(This column was first published in the December 23, 2002 issue of The Buffalo News.)


The coordinates I was given for a parking area were latitude: North 43 degrees 00.916 minutes, longitude: West 078 degrees 29.178 minutes. I set those coordinates in my handheld GPS (Global Positioning System) and followed its compass to the middle of Akron Falls County Park in Newstead.


After I parked my car, I set new coordinates in the GPS and started hiking down a steep hill toward that location.


This was to be my introduction to the new orienteering-like sport of geocaching. I was following instructions downloaded from the Geocaching website. I had picked out this site from among dozens in western New York, including eight within the Buffalo city limits.


The name of my goal is "Eversure's C&S Cache". I had printed out the instructions to it from the website. Here is part of what I read: "Once you are on the nature trail, enjoy what is the very best of our town. Don't worry about getting wet but please be sure to wear hiking boots: you'll need them for the final leg. Cache is in a dark green ammo box with C&S GEOCACHE painted on it (you will discover the meaning of C&S once you open the box). I believe that you WILL need the hint below."


And indeed I did. I had already decrypted the hint using the accompanying key. It told me something about mushrooms that didn't make sense to me until I looked around when I reached my target location. But even with this clue it took me fifteen minutes to find the cache -- enough time to make me feel at the same time both heroic and foolish for the cache was in a location that should have been obvious.


In the box were all kinds of goodies: a "Proud to be an American" monogrammed t-shirt, several CDs, a half dozen other quite valuable gifts and a spiral pad on which a number of earlier visitors had written. The geocaching rules at this point are simple: "Take something from the cache. Leave something in the cache. Write something in the logbook." I took those instructions to mean "trade something of equal value," and having failed to bring anything to offer, I just sat down on the hillside to record in the logbook my pleasure at finding my first cache.


Buoyed by my success I raced back to the car and headed for another cache, this one the other side of Akron in a woodlot I had visited earlier in the year to census breeding birds.


It seems to me that geocaching represents a wonderful new family activity, a sport that would get both children and adults interested and out away from television for a few hours. More than a walk in the woods, it represents an expedition with a well-defined goal.


There is a drawback, however. Even the discounted GPS devices offered on the geocaching website cost $100 or more. A decision to purchase one should not be taken lightly. I use mine for many other applications. Like many hunters, for example, when I set out on a hike, I record the location of my car, that way insuring that I head back in the right direction. Still you should consider what uses you would make of a GPS before you buy one. At these prices, for most of us they shouldn't be considered toys.


Before you buy any GPS device, I recommend that you explore Joe Mehaffey and Jack Yeazel's GPS Information Website. There is a great deal of information on this site, almost too much, but it is a good place to begin if you are considering a purchase. One of the things you will soon realize is that learning how to use one of these devices effectively is not at all easy. I still struggle with mine after two years and, when I haven't used it for a time, I find myself having to relearn its idiosyncracies.


For those who don't purchase a GPS, there is an alternative. Letterboxing is a similar outdoor treasure hunt that requires only a compass. Its clues, found on the web at Letterboxing North America, relate more to the environment. This sport was initiated in England where it has become very popular. There are already over a thousand sites in North America, but so far only one in western New York.