In a game of global positioning called geocaching, the lowly treasure hunt has gone high-tech — but it can also be a game of risk when terrorism-sensitive authorities find the goods first.
Scot Tintsman found that out when he stashed a green bucket under an Idaho highway bridge last September, intending to fill it with goodies for other players to find using Global Positioning System units. But before he could finish adding the requisite trinkets and log books and posting its GPS coordinates on the Internet, a bridge inspection crew found it.
Rounding a corner on his motorcycle to finish rigging his cache, he was greeted by a barricade of police cars and a bomb squad. He struggled to explain the misunderstanding.
"I got off my bike and three officers approached me very cautiously, hands on their holsters," he said. "I was trying to turn off my MP3 player and I think they were worried I was going for a detonator."
Tintsman and other geocachers play the game this way: Participants stash a vessel of some sort containing goods as a reward for the person who finds the "cache," as it's known. The person or group hiding the cache posts the hiding place's GPS coordinates on the Internet. People who find the cache are expected to take something from it and replace it with something else.
In November, a geocache outside a police station in Provo, Utah, met a bomb squad robot as its fate. It contained a toy gun, holster and nightstick.
In June, a bomb squad in De Pere, Wis., used a robot-mounted shotgun to blast the lid off a suspicious-looking military ammunition box found in a park. It also turned out to be a geocache.
And on the night before the 2004 presidential election, police and the FBI spent hours questioning a man seen prowling along a fence at Los Angeles International Airport with a GPS unit. He was a geocacher from Vermont trying to stash a toy snake into a cache, placed five weeks earlier, that had already been visited by 463 people.
Guidelines on Geocaching.com — the most popular Web clearinghouse for registering geocache hides and finds — advise players not to place caches near critical infrastructure or public buildings that might be terrorist targets. And with more than 1 million people worldwide estimated to participate, Geocaching.com co-founder Bryan Roth of Seattle says the number of homeland security false alarms is comparatively low.
"I dare say I have heard of no more than five or 10 incidents," said Roth, whose Web site lists more than 225,000 caches in 219 countries. "Police can always contact us and we'll tell them whether something is a registered geocache. And if they're still not comfortable with that, we tell them to blow it up. We don't want to be legally or, more importantly, morally liable if it indeed was a problem."
Many geocachers fear the pastime could be banned in some areas because of the scares caused by ill-advised cache placements. A "Geocacher's Creed" posted on the Internet asks participants to "avoid causing disruptions or public alarm."
Even when geocachers cause public alarm, severe criminal repercussions appear to be rare.
Tintsman, whose geocache sat high above the whitewater of Idaho's Payette River, was charged with placing debris on public property, a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail and a $300 fine.
County prosecutor Matthew Williams said that he is not seeking jail time but that he would like restitution for the expense of the law enforcement response.
Tintsman said he is still avidly geocaching — but with a better awareness of how it might look in a post-Sept. 11 landscape.
"I wasn't thinking about terrorism when I placed it under the bridge. I was thinking about making the most extreme cache possible," he said. "I just got carried away."