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Published June 01, 2009, 12:00 AM

Minnesota state parks offer high-tech treasure hunts with geocaching

ST. PAUL – Minnesota state parks are asking a question of people who like to get outdoors and explore the wildlife and terrain of the 72 state parks: “Are you ready for the challenge of a high-tech treasure hunt?”

By: Karrah Anderson, State Capitol Bureau, INFORUM

ST. PAUL – Minnesota state parks are asking a question of people who like to get outdoors and explore the wildlife and terrain of the 72 state parks: “Are you ready for the challenge of a high-tech treasure hunt?”

Each park is involved in a geocaching wildlife safari with a trail containing a hidden cache (a treasure of sorts) that is marked by way-finding points. Visitors are invited to take a global positioning device and search for these hidden treasures.

The project started last year when state parks saw a decrease in the percentage of park-goers, said Terri Dineson, Upper Sioux Agency’s park manager and active geocacher.

“There was a parks conference held in the spring of 2007,” Dineson said. “They noticed a decrease in hunting and fishing licenses and people visiting the parks.”

Dineson explained that attendance had leveled, but Minnesota’s population increased, therefore lowering the percentage of people visiting the parks.

“We thought, culturally, what needs to change?” Dineson said.

Park officials noticed that there was a decreased interest in the 18-to-26 age group and thought about bridging this gap with technology, and that’s when this electronic scavenger hunt was started. They wanted to pull people off their computers to get them outside, but still using electronic devices.

Eric Zierdt is a seasoned geocacher and a member of the Minnesota Geocaching Association. His first find was four years ago with his family in Maplewood.

“It really is addictive finding new numbers and the next great hide,” Zierdt said.

He has found more than 1,100 caches in the past four years and has hidden four.

Today, Zierdt and his 7-year-old daughter, Rachel, host a geocaching podcast (tcgcpc.com). “She’s the star of the show.”

Zierdt lays out the typical process of geocaching:

The first step, create an account and handle, or username at geocaching.

com.

“It’s your way to protect your identity when you find a cache and log it,” Zierdt said.

Way-finding points, or latitude and longitude points, are given to plug into a global positioning system that can lead to the cache. A GPS device and a compass provide the information needed to find the treasure.

“The points are never exactly right, usually 20 feet of the cache,” Zierdt said. But that’s where the fun part is. People try to camouflage (the cache) using the natural terrain around it.”

The cache is a container varying in size and will contain a logbook to be signed.

Dineson explained that sometimes tradable trinkets, anything from a Dairy Queen coupon to AA batteries, are the treasurers.

A cacher must re-hide the cache in the same spot so it’s ready for the

next person.

“When you get home, log on and tell what you found,” Zierdt said.

In state parks, all caches are identical ammunition boxes with a bumper sticker on the outside indicating the container is an official geocache.

The caches are placed in family-friendly, safe environments at the parks. Dineson said officials try to avoid taking explorers near poison ivy, for instance, and never put the caches higher than a person could reach.

When placing the caches, Dineson said officials are mindful of children and muggles. Muggles, a term known to Harry Potter fanatics, also are known as all non-geocachers who might tinker with a cache because they don’t know what it is.

There are 25 geocaching parks in the state park system. These parks are equipped with GPS units that, after a short training session, can be checked out for free.

Those parks also provide geocaching etiquette.

Geocaching can be done year round, but Zierdt prefers to go in the spring or fall, before the leaves and bugs are in full swing.

Both Zierdt and Dineson love to geocache because they get to be outdoors, see new wildlife, all while getting exercise.

“It’s the exercise aspect,” Zierdt says. “Hiking and spending time with my family and my kids.”

Dineson said the geocaching did bring out the younger people, but what was more surprising was the number of empty-nesters.

“Yes, we had younger people, families and school groups,” Dineson said. “You saw brother and sister, single father and his son, but the majority were empty nesters and that age group.”


Anderson is a University of Minnesota journalism student writing stories for Forum Communications newspapers

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