|May 18, 2000
Finding your way, fast: Orienteering combines hiking, jogging with map- and compass-reading skills
By MIKE STAHLBERG
CORVALLIS- Ivy Hill was covered with Boy Scouts. None of them, however, were offering to help the little old ladies find their way through the woods thick with poison oak.
That would be cheating.
After all, the 60-some people - young and old, men, women and children - zigging and zagging around Chip Ross Park on Saturday were competing in the southern Willamette Valley's first orienteering meet in many years.
And the essence of orienteering is picking your own route through a series of check points - aided only by map, compass and some cryptic "clues" describing where the check points are located.
It's the sport that proves that the shortest distance between two points is usually not a straight line and that the tortoise can, indeed, beat the hare.
"Some people who can run faster make mistakes, whereas steady speed and not making any mistakes will get you to the finish quicker," says Andy Dale, an Oregon State University graduate student from Great Britain who is currently ranked fifth among U.S. orienteerers.
Most of those who showed up for Saturday's event, however, were happy to simply hike either the 2.4- or the 4-kilometer beginner's level courses that Dale had laid out through meadows, oak savannahs and forests in a hilltop park at the north edge of Corvallis.
The running was generally done by members of the Portland-based Columbia River Orienteering Club (CROC), which scheduled two meets in Corvallis this spring in an attempt to rejuvenate interest in the sport in the southern Willamette Valley.
"I was really excited when I saw this in the paper because I really miss it," said Stern, who got involved in orienteering about 10 years ago at events organized by a now-defunct Corvallis club.
"I learned a lot by going out and doing these," she said. "You really learn to read maps."
Orienteerers use special maps crammed with more information than a typical contour map, Dale says.
The chief difference is an international color coding system that allows experienced competitors to tell at a glance what kind of vegetation covers the terrain between them and the next check point.
White, for example, represents open forest, through which a person can move rapidly. Dark green is "impenetrable" forest, while two lighter shades of green mean slow and difficult going, respectively.
Modern technology has simplified the preparation of orienteering maps. Satellite "orthophotos" overlaid on USGS contour maps allow meet organizers to quickly trace the various vegetation patterns.
The satellites, however, cannot pick out the poison oak.
"To avoid poison oak, keep to trails and open areas," he wrote on printed clue sheets given to all entrants. "All forest (white and green areas on the map) has a lot of poison oak."
That led many participants to avoid cross-country shortcuts they otherwise would have taken.
Veteran orienteerers, however, come prepared to beat through the brambles, if need be. They wear lightweight protective clothing over every inch of skin except their faces.
"You get it as light as possible, and well-ventilated," said CROC member Jerry Rhodes. "I even started wearing gloves a couple of years ago, after getting my hands all nicked up pushing brambles out of my way."
The Columbia River Orienteering Club, with close to 100 members, is only 10 years old.
Orienteering, however, has been around for almost 100 years.
The sport traces its roots to Sweden in the early 1900s, Dale said.
"They had quite primitive maps, and the guides in little towns in Sweden would go out and race each other around the woods," he said. "It's been slowly growing ever since."
Dale got involved back home in England.
Dale's top-five ranking in the U.S. is based on his times at several of the most competitive events, known as "A" meets. There are 20 to 30 "A" meets in the U.S. each year.
"Somebody takes the results of those and calculates ranking points," Dale said.
Orienteering meets are usually designed with the idea that the winning time on the longest course will be about 90 minutes, Dale said.
Every course features a series of numbered "control points" that must be visited in order. They are usually located by some feature on the map, such as a trail junction, a boulder outcrop or a lone tree.
Hanging at each control point is an orange and white flag with a paper punch attached to it by a length of string.
Each punch has a series of pins arranged in a unique pattern. Participants use the punch to mark a numbered box on their entry card, allowing race officials to verify that he or she actually made it to the correct control points.
Competitors are started at one- or two-minute intervals over a two-hour period. The time is recorded when they start and when they finish, allowing officials to calculate a total elapsed time. That determines placing in various age groups and ability levels.
At slightly lower levels, however, navigational skills can quickly overcome raw athletic ability.
"I think orienteering appeals to a lot of people who aren't necessarily fast runners or great sports people," Dale said, "because they can actually beat athletic people by using their brains."
Indeed, orienteerers sometimes refer to their sport as "cunning running."
And given the variety of outdoor activities that people enjoy these days, it's not surprising that orienteering has been adapted for sports other than running and hiking.
CROC, for example, has held "Bike-O" and "Ski-O" events for bicyclists and cross-country skiers, respectively.
And Dale, who's studying oceanography, says there are even "Scuba-O" events for those who enjoy underwater orienteering.
Another introductory-level orienteering event is scheduled June 3 at Avery Park in Corvallis. The terrain there is much easier than at Chip Ross Park - and there's much less poison oak, Dale said.
For additional details, contact Dale at (541) 754-6303 or check the club's website at www.croc.org.