PERRYVILLE -- A year ago, Ray Culp weighed 406 pounds and the outlook for his health was grim; he needed a walker and oxygen supply to get around. Today, his weight is down to 270, and he cites two reasons for the vast improvement in his health: He had gastric bypass surgery and his geocache count hit 4,240.
The latter refers to the number of "treasures" the 62-year-old Culp has found while hiking and participating in high-tech scavenger hunts known by a few million hobbyists around the world as geocaching (pronounced "geo-cashing").
With a walking staff in one hand and smart phone in the other, Culp has located hundreds of "geocaches," using a global positioning app as his guide. That means he walked — a lot, and much more than he used to.
"It has been life-changing," Culp said Saturday at Perryville's town hall, as he and dozens of cheerful geocachers registered for a new trail designed and promoted as a way to lure trekkers into Maryland's small towns.
Dozens of other hobbyists registered for the trail in Greenbelt and Hancock.
Forty geocaches — small, waterproof containers full of assorted trinkets — have been hidden in or near towns across the state, their coordinates posted on the Internet.
For those who register to participate, the treasures show up on hand-held GPS devices and smart phones as colorful dots. The goal is to hike to a spot, find the geocache — under a log, maybe, or inside a dead tree — and record the "secret code" on the lid of each one.
Some people take an item from the geocache and leave another behind.
Hundreds of hobbyists are expected to take part in the Discovering Maryland Geotrail, the second of its kind staged by the Maryland Municipal League. The first one, established in 2009, had more than 30,000 "finds," according to Paula Chase-Hyman, the league's member relations manager.
The first 200 people who find and record at least half of the new Maryland geocaches get a "geocoin," prized by the hobbyists.
Some geocachers do it for the modest rewards. Some do it for the simple challenge and pleasure. And many do it to enjoy the outdoors and stay active — in Culp's case, to stay alive.
"I shined a seat with my [rear end] for too many years," Culp said, referring to the sedentary job he had as a driver's license examiner near his home in Red Lion, Pa. "I was in really bad shape. I had emphysema. I was short of breath all the time. I had an irregular heart rhythm."
He had the gastric bypass surgery last January. "But my doctor told me the surgery alone would not make me healthy."
So Culp bought a walking staff at a yard sale for $10 and ramped up his geocaching.
He found 2,740 new geocaches in 2012 alone. He attributes half of his weight loss to the gastric bypass surgery, half to his hobby.
"I'm a legend among geocachers now," Culp said with a laugh.
"He's a legend," confirmed Jim Copenhaver, his geocaching colleague from York, Pa.
Geocachers have nicknames: Culp is known as Papa Snapdragon, Copenhaver as Geo Jimbo, and Copenhaver's wife, Pam, goes by GoGo Granny.
They, a newbie named Levi Myers and about 370 other geocachers registered for the Discovering Maryland Geotrail yesterday, according to Chuck Sporer, a volunteer with the Maryland Geocaching Society. More geocachers are expected to find the statewide scavenger hunt online.
The last trail had several thousand participants, according to the Maryland Municipal League, and nearly 500 geocachers found every treasure on it.