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Subterfuge on a Sylvan Rally
Clive Gammon
January 13, 1969
You still have an hour of light left," said Fred Travis, snapping out a hairy, muscular wrist and consulting the complex of dials held there by a steel-link strap.
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January 13, 1969

Subterfuge On A Sylvan Rally

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You still have an hour of light left," said Fred Travis, snapping out a hairy, muscular wrist and consulting the complex of dials held there by a steel-link strap.

"I thought I'd just...."

"Just time to get to the top of Irton Pike. You'll see the kind of country you'll be working in tomorrow! Pretty rough stuff, I think you'll agree, ha, ha, ha!" He got up from the easy chair, a big, heavy man with a crew cut, wearing tweeds and brogues. He herded me out of the warm, firelit parlor into the damp north of England afternoon.

After driving 300 miles over some of the worst roads in Western Europe outside Spain, I felt that a scramble up Irton Pike was not on my immediate program. But Travis was standing on his doorstep looking like a combination of Kaiser war general and my old headmaster, so I fumbled in my car for a map and brought it over to him. A broad forefinger blotted out a good square mile of the Cumberland countryside, and at its tip I could see steeply sloping forested land indicated. Irton Pike, nearly 1,000 feet high, sat in the middle. Also, as I now observed with a sharp pang of relief, it was straddled by a small road.

"See you in the morning, then," said Travis. I managed to stop myself from saluting him and drove smartly off for the hills. Beautiful hills certainly, heavily ferned and wooded, intersected by vivid little trout streams and broken by limestone outcrops; but I could see the hills only as obstacles to be crossed, and daunting obstacles, at that. The road ran over stone bridges, doubled around hairpin bends, then shot upward. In low gear I crawled to the top of the pike. There was a small clearing among the pines at the summit, and a grayish-red stone stood there, with an inscription difficult to read for lichen. I could make it out, though. It read:



Malkinson couldn't have been less ready than I was, in any sense of the word. A few weeks ago, gaily enough, I had said I would try it. Orienteering, that is.

"A new and fascinating sport," enthused the handbook. "Makes the most satisfying demands on your energy and initiative.... Guided by a map and directed by a compass, the competitor in an orienteering race is cocooned in an aura of utter concentration as he makes his way across country.... For some two hours the mind rationalizes the body's progress resulting in a complete and rewarding experience...."

It sounded more like an LSD trip than an athletic event. But it clearly had its attractions. Even old ladies could compete, according to one authority, though my research seemed to show that the British events at least tended to be won by people like Roger Bannister (first four-minute miler), Christopher Brasher (gold medal steeplechaser at Melbourne, 1956) and Gordon Pirie (ex-world record holder, 3,000 and 5,000 meters and the six-mile run). The whole thing started in Sweden, away back in the 1920s, when a Major Ernst Killander decided that nobody was really using the northern forests for competitive sport. So he set running courses right through the woods, courses that necessitated the use of compass and large-scale map if you wanted to reach the finish line. To begin with, running ability was more important than pure navigation, but the balance gradually shifted. By 1938, when the Swedish Orienteering Association was formed to standardize the sport, map-reading ability had become the most important skill involved. In 1942 orienteering became a compulsory subject in Swedish schools. At the present moment it is easily Sweden's most popular outdoor sport, apart from the one that the Swedes make all their films about. In the 1948 Olympics, you may recall, Scandinavian runners dominated the middle-distance track events. But only a year later G�sta Holma, the Swedish national coach, was heard to complain that the whole future of middle-distance running in Sweden was threatened by the emergence of orienteering. Young men, it seemed, preferred to run through forests rather than along tracks.

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