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Orienteering — or how to find your own way in and out of the woods


A group of novices learns the ropes from a pro


May 13, 2010
The girls weren't alone in the woods. Their father, Claes, was more than keeping up with them and held the punch card steady for Hannah as she pushed a red plastic punch through the card. The girls stopped long enough at F31 for their father to give advice to three women from the Peterborough area.

"Put red in the shed and follow Fred," he advised them. Then, after checking the course map, he and his tow-headed daughters were off again, running north towards their fourth control point.

The three women took the advice kindly and didn't mind being left in the dust by the Thelemarcks. Jane Papageorge, Marge Dineen, and Shannon Turcotte weren't going for speed. As runners, they found out about the event while looking to sign up online for the White Mountain Milers' annual half-marathon and thought it would be fun. The next Up North orienteering event is in Peterborough on May 15, and there's another one in Laconia on June 26.  

"So, if we don't get lost today we might try it again in Peterborough," Turcotte said. For their first try at orienteering, they picked the yellow course, the same as the Thelemarcks. On this day, there were five courses from which to choose: a flagged course for children; a white course for youth; and then yellow, orange, red, and green courses, for beginners, intermediates and advanced orienteers. A sixth course, green, was a shortened advance course of 17 controls instead of 21. The yellow course, with nine controls, was roughly two kilometers long, depending on how straight one's line of travel was.

"Sometimes the fastest way isn't a straight line," Clare Long, outdoors educator with the White Mountain National Forest explained at the start. Long recently worked with students from Pine Tree and Conway Elementary Schools, teaching them the skills they could use to hike safe in the federal lands bordering their town. Among the 10 essentials listed in the Forest Service and the New Hampshire Fish & Game Dept.'s www.hikesafe.com outreach effort are a map and a compass. A map doesn't need a signal from an overhead satellite, and a compass won't stop working because of low batteries.

"If you know north, then you can get yourself someplace," Long added.

The trio from the Peterborough area could have easily found most of their control points without using their compasses. The wide recreation paths that serve as cross-country ski trails in the winter are clearly shown on the map as dotted lines lacing the Town of Conway property, and the two lines that come together near the northern edge of the map are clearly recognizable as railroad tracks. A quick reference to the legend and they could have quickly figured out the long trail that splits the property diagonally runs under the prominent power lines. More detailed than a hiking trail map, its legend included symbols of everything from dry ditches and earth banks to rough open areas with trees and a boulder field.

But the threesome wanted the challenge of learning a new skill and plotting their course by compass. Given some brief instructions on compass use by event director Tony Federer, who also drafted the map, it took the women a couple of control points before they felt confident using their new skill. They had just about mastered it when the Telemarcks met them at their third control point.

Recreational orienteering has its roots in military training. In the late 1880s Swedish military men were taught how to find their way across unfamiliar territory using a map and a compass, a skill which soon spurred competition among the men. From that humble beginning the sport has spread across the globe. The International Orienteering Federation counts over 70 countries among its members, from Norway, where the first public competition was held in 1887, to recently-joined Somalia.

To get pointed in the right direction using a map and a compass, first you have to put the red half of the compass needle in the red arrow in the compass pointing to north. This is how you get 'red in the shed.' Maps are conveniently orientated with north at the top, so if you align your compass north with the map's north, you can see by the degrees on the compass in which direction you have to travel to get to your destination. Another arrow, or the edge of the piece the compass is set on, can be aligned on the map to that direction of travel. This is the 'Fred' to follow.  

"You're going relative to north, you're not going north," Dineen explained. She and her friends had listened closely to the instructions Federer had given them, using the land's features as guide posts. They'd bushwacked through the woods between control points one and two. Instead of keeping a constant watch on the compass, they would pick out a feature, such as a tall pine, in Fred's path, then go to that feature and check the compass again, picking out the next feature.  

Orienteering is a competition, but as with any activity, you can be as competitive as you want to be. For most participants, the point is to get out into the woods and enjoy yourself.

"It's a lot of fun, it really is," Long said as Lea and Hannah sprinted to the finish line, each holding tightly on to one of their father's hands, all three Telemarcks wearing big smiles on their faces.

For more information on orienteering in New Hampshire, go to www.upnoor.org.

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