ESTACADA -Wiping his raindrenched face as steam billows from his body, Jeff
Watson of Corvallis checks his watch to verify his time.
Rain pours steadily on the picnic shelter's metal roof and mud squeegees from
Watson's running boots with each step. He's just finished the most difficult
course in today's orienteering meet at McIver Park.
Like runners in road races, Watson is lean and fit. But his passion is not
simply running, it's finding his way along a course using only a map and compass
while the clock keeps ticking.
Watson isn't alone.
"Orienteering is interesting, chal-lenging and a great
way to enjoy the outdoors."
Millie Hnidey, 66
The sport of orienteering is growing rapidly across the United States. Last
year, a group of dedicated enthusiasts started a Corvallis club.
And Watson says they're eager for new members.
Although orienteering may be a sport you haven't heard about, it's been around
for a long time.
"The Norwegians used orienteering as part of their training for World
War II," Watson says." After the war, people turned it into a sport
for all seasons."
Meets are held throughout the year and can involve cross country skiing or
snowshoeing in winter and mountain biking and horseback riding in summer as
well as more traditional running or hiking events. Some meets, called Trail-O's,
are designed for wheelchair participants.
What is Orienteering?
Orienteers find their way along a set course using only a map and compass.
It's easy to learn, but different routes with increasing levels of difficulty
keep meets challenging even for people with advanced skills.
"The whole object is to find your way along the course in the shortest
possible time," Watson says.
Each route has a series of control markers. When a person gets to the marker,
he or she must punch a card to verify they found the control. Routes are different
for beginner, intermediate and advanced participants. The first person to
finish their designated course, by time, wins.
At the Mclver meet, Andy Dale, another elite runner from Corvallis, quickly
joins Watson at the finish line. Dale, a native of Yorkshire, England, began
orienteering 15 years ago.
Together, Watson and Dale rehash today's route.
"It was a great course," Dale says. "Mal always puts together
a good meet."
Mal Harding, president of the Columbia River Orienteering Club in Portland,
is a master course designer. Advanced runners appreciate the challenges he
incorporates into his routes.
"Corvallis has some of the best competitors in the state," Harding
says as helps people register.
"But, it's not just about running. Plenty of people today will walk the
Most people compete individually, but youngsters often accompany parents on
beginner routes to learn basic navigational skills. Other people will walk
the course, enjoying the challenge of finding the route at a slower pace.
Millie Hnidey, 66, of Estacada, is one of those. She's here with her son,
daughter-in-law and teenage grandson.
"We're just going to walk the course and visit as we go along, "
she says with a big grin. "It's great to have my family with me today.
Hnidey began orienteering five years ago when she happened upon a meet while
walking in a park one day.
"Mal Harding took me under his wing," Hnidey says, "and I got
hooked. Orienteering is interesting, challenging and a great way to enjoy
Paula Whipple, Watson's wife, and a member of the Corvallis club says it's
the mental challenge of orienteering that she enjoys most.
"I like being 'one with the map' and knowing when I finish that I've
done well," she says. "Anyone can do orienteering," Whipple
adds. "Women love the intellectual challenge of the sport."
Orienteering appeals to outdoor lovers who yearn to break free
of the confines of a trail. It's a thinking sport that combines map and compass
reading, decision-making and a great workout.
Paula Whipple, Watson's wife, likes the freedom their increased navigation
skills have given them.
"We're no longer chained to the trail," she says. "We feel
more secure in leaving the marked trail systems."
As a bonus, the Corvallis couple see wildlife they never saw on well-used
In addition, Whipple says, it's a great way to get a workout.
"I wouldn't have classified myself as an athlete five years ago when
we first started orienteering," she says. "But now, I run to keep
in shape for the meets."
What to Expect
Each meet has a registration table. You'll be required to fill out an entry
form, pay a small fee ($5-7) and buy a map of the course (about $2).
If you haven't tried orienteering before, ask if a beginner clinic will be
held. Most meets have them, or provide one-on-ne orientation with an experienced
Unlike road races, orienteering meets have flexible start times. Typically,
a three-hour window starting time keeps the course from getting too crowded
and brings a more solitary experience to the sport. The starter records when
each individual begins and a finish time is recorded at the end.
According to Watson, maps issued at orienteering meets are more detailed than
standard topographical maps. They have 2.5- to 5-meter contour lines, use
a smaller scale for additional detail and add vegetation markers as well as
noting cliffs, ravines, boulders and bridges as well as mileage.
The maps are oriented towards magnetic north to make navigating by compass
easier. Good courses, Watson says, have a lot of options to factor into your
"Questions like, 'Should I go over the hill or around it?' are all part
of choosing a route," he says.
Only one map is distributed at each meet, but the different courses are color-coded.
Beginners usually take a 1- to 4-kilometer course with all control flags on
an actual trail. Advanced beginner courses might be 2- 6-kilometers long and
have controls on a trail as well as ones easily seen nearby. Intermediate
orienteering courses run 4-8 kilometers and may be off the linear features
of the map and require taking accurate compass bearings. Elite courses are
8-12 kilometers and are navigated almost exclusively from compass bearings.
You can find contact information for the Corvallis Club on the U.S. Orienteering
Federation website at www.us.orienteering,org.
No specialized equipment, other than a compass, is needed for fair-weather
meets, the best time for newcomers to start.
The Corvallis club even rents compasses, so you can try the sport with virtually
Hiking boots or running shoes are the footwear of choice for mild weather
" An orienteering course is just as much fun as a treasure hunt,"
says Andy Dale, a Corvallis club member . "Beginners should just come
out, try it and focus on the fun."
Holly Endersby is a freelance outdoor writer from Philomath. Write her at
P.O. Box 368, Corvallis, OR 97339 or firstname.lastname@example.org