Among the city's many charms, one is consistently overlooked. It's hidden treasure. And you're probably within walking distance of it right now.
A group of GPS geeks called geocachers have made it their business to stud the city with small parcels of booty, which the uninitiated Torontonian passes by, oblivious, daily. The caches are often plastic boxes, coffee cans or film canisters hidden under rocks, in tree trunks or tucked into crevices. The treasure may be as humble as a dollar-store toy or a doughnut, but the thrill lies more in the hunt than in the spoils.
Gregory Pleau, the founder of Toronto Area Geocachers (tag line: there's no place like N43 W79) says that most people would be surprised to know how close they are to caches all the time. While the containers have to be placed at least 528 feet (161 meters) apart, the downtown core is littered with them. In fact, if you are standing in front of the Eaton Centre, you're within a mile of more than 20 caches.
Anyone with a GPS or smart phone, a pen and sense of adventure can try their hand at hunting. The cache's co-ordinates and a description are logged into www.geocaching.com, the online hub of the worldwide community. Rules state that after clearing a cache of its treasure, finders must replace it with something of equal or greater value. They must also sign the all-important logbook.
"It's a cool, nerdy thing to do," admits Matt McPherson, who got hooked on the hobby with his five-year-old daughter, Davis. "Part of the fun of geocaching is the stealth element: Walking with your GPS in hand, trying not to call attention to yourself. It is easy to lose yourself in the moment and feel like you are a real-world treasure hunter."
Mr. Pleau, whose geocaching handle is "northern penguin," says the rate of growth of the activity means that he will never get bored. There are approximately 3,000 caches stowed all over the GTA and 21,000 in Ontario. Many of the more difficult ones are hidden in parks and require a love of hiking and a keen eye. Mr. Pleau has found approximately 5,000 geocaches in and around Toronto in a decade of hunting. He prefers pursuits that include an element of adventure, but he estimates one of the most popular caches in the city is stuck to a lamppost at a WalMart on the Queensway.
Mr. McPherson, who works in geospatial technology, can count seven caches in his logbook. He had been aware of geocaching for years but was never interested in trying it until the all-important iPhone application was launched. "As soon as that app came out, I thought, what a great thing to do with my daughter.
"Geocaching is like treasure hunting with your kid and seeing the world through their eyes," he says. "Every time we go out, we see something we hadn't noticed before. It appeals to both kids and adults - who doesn't love a treasure hunt?"
And just like any pseudo-spy activity, geocaching has to have some code words. Bystanders are called Muggles (originating from the non-magical people in Harry Potter). If a cache is moved by a bystander because a geocacher let on it was there, it is said to have been "muggled."
"The best caches teach you something about the local place, give some historical facts and add context to our city," says Mr. McPherson. "We searched for a cache called 'What a View,' which gives a great view of the Don Valley and the city skyline from a lookout point in the middle of a residential neighbourhood," he says. "We found the view, but couldn't find the cache!"
Geocaching started after GPS technology was demilitarized. In May of 2000, Dave Ulmer hid a can of beans and some trinkets in the Oregon forest and posted the co-ordinates on a Usenet newsgroup. From there the activity grew and six months later the first Canadian geocache was hidden in Halifax. The newsgroup morphed into the Oregon-based geocaching.com, which regulates and co-ordinates the millions of geocaches world wide. Other than the people working at Groundspeak in Oregon, the activity is completely regulated by volunteers.
According to the website geocaching.com, there are 1,159,667 caches hidden worldwide with an estimated 4-5 million people participating in geocaching. In the last month 4,766,296 new logs have been uploaded onto the website.
A new convert, Mr. McPherson now routinely checks his iPhone whenever he travels to see if there are any caches nearby. So far, he has checked all over cottage country and has seen caches in every location.
He is even considering starting a cache of his own containing some sentimental toys from his childhood. So if you come across a concealed box filled with porcelain Tetley tea figurines in the east end of Toronto, you'll know that Mr. McPherson led you to the spot.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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