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The search is the treasure

In geocaching, GPS coordinates lay the course for an anywhere adventure

By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2009

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In a shady grove beside a field, they scoured.

The prize could be anywhere: cloaked within the poison ivy matting the ground; tucked between the rocks in the slumping stone wall; stashed beneath the shaggy bark of hickory trees; hiding in the hollow of beeches with trunks like elephant skin.

Consulting global positioning systems, the three searchers clambered over a stump the size of a dinner table, then peered through a picket gate.

Finally, they found the treasure: a rectangular plastic container tucked into the base of a tree and hidden by a flat rock.

“It’s about hiking, being outdoors,’’ Lloyd Moulton of Athol, the finder of this prize, said of geocaching, a high-tech sport. “I’ve seen so much more stuff than I would have.’’

Wherever there is mystery - or better yet, treasure - there are seekers. For centuries, nothing has captivated humankind quite like the unexplained or the elusive.

Today, this passion for pursuit can be seen in the sport of geocaching, a technological treasure hunt that relies on mobile GPS units, rather than weathered parchment maps marked with an X, to try to locate caches, or de facto treasure chests.

Instead of combing an ocean floor or a pharaoh’s tomb, though, cachers search for riches just about everywhere, from their backyards to downtown Boston to the summit of Mount Washington.

Here’s how it works: Geocaching devotees strategically hide prize-containing caches - coffee cans, film containers, or other nondescript receptacles, sometimes camouflaged with tree bark or moss - and carefully map the coordinates, then post the location online with a clever name and one or two hints to help seekers discover them. Trackers then upload the coordinates to a GPS and follow their digital treasure maps to get within 30 or 40 feet of the target.

Then the bloodhound within takes over.

“You use your wits about you to find it,’’ explained Warren teacher and tree farmer Ken Rozzen, a grizzled geocacher ranked fifth in Massachusetts with more than 5,700 finds and a personal one-day record of 109.

Forget everlasting life or pots overflowing with doubloons: The payoff to this treasure hunt is the chase and the discovery; each find is logged by every cacher in a virtual logbook, racked up with other finds like points in a video game.

The uninitiated who accidentally come across caches might take them for trash, instead of treasure. Larger caches yield token gifts: not money or jewels, but things like DVDs, gift cards, watches, and stickers (or, to get more creative, a complete catalog of Phish concerts on a budget MP3 player.)

But ultimately, what cachers want is a soiled or dog-eared ream of paper scribbled with various initials that is tucked inside each cache. There they log their names to get credit for the find.

Cachers are like Deadheads: abundant, but reserved about their hobby, explained Gene Aubin of Brookfield, who runs www.massgeocachers.org.

“It’s kind of a secret society,’’ said Aubin, who has about 130 finds in the past year under the caching handle BareFeat.

The caches themselves are more revealing. All told, there are about 885,000 caches stashed around the world, according to www.geocaching.com. That number ticks up by the thousands every day. In New England, there are upwards of 22,500 hidden, with more than 6,500 of those in Massachusetts.

They’re “everywhere you can imagine,’’ said Moulton, who has logged about 1,600 caches, tracking coordinates as far as Maryland and West Virginia. There’s probably at least one, but more likely several, cloaked not far from where you’re reading this.

With names like Sunny Daze and Purple Monkey Dishwasher, geocaches teeter on mountaintops, wait on rocks beside waterfalls, cling to light posts, stop signs, and buildings, and hunker inside phone books.

Rozzen, the celebrated Tree Man to his fellow cachers, has foraged historical cemeteries, the summits of the Seven Sisters in the Holyoke mountain range, and tombs in the Berkshires with his Garmin GPS.

Most often, the treasure is the location, rather than the find, he said, such as a waterfall gushing in a hidden nook or a rock that has held its precarious position for centuries.

“I’ve been taken to beautiful scenery that I wouldn’t normally have gone to if there wasn’t a cache there,’’ agreed 30-year-old Dan DeMille of Ayer, who has sniffed out 700 caches in 30 states and eight countries, including Iceland.

As he spoke, Toothstock, as he’s known, was in the midst of tracking a cache at Doyle Reservation in Leominster.

As the humidity hugged the overhanging trees, his team of three traversed a needle-strewn path lined with ferns and mossy rocks and accented with deer tracks, following coordinates in a northwest line.

“We’re 200 feet,’’ his teammate, 50-year-old Kevin Graham of Littleton (Terradactill, 800 finds), called from ahead. At the back of the pack, Tony Giannone (Geosofthejungle, 700 finds) a 52-year-old computer networker from Chelmsford, consulted his Garmin and scanned the ground with his eyes.

After a little rooting, finally, there it was: a rectangular plastic container tucked behind a rock in the hollow of a tree with five narrow trunks.

Graham pulled a small notebook from within and penciled in his group’s initials.

Geocaching, the IT professional explained as he replaced the cache to its shelter, is a hobby that calls forth his technical prowess and enjoyment of the outdoors. Still, he stressed, “I’m not a nerd or a geek.’’

Giannone smiled and countered proudly, “I am.’’