dan Driscoll, a member of the TVCA, has been geocaching for just over a year and maintains nine geocaches. "I wouldn't say it has taken over my life," he said during a phone interview. "It's just a fun pastime, something I do on the weekend. It's just a family-friendly hobby that is interesting. It ends up taking you places you normally wouldn't have seen."

While government agencies may look the other way or accept geocaching as a legitimate sport, it doesn't mean that Big Brother isn't paying attention. Outreach efforts like Sergeant Dan Hambleton's visit to the TVCA meeting and open lines of communication between police and the geocaching community could prevent another incident like the September one at Rainbow Bridge. At the meeting, TVCA members even offered to create a local database of known geocache locations, so that owners of the caches could be contacted if a suspicious package is reported close to a geocache site. But it is likely as the sport grows, more and more regulations about where people can put caches will be handed down by government agencies, despite self-policing by the enthusiasts.

click to enlarge On September 27, 2005, this green bucket was reported as a suspicious package underneath the Rainbow Bridge just north of Smith's Ferry on Highway 55. It turned out to be an imporperly placed geocache. - PHOTO COURTESY IDAHO STATE POLICE
  • Photo courtesy Idaho State Police
  • On September 27, 2005, this green bucket was reported as a suspicious package underneath the Rainbow Bridge just north of Smith's Ferry on Highway 55. It turned out to be an imporperly placed geocache.

Still, with so many new geoenthusiasts, mistakes are bound to happen. Scot Tintsman had been geocaching since April of this year and had found many geocaches near high traffic areas and even one underneath a six-lane bridge in California. So when he wanted to put up his first geocache, he didn't think it was out of the ordinary to try to direct people to a part of the Payette River they don't normally see. "I've driven over that bridge a thousand times, but I really liked that portion of the river and wanted people to see it," he said.

However, his timing couldn't have been worse. The very next day, Tintsman's cache was discovered by the Idaho Transportation Department. He was heading back up to the bridge to finish putting it all together when he noticed the roadblocks and police. Now, he realizes that should have been a little more thoughtful about where he placed it.

Since then, Tintsman has placed two more caches, this time following the guidelines. His advice to new geocachers is to "hook up with someone who's done it before. Get on the forums and meet someone who knows what's going on." That way, he said, it might make it easier to understand what the sport is about.

click to enlarge This geocache, called "Forgotten Monument," is in the heart of Boise. The memorial Identifies the original campsite of the first western visitors to the area and was placed there in 1933. When the Downtown Connector was constructed in 1990 the monument became difficult to reach. Today it is part of a multicache, and to find the next stge you must performe some mah using the engraved dates. - PHOTO BY BINGO BARNES
  • Photo by Bingo Barnes
  • This geocache, called "Forgotten Monument," is in the heart of Boise. The memorial Identifies the original campsite of the first western visitors to the area and was placed there in 1933. When the Downtown Connector was constructed in 1990 the monument became difficult to reach. Today it is part of a multicache, and to find the next stge you must performe some mah using the engraved dates.

While Tintsman violated geocaching guidelines by placing a cache underneath the Rainbow Bridge, this week he will be charged with breaking the law, too. Valley County Prosecutor Matt Williams is charging Tintsman with violating Idaho statute 18-7031, placing debris on public or private property, a misdemeanor punishable of up to six months in jail or a $300 fine. Tintsman may also be held responsible for costs involved in shutting down the highway and calling the bomb squad up from Boise. Boise Police spokesperson Lynn Hightower said because the overtime for the Boise bomb squad is paid for by Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), they would be the ones asking for restitution. Julianne Marshall, special agent and spokesperson for the ATF in Seattle, said that they usually leave it up to the local prosecutor, so it is uncertain at this time whether Tintsman will be required to pay additional restitution.

Except for the occasional accidental misidentification of geocaches, the sport is generally safe. There has only been one death associated with geocaching. Last winter, 64-year-old James Max Chamberlain was on a geocache hunt with his new GPS unit near San Antonio, Texas when he fell off a cliff and died. The moral: While watching your GPS unit can be exciting, as you get closer and closer to the cache, it is important to remember where you are stepping and to keep your eyes on the trail.

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