BY JIM COX

Times Bulletin Correspondent

On a cold, drizzly November morning, in a house hidden in a wooded area near the west side of Van Wert, the old man sat at his kitchen table peering at the laptop screen. He keyed "45832" and clicked on a couple of buttons. He'd heard that, surprisingly, the peaceful little village of Convoy and the area around it contained several of what he was looking for. On the screen a map of the Convoy area popped up and, to his delight, 15 "pointers" appeared. The pointers resembled red light bulbs with a black dot in the center, the base of the bulb pointing to the locations of his targets.

The old man's code name was "Firestar." Only a few people knew his real name. After reading the descriptions of the 15 targets, he selected six of them and printed out the information for those six. He downloaded to his Global Positioning System (GPS) the coordinates of the six locations. Two of the six could possibly be difficult, so the old man phoned his grandson, "OHBuckeye," who was only 14, but wise beyond his years.

"I think there are some good ones near here," he said. "Are you free this afternoon to give me some help?"

"Sure," said OHBuckeye.

Two hours later, after a light lunch of turkey sandwiches, potato chips and Mountain Dew, Firestar and OHBuckeye donned hiking boots, jeans, sweatshirts and ponchos. Firestar collected his GPS and the six printouts. "Are you up to this?" he asked his young companion.

"I think so," said OHBuckeye. He smiled confidently.

They climbed in the Jeep. With Firestar driving and OHBuckeye holding the GPS and providing directions, the two headed west on Old Tile Factory Road. Ten minutes later they found themselves in a tiny cemetery in the southeast corner of a large field of corn stubble. The cemetery contained about 50 tombstones and five large maple trees. OHBuckeye, following the directions on the GPS, led the way toward one of the maples.

The front door of the house across the road opened, and a young woman appeared. "Muggle alert," said Firestar softly. Tthe two men stopped and pretended to be studying a large tombstone with the word "Muntzinger" on it. Her curiosity apparently satisfied, the woman went back into the house.

OHBuckeye jammed his hand into a small hole in the tree and removed a shiny silver object about the size of a pill bottle, unscrewed the cap, and removed a pencil and rolled up sheet of paper. He wrote something on the paper, screwed the cap on and replaced the cylinder in the tree.

"Good job," said Firestar, "but I don't think SQ Odd Fellow is going to be so easy. They climbed back into the Jeep and headed north. "

' * * * * * * * * * * * * * * '

Firestar and OHBuckeye are aficionados of the game called "geocaching." The online reference source Wikipedia describes geocaching as "an outdoor treasure-hunting game in which the participants use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver or other navigational techniques to hide and seek containers (called "geocaches" or "caches") anywhere in the world...well over 800,000 geocaches are registered on various websites devoted to the pastime. Geocaches are currently placed in over 100 countries around the world and on all seven continents, including Antarctica."

Typical hiding places in Northwest Ohio include cemeteries, bridges and parks, but the locations are limited only by the hider's ingenuity. Caches vary in size from that of a film canister to that of a large fishing tackle box. Every cache contains a "log" to be signed and dated by the finder. The larger caches contain small objects for trading, typically inexpensive toys; this makes geocaching a popular activity for adults to do with young children.

Anyone may create and hide a cache, subject to the permission of the owner or the person responsible for the area where the cache will be hidden. After the cache is hidden, the cache "owner" enters on an online form information regarding the cache, including, among other things, the name of the cache (e.g. "SQ Odd Fellow" - the name of an actual cache in Convoy's Odd Fellows Cemetery), precise coordinates of the cache, difficulty of finding the cache (on a scale 1 to 5) and difficulty of the terrain (on a scale 1 to 5). A reviewer checks out the information to be sure the location is suitable (safe and accessible), that necessary permission has been obtained, etc. If the reviewer deems the cache acceptable, it is put on the geocaching website, and the fun begins as geocache hunters begin to search for it.

Some caches are easy to get to and easy to find. Others may require long walks or climbs. Some may take hours to figure out, and some searches come up empty. Regardless of how it turns out, the searcher is expected to enter online the result. That log entry triggers an email to the cache owner so the owner can monitor the activity. There's a webpage for each cache, showing all of the related log entries.

The website also keeps track of how many "finds" each geocacher has made. For example, the scenario described in the introduction to this article might result in a log entry saying "November 19 by OHBuckeye (652 found)." This would indicate that the cache was found on November 19 by OHBuckeye, and that OHBuckeye has found a total of 652 caches. That 652 number wouldn't be at all unusual for a serious geocacher. Many have numbers in the thousands beside their code names.

People who are not familiar with geocaching are referred to as "muggles." Indeed, the presence of a muggle can complicate things considerably. It may be difficult to explain to a muggle why you're probing through an evergreen bush in the city park or snooping around a light pole in a shopping center parking lot.

Geocaching originated in May, 2000, after GPS's with tremendous accuracy became available to the general public. In fact, today's GPS will bring the searcher within a few feet of the cache. From there, depending upon the number of possible hiding places, the searcher may find the cache in seconds, minutes or hours - or not at all. Regardless of the outcome, the geocaching experience will result in many active, interesting outdoor hours - for one seeking solitude or for a twosome, threesome or other small group.

For more information on geocaching, log on to www.geocaching.com, the official global GPS cache hunt website.