Story by Steve Lundeberg
As the father of a young daughter, Erik Torniainen has no problem saying that the new Gibson Hill Park in his North Albany neighborhood represents a fine piece of recreational real estate.
But as an orienteer, he can't help but notice its lack of potential as a site for a meet.
"It wouldn't make a good O park," Torniainen said, using the standard abbreviation for his sport. "It's too small, and everything's too visible."
Torniainen knows, of course, that the city did not create Gibson Hill Park with orienteering in mind. It's just that all of the hours spent reading maps and compasses and analyzing terrain and topography cause someone like Torniainen to look at land a bit differently than most people.
Orienteering is a sport in which participants, traveling on foot, on skis or by bike, use their map and compass skills to find certain points, called control sites, on a course. The route between the sites is not specified, meaning it's up to each orienteer to decide the best way to get from one to another. Each site is marked by a flag resembling a small box kite.
Born in Finland and raised in upstate New York, Torniainen came to the mid-valley five years ago to go to work for Hewlett-Packard, where he makes computer models of ink jet pens. He first got involved in orienteering while he was pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"I'd always been a cross country skier and liked endurance-type things," said the 31-year-old Torniainen, who moved to the United States when he was 2. "I had some ski friends who did (orienteering), and at that time extreme sports were getting popular, and they said I should try it, that there was nothing as extreme as this - stream fording and running through briar-filled, nettle-filled areas."
DAVID PATTON / Democrat-Herald
Roller skiing is part of the training regimen for Torniainen, who has competed three times in the American Birkebiener, the U.S.'s most prestigious cross country race.
Skin abrasions and irritations aside, Torniainen tried foot orienteering - foot O - and got hooked on a sport in which he could combine his love of both the aerobic and the analytical.
On the course, Torniainen carries a clue sheet that describes the specifics of each control location, wears a compass strapped to one thumb and clutches a course map that he folds, for clarity's sake, to show only the part of the course he's traversing at the time.
"But I'm always thinking two or three controls ahead. You have to be able to read things quickly: There's a hill, a hill, a hill," he said, pointing at contour lines on one of his maps. "You have to have good experience with maps. If I make a bad mistake, it can cost me five or 10 minutes. Once I literally wandered off the map."
Reaching a control site, an orienteer uses a punch tool that's been left there to mark a card he takes with him around the course. The tool at each control punches out a unique pattern of holes, thus verifying the orienteer's visit to the different sites.
Provided by Erik Torniainen
Torniainen marks his punch card at a control site during an O meet held last September at Champoeg Park near Canby.
In the type of orienteering known as score O, a contestant tries to find as many of a course's controls as possible, in no designated order but in a set time period, and receives a certain amount of points for each one (coming in late results in a big loss of points).
This is as opposed to regular O, in which the goal is to find all of the controls, in sequence, as quickly as possible.
Torniainen, who is still an avid runner and skier as well as an orienteer, does two or three O meets a year. One of about a dozen orienteers living in the mid-valley and a member of both the Portland-based Columbia River Orienteering Club and the mid-valley based Oregon Cascade Orienteering Klubb, he said he could participate in as many as 10 meets per year if he were so inclined.
Perpetually fit, Torniainen figures he spends seven to 11 hours per week training for his various activities. He goes running about five times per week - he's run a 3:03 marathon - and also blends mountain biking and roller skiing into the life he shares with wife Rama Prasad, who is also an engineer at HP, and their 1-year-old daughter Andrea.
While Torniainen has indeed found orienteering to be the most extreme sport he's undertaken, "cross country skiing is pretty close," he said.
Three times he's competed in the American Birkebiener, a 52-kilometer race that's held every February in Wisconsin and draws nearly 9,000 entrants each year.
"I'm now in the first wave," Torniainen said of the Birkebiener's seeding system. "There are 10, maybe 11, waves, each containing 600 to 800 skiers. There is also an elite wave, which has the top 200 skiers.
A map and a thumb compass are the primary tools of the trade for Finnish-born Erik Torniainen of North Albany, who branched into orienteering from cross country ski racing while pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Cornell University.
"Each wave starting from 10 and going to the elite wave has a qualifying time. So the first time you do the Birkie, unless you have a qualifying time from another race, you start in the 10th wave, which is where I started. Since then I've skied faster and made the qualifying time for the first wave. The Birkie has to use this wave format to manage the number of skiers on the course, and even with this setup it's extremely crowded on the race trail. All in all it's the premier cross country ski race in the U.S."
Still, orienteering offers something to Torniainen that skiing and marathoning don't.
"It's the mental challenge," he said. "I like running, and I like endurance events, and when I'm doing an O meet, it just fills my mind. When I get done it's like no time has passed at all."
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