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If you see a small box containing random items in an inconspicuous spot somewhere in the wilderness, keep it there.
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It’s likely a cache for adventurers involved in geocaching, an outdoor scavenger hunt for curious players in a kind of GPS hide-and-seek for geocaches.
It’s an activity that picked up popularity in 2007 with the Pennsylvania Great Outdoors in partnership with the Oil Region Alliance and 10 counties in northwest Pennsylvania through a program called the Allegheny GeoTrail.
The objective is for registered geocachers to hide a “treasure,” log its location through the program online and allow others to find it by using GPS tracking, said Mary Cochran, Oil Region Alliance project manager.
The caches, in this case, are in military ammunition boxes, said Catherine Coleman, operations manager at the Pennsylvania Great Outdoor Visitors Bureau in Brookville.
The caches are hidden anywhere from places such as under the steps of the Chamber of Commerce in Punxsutawney to forest areas. But most, Coleman said, are in the countryside.
Each cache takes the average person a few hours to find, she said.
The objective of the program is for people to collect at least five geocaches in each participating county.
Coleman said each person who goes through the program gets a waterproof passport to log his or her findings.
Once the cache is found, partcipants remove a stamp from the ammo box to mark their passports at the specific location.
When each county is completed, the person will receive a coin representing that county. After receiving all 10 coins, participants get a final larger coin for completing the mission.
At the headquarters in Venango County, people can also purchase a plaque for having completed the course.
The 10 counties are Cameron, Clarion, Crawford, Elk, Forest, Jefferson, McKean, Potter, Venango and Warren.
The program is free for participants, and if you don’t feel comfortable taking the challenge alone, guided events are also offered, Coleman said.
The program began in 2007 with Betty Squire, the former vice president of tourism at the Oil Region Alliance, and partners Wes Ramsey and Mike Henderson, a project manager for geocaching.
“It’s because of their vision that this was able to get off the ground and be a really amazing program,” Cochran said.
Coleman said that, when it first started, the program attracted about five people a week. It was funded though a state grant until 2011.
But around the time funding expired, the number of people participating in the program dropped, Cochran said.
“We actually said it would be canceled, so people stopped coming for a while, but we were able to find the resources to keep it going,” Cochran said. “We’re happy about that and happy that it’s growing again. We are into the thousands of people who took advantage of the program since it started.”
Coleman said people have come from around the world to participate in the Allegheny Geo-Trail.
“We keep a list of everyone who participates and they’re from everywhere, and it always amazes me when I meet someone new,” she said. “We get some locals, but we also had a couple come from Sweden who traveled around the world geocaching. They said they even did underwater geocaching where they had to get in scuba gear.”
And tourists are what make a big part of boosting the economy, Coleman said.
“They’re traveling trying to find caches and stumble upon some town in Potter County, for example, and they never would have been there if it wasn’t for the program,” Coleman said. “Then they stop by and patronize the local restaurants and bring in a little extra tourism dollars to the area.”
Cochran said about 3 percent of tourism dollars through the Oil Region comes from the geocaching program.
“The No. 1 comments we get from the surveys are people who say that it takes them to places they never knew existed,” Cochran said.
Although money is the biggest challenge in keeping the program afloat, Cochran said she doesn’t foresee the program going under anytime soon.
“We still have coins and passports available so it’s going to continue for as long as we can,” she said. “It’s been a phenomenal program that allows people to try something they wouldn’t normally do.”