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TUESDAY, JULY 17, 2007

Decatur geocacher Owen Chapman set up a walking trail cache here, using a variety of local landmarks, on the hunch it would draw tourists.
Daily photo illustration by Laura Taylor, Jonathan Palmer and Gary Cosby Jr.
Decatur geocacher Owen Chapman set up a walking trail cache here, using a variety of local landmarks, on the hunch it would draw tourists.

GPS treasure hunt in Decatur
Hobbyists set up sites, list locations on Internet; local trail lure to tourists

By Paul Huggins 340-2395

Hidden treasure is all around Decatur.

You've probably walked past it in parks and parking lots. If you find it, you won't see any money, not directly. But eventually you'll see it through better roads, police protection and other city services supported by tax dollars left by visitors.

They're called geocachers. They're hobbyists who combine the children's game of hide-and-seek with a high-tech Global Positioning System device marketed to adults.

Their inspiration is not so much to discover what's inside the treasure box, called a cache, but rather the satisfaction of finding it and adding it to their Internet score sheet. Some caches merely contain log books to sign. Others contain an array of dollar store trinkets of which finders take their pick and then replace it with something new.

There are more than 2 million geocachers worldwide, and they are avid players. Many spend nearly every leisure minute following latitude and longitude coordinates, and making frequent day trips to improve their scores.

David L. Estes and two of his buddies from Tuscaloosa passed through Decatur recently to search for hidden caches listed on the Internet. Specifically, they wanted to solve clues that led them through Decatur's Civil War Walking Trail.

The trio is drawn to historical caches. Though they've been near the walking trail many times, they said they never stopped.

"It's fun to see things near your home that you didn't know were there," said Owen Chapman, a Decatur geocacher.

He set up the walking trail cache on the hunch it would draw tourists.

That's the conclusion by growing numbers of tourism professionals.

Peter Bowden, president of the Columbus, Ga., Convention and Visitors Bureau, was amazed how geocaching introduced him to interesting places in his area.

He set up a geocaching page on his bureau's Web site listing the 12 best caches to visit.

One lands searchers at the visitors center where they learn about restaurants and hotels. Even the Georgia Department of Economic Development is devising ways to encourage geocaching, he said.

"Because there's so many people doing it, particularly families, and they're doing it on weekends, it just seemed like a natural fit with tourism," Bowden said.

The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is offering a yearlong promotion to encourage geocachers to explore state parks. Incentive prizes inside the caches include free dinners and hotel rooms.

In Philadelphia, in conjunction with a King Tut exhibit, players found 12 hidden caches containing a rubber stamp to stamp a game brochure. A fully stamped brochure won a small prize.

Chapman has found more than 2,000 caches. He said the game is widely appealing because it's simple, but not necessarily easy.

10-100 feet from cache

The GPS coordinates don't take players directly to the cache. Usually, it's no closer than 10 feet and sometimes, when a cloudy day interferes with the satellite signal, it may be 100 feet off.

Last weekend, he searched for a cache in a sinkhole in Tennessee. What he thought would be a 11/2-mile hike turned into a five-mile adventure.

"That's part of what makes it so fun," he said, noting each cache has a difficulty level listed on the Internet.

Chapman said geocacher purists prefer searches in the woods that require hiking, but other players love the urban or drive-by caches that let them build their personal scores quickly.

"I started in 2001, and it took me a year to get 100 caches," he said. "Now you can get 100 in a weekend."

Jan Coryell-Mahone is an elementary-school teacher in Huntsville with 300 caches. She took the longer, scenic route home from Gulf Shores with her family so they could search for new caches.

"We generally don't travel out of town just to cache, except for day trips, but we always cache wherever we go," she said.

Her family hasn't spent much time in Decatur, but came to see Paul Thorn at Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts on Memorial Day weekend. They found 19 caches while buying gas at Wal-Mart, eating out at Steak n Shake and spending the night at Holiday Inn.

Chapman developed the idea for the Civil War trail after seeing the brochure, which his workplace, Hutto Printing, produces for the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

A lot of historical/tourism sites are attached to caches, he said, such as History of Hartselle, Mooresville Market Street and Bankhead National Forest.

Geocache series are popular, too, he said, noting Huntsville has a Jolly Green Giant trail. A team built it and hid large green items, such as sunglasses, buttons and watches, around the city.

Chapman made the walking trail cache a series of seven clues where players had to find numbers on the trail plaques -- the cost of Old State Bank, for example — to learn the coordinates of the next clue. It also links geocachers with the visitors bureau.

Since it started three weeks ago, 10 people have found the walking trail cache. Seven were from out of town.

Tami Reist, visitors bureau president, said geocaching opportunities were a seminar topic at a recent meeting of the state visitors bureaus. The bureau will look to do more to lure geocachers and try to be on the forefront of the growing trend, she said.

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