Parents, how do you get your little gamer or gadget guru off the couch and outside for exercise this winter?
Strap on snowshoes and take a gadget outside for a treasure hunt.
Anoka County Parks has a geocaching course for beginners and children at Wargo Nature Center in Lino Lakes. Geocaching equipment rentals, added to the nature center about three years ago, are popular in the summer, but winter users are warming to the trend. (The prospect of emerging from our current deep freeze in the coming days shouldn't hurt.)
Geocaching is a modern-day treasure hunt in which participants use Global Positioning System receivers to find "geocaches" — boxes containing directions for activities, readings or words of wisdom. The outdoor activity was born in 2000 when civilian GPS units became more accurate, and it is now an international phenomenon.
Adding that wrinkle to a winter nature walk appeals to today's tech-savvy youth, nature center staff say.
"The kids really enjoy the technology side. They enjoy being outside in nature. It's a great blending of the two," said Wargo program supervisor Krista Harrington. "Young families are looking for a way to tie it all together."
At Wargo, participants search for seven geocaches, also called waypoints, hidden around the 63-acre peninsula that juts out into Lake George Watch. Geocachers will find a plastic box at each waypoint containing nature or physical activities to complete, ranging from yoga poses to tree identification.
Harrington estimates that finding all seven waypoints would involve a 2- to 3-mile walk.
Geocaching has become popular with school groups, she said.
The nature center rents snowshoes and GPS receivers with coordinates for the waypoints programmed into the device. Snowshoe and GPS rentals are $5 each for two hours.
On the hunt
On a recent day, Wargo interpretive naturalist Mary Morris buckles into a pair of snowshoes and sets out with a GPS receiver. This year's thick snow cover crunches loudly underfoot as she moves between bare trees and glides over snow-crusted fallen logs.
"Once you get yours snowshoes on, you just go," she says.
Morris, who teaches preschool at the nature center, is a keen observer, pointing out how flora and fauna transform in the wintry landscape.
She points out squirrel, deer and mouse tracks — the critters' foot- and tailprints visible in the snow. Morris steps onto the dock extending into frozen Lake George Watch. She searches around and finds a waypoint box. Inside are cards with different yoga poses. Yoga is a bit tricky in all her winter weather gear on this subzero day, but Morris gamely strikes an "airplane" pose, with her snowshoe dangling from her extended foot.
Morris said she's led children through old-fashioned orienteering with a compass and map and she's also taught geocaching. Hands down, kids were way more engaged in the geocaching when technology was involved, she said.
"It's exciting. It's like a treasure hunt. You are following a map," Morris said. "Kids really do like using a GPS unit."