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This map shows the 25 GPS Demonstration Parks in Minnesota, which will hold periodic seminars and be starting points for beginners with the new Wildlife Safari geocaching challenge. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

Join the 'Wildlife Safari'

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outdoors Willmar,Minnesota 56201 http://www.wctrib.com/sites/default/files/styles/square_300/public/fieldimages/1/1130/200904252009geocachingmap.jpg?itok=9pndqDiY
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Join the 'Wildlife Safari'
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

There's a "wildlife safari" at Minnesota's state parks this year.

On the heels of a successful State Park History Challenge as part of the state's Sesquicentennial celebration last year, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is coming back with an even larger program to get people out to the parks.

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"The statistics are showing state parks attendance is leveling out," according to Terri Dinesen, manager at Upper Sioux Agency State Park. "It's our younger generation. They've learned that the 18-24 age group is tied to technology. I'd say the majority that were doing it in full regions and statewide are the empty nesters. This is one way to get people out there. It's also a way to connect the youth to the environment."

It's all about geocaching, which according to geocaching.com can be described as "... a high-tech treasure hunting game played throughout the world by adventure seekers equipped with GPS devices. The basic idea is to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, outdoors and then share your experiences online. Geocaching is enjoyed by people from all age groups, with a strong sense of community and support for the environment."

This year, the DNR is launching the "Wildlife Safari" campaign May 2 in all of its state parks. Multi-stage geocaches will be hidden in each of 72 state parks in Minnesota. The prize at the final cache will be a collectible card with a "critter" - an animal, bird or insect - on it that is native to the state park. The card will have some fun facts about the critter on the back.

There will also be collectible coins that geocachers can purchase after attaining certain levels.

"The goal is to collect all the cards," said Sibley State Park manager Paul Otto. "Last year it was popular and this year it should be even more popular."

But for the non-tech savvy individual, there needs to be an explanation first. GPS stands for Global Positioning System, The hand-held units - slightly larger in most cases than a cell phone, and many smart phones come with GPS technology - receive information from stationary satellites in space, allowing the user to triangulate his/her position anywhere on earth within about 10 feet.

Basically, it's the adult version of hide-and-seek.

"Geocaching is wildly popular in Minnesota," said Joel Landsteiner, president of the Minnesota Geocaching Association. "While the MnGCA does not include all cachers from Minnesota, it certainly is the largest proactive organization here. Minnesota in particular is home to the number one cache hider in the world. While Minnesota may be the land of 10,000 lakes, it is also home to over 15,000 geocaches placements all over the state!"

A geocache can be just about any container. Some can be as small as a 35mm film container or as large as the Tupperware containers we all use in our kitchens. Most will contain a log book for people to mark when they found the cache and various treasures. It's a give-and-take system with geocaches, you can take a treasure but you're also expected to leave something else in there.

However, hiding caches in its parks wasn't always a welcome idea for the DNR. Landsteiner said it took some time to get the DNR to accept it.

"Our association has a long history of having worked with the DNR to get geocaching approved in their parks. Believe it or not, three years ago geocaching in state parks was illegal and the MnGCA has worked exclusively and tirelessly with the DNR in order to make this program a reality. So, you can probably imagine how happy we are to have a complete reversal of the original policies set forward, as we've gone from completely denying to completely embracing. The parks win because they get more visitors, and geocachers win because there are 72 new reasons to visit the state parks."

The state parks system will also help people who have interest but not the means to get started with geocaching. Parks like Sibley and Upper Sioux Agency are designated as demo sites, which will have programs on geocaching and also have GPS units available for use. The 25 designated parks will also have the collectible coins available for purchase as geocachers reach 10, 20, 40, 60 and all the park's caches found.

The program will run at least three years, which should give many people time to visit their favorite state parks.

"I got the bug to do it and it's a lot of fun," said Otto.

The MnGCA will host a kickoff event at Mille Lacs Kathio State Park, which will feature kid-friendly caches and other events on Saturday, May 2, starting at 9:30 a.m.

The coordinates for each of the first caches for every state park will be posted on the state parks website at www.mnstateparks.info by 10 a.m. May 2.

All caches will be placed above the ground and will not disturb the natural features of the area.

The Geocaching History Challenge, last year's program, had more than 20,000 geocache finds recorded.

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