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Web posted Thursday, May 6, 1999

photo: outdoor


 ON THE FLY: A competitor in last weekend's Midwest Orienteering Championships checks his bearing while running along one of the four courses set up at Yankee Springs Recreation Area.

Sentinel/Barbara Beal


Over the river and through the woods
Orienteering takes competitors on a treasure hunt with a map and compass

By BARBARA BEAL
Outdoors editor

MIDDLEVILLE -- Both sleeves of Orlyn Skrien's brightly colored nylon shirt were ripped, his pants torn. He had a scratch starting to clot on his neck. His face was flushed from the heat.

Minutes before, the 58-year-old had crossed the finish line at the Midwest Orienteering Championships at Yankee Springs Recreation Area. He was one of about 50 competitors who spent two days last weekend crashing through the forest, running uphill and down, getting lost and getting found.

"I just love racing in the woods and being outside," said Skrien, who traveled from his home in St. Louis to compete in the event.

Orienteering is a little-known sport in which participants race against the clock through the woods, a map in one hand, a compass in the other. The object is to finish the course in the shortest time possible.

But it's not just a matter of running at full tilt from Point A to Point B. Competitors have to find control points along the course, and in a certain order. That requires compass skills and understanding how to read a topographical map, especially important on the advanced courses that go cross-country.

Last weekend, competitors chose from five different courses. The shortest was a 2.6-kilometer beginner's route that followed clear trails through seven control points. The longest course was a 20K route that had runners bushwacking through the scrub searching for 17 controls.

photo: outdoor


Sentinel/Barbara Beal


After registering and deciding which course to race, each orienteer received a topo map with numbered circles on it. Lines drawn from each circle showed the most direct route between points, but it's up to the competitor to decide the best way to reach the next control point.

Once they reach a control point, designated by a triangular flag, competitors validate their stop by punching a card they carry with them. Then, they're off again in search of the next flag.

What makes orienteering so much fun, competitors say, is that not only do they need to be physically conditioned, they have to be able to make quick decisions. For instance, would it be faster to take the short route straight up the mountain or the longer but less demanding trail around it?

"Today I did a longer course than usual," Skrien said, swallowing large gulps of water at the finish. "I ran, but I walked up the hills. I made a lot of mistakes. One whole leg took about 30 minutes and it probably should've taken six minutes. I was pretty tired. And once you get tired physically you start making mental errors."

According to Tom Hollowell, president of the Southern Michigan Orienteering Club (SMOC), the sport attracts adventurous and intellectual types. Some participants have no interest in competing, he said, but are drawn to the "treasure hunt" aspect of orienteering. For that reason, it's also popular with families.

"People have to be willing to learn how to use a compass," said Hollowell, the event organizer. "Most people start with the white (beginner) course to learn about what a control flag is, how to use a compass and how to follow trails on a map. Then quite often they'll come back and do something more difficult that takes them into the woods where they have to take a compass bearing and read the topo lines."

photo: outdoor


 A control point along the course is marked by a triangular flag with a special hole punch attached to it for competitors to validate their stops.

Sentinel/Barbara Beal


Ingemar Johansson of South Bend, Ind., learned about orienteering while growing up in Scandinavia. He said orienteering is extremely popular in Europe.

"If you have a meet in Norway or Sweden, hundreds of thousands of people go out," he said, after finishing the 7.7K red course in just over one hour. "I think the reason it's not very popular in the U.S. is because it's not a high-tech event. It's mind-body. You have to think and understand where you are while moving very fast. To be elite you have to train very hard."

Heidi Haapasalo knows all about competing at the elite level of orienteering. She was a member of Finland's national orienteering team before she and her husband moved to Milwaukee on a two-year work program.

"If you're in good physical condition you can run fast, but the faster you run the quicker things come at you," said the 28-year-old. "If you're a world champion you can still get lost. You can beat someone who's running faster than you just by being smart."

Haapalsalo said she always runs the course, checking her map on the fly. She doesn't stop unless she encounters a landmark she's not expecting. In Saturday's race, she completed the 7.7K women's elite (red) course in 56 minutes.

"I made some small mistakes, but it's the nature of the sport," she said. "If you're a really good map reader you don't have to always look at the compass."

But not everyone who participates in orienteering events is a serious competitor. Some, like Joe Thomas of Brighton, enjoy the walk in the woods.

"This is the third or fourth event I walked in," he said. "I made one big mistake that got us off into the thick woods. When we came out, I didn't know where we were. We lost about 30 to 45 minutes."

Hollowell said beginners can learn the basics of the sport in 15 minutes, including how to use a compass and an orienteering map's legend. The next step is being able to read the shape of the land in the contours on the map.

SMOC is one of almost 70 orienteering clubs in the United States. The 200-member club holds its meets in the spring and fall at 11 different sites. The next meet will take place at Pontiac Lake on May 8, followed by one at Mill Lake May 16 and at Highland Recreation Area on May 23 and June 6.

All meets start at noon and last until 3 p.m. The cost is $3 for beginners, $4 for members and $5 for non-members. Information about the sport and future events is available on the internet at www.us.orienteering.org. For SMOC events, call Hollowell at 983-2405.

Copyright 1999. The Holland Sentinel.

 

 

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