Way Off the Beaten Path: GPS Coordinates Are Becoming Latest Travel Destination

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Maps are so last century. These days, adventurers clutching GPS devices are conquering new territories -- map coordinates. In the Russian winter wilderness you can tread where no one has been before, for example, to 59 degrees north, 35 degrees east.

There are certain sounds that a cross-country skier definitely doesn't want to hear, especially when the day's destination lies 15 kilometers (nine miles) away across the snow-covered Russian wilderness.

The roar of a brown bear -- hunters shot two not far from here just this past fall -- would be one such sound. The growl of a wolf would be another.

But Vladimir Chernorutsky is prepared for wild animals. He's brought along a small stungun, several skyrocket fireworks and a dozen firecrackers of a brand called "Black Death." He plans to use them if necessary to scare away predators.

But an especially unpleasant sound, one that Vladimir isn't prepared for, is a crack like a branch breaking, and it comes at exactly 5901'01.8" north latitude, 3503'57.9" east longitude, on a dreary Saturday afternoon. It's the brittle snap of a ski breaking through the middle, directly behind the heel.

"Dmitry is going to kill you," is Vladimir's first response to the mishap. Dmitry is the owner of these narrow, white, wooden skis and was nice enough to loan them out for two days. But murder at the hands of an angry Muscovite isn't really the most pressing problem right now, since Moscow is currently about 500 kilometers (300 miles) away. The more immediate problem lies ahead, in the form of an enormous swamp which is only passable in winter, when it's frozen and covered with snow.

The journey's destination lies on the far side of the swamp, about four and a half kilometers (three miles) away. The goal is not a mountain peak or a lookout point, but a geographical coordinate: 59 degrees north, 35 degrees east. And Vladimir wants to be the first person to reach this particular intersection of latitude and longitude lines.

Geography Nerds and Hobby Explorers

"Confluence hunting" is the name of this game, the adventure of setting out with a GPS device to find such coordinate points, and the idea comes from an American named Alex Jarrett. In February 1996, Jarrett drove through the United States with a car and a GPS navigation device, taking pictures of the points where whole-number latitude and longitude lines intersect. He then published these pictures on a Web site. Other technology-friendly travelers gradually followed his example, creating an "organized sampling of the world," as Jarrett calls the global collection of photographs and reports that are sent in by geography nerds and hobby explorers.

"The idea is to get to know a country not out of a guidebook, but through changes in the landscape seen at regular intervals, from intersection to intersection," Vladimir says. The 48-year-old mathematician and father of two is a financial advisor to several Internet companies, but he also works on the side as the Russian coordinator for confluence.org. So far he's visited 80 confluence points (CPs), and been the first to reach 48 of them. "I used to do this along the way while I was on vacation, and also do some sightseeing," he explains. "But more recently, the CPs themselves have often been the reason for the trip."

Whether there's something interesting to see at the destination doesn't actually matter much in this satellite-guided scavenger hunt. In a world with fewer and fewer uncharted and unvisited places, this kind of GPS expedition is a chance for an ordinary person to become an explorer. People have travelled to the moon, to the top of Mount Everest and the North Pole, but there are still 10,000 unexplored confluence points on land worldwide. Points that fall on bodies of water count only if they're in the immediate vicinity of a coast.

"There always has to be an orientation point on land visible in the photographs from the site," Vladimir says, explaining the rules of the project. He evaluates all attempts in Russia, deciding whether they will be accepted and published on the Web site. All of Germany's 48 confluence points have already been visited, and in the rest of Europe only a few points remain unexplored, for example, just off the coasts of Portugal and Norway.

Suddenly Vladimir stops and takes a picture of the spruces and pines densely surrounding his route. They don't make a particularly stunning photograph, but the scenery isn't the point -- this, says Vladimir, is exactly half of the 8.65 kilometers (5.37 miles) from his car to the goal.

Somehow, the journey continues even with the broken ski. Almost every step sinks down into the snow, sometimes almost hip-deep. But giving up isn't an option -- just the drive out northwest from Moscow in Vladimir's Ford station wagon took eight hours. Then came a night in the Hotel "Comfort" in Ustyuzhna, population 10,000, where just having warm water places a room in the "luxury" category. The next day brought a pre-dawn start for the ski trip here in the Vologda region.

"It's different from hiking in that this is about always going as straight ahead as possible, rather than following a path," Vladimir says. The destination is recorded in his GPS device and an arrow shows direction and distance. It's still exactly 2.11 kilometers (1.31 miles) away, when Vladimir, with alert blue eyes and the full beard of an ancient Greek philosopher, ceremoniously announces, "We're now exactly in the middle of the ocean."

Snowy Swamp

He takes another picture with his digital SLR camera. The surroundings at this point consist of a seemingly endless field of snow, with only a few scattered bushes and branches rising skeletally out of the expanse. "Ocean" is the name of the swamp, which now lies buried under half a meter of snow. Is the swamp deep? "Yes, very deep, certainly several meters," Vladimir replies.

But this fact doesn't seem to disturb him. He's not the one, after all, who sinks into the snow with almost every step. And his thoughts are elsewhere: "No one else has been to this spot before. In summer it's impossible to get here. And in winter there's absolutely no point." He grins gleefully and continues on through the white wasteland on his wide wooden skis. The metal binding which attaches his hiking shoes to the skis squeak with every step. Two more kilometers. Then just 995 meters, then 500, 200. For the last few meters he leaves the swamp area and enters a thick forest again.

"One-hundred meters -- we've made it," Vladimir finally says. Within this radius, an attempt is considered successful. Now it's time for the "confluence dance," the search for the exact intersection and the sight of 10 zeroes on the GPS display. Keeping his eye on both a compass and his yellow GPS device, Vladimir dashes through the underbrush, stumbles, stands up again, makes a couple of 90-degree turns and then stands still. His GPS device shows the coordinates 5900'00.0" N and 3500'00.0" E. "Congratulations," he cries, "your first confluence point!"

Pines and spruces surround the spot, their needles heavy with snow. It actually looks exactly like 59 N, 36 E, Vladimir admits. "It's not a special place," he says, "it's all just virtual." Then he throws two "Black Death" firecrackers one after another onto the snow-covered forest floor. The noise breaks through the silence like bombs exploding. Vladimir celebrates his success with a Marlboro cigarette and a bar of porous Slava chocolate. He takes pictures in all four cardinal directions as proof for his online report -- this is the 49th time Vladimir Chernorutsky has been the first person to reach a previously unexplored intersection point. "You do have to be a bit crazy," he admits. Then he throws another firecracker at a spruce tree.

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