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New world within one's compass
William Johnson
December 18, 1972
A neophyte orients himself to a stimulating pastime in the wilds
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December 18, 1972

New World Within One's Compass

A neophyte orients himself to a stimulating pastime in the wilds

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A man wearing dark glasses and boat sneakers came running out of the woods across a long open field, jogging through shoulder-high brown weeds, alone. He carried a crumpled map in one hand. In the other was a compass. It was near the gloaming of an autumn afternoon in New York state, and the man was perspiring awfully. His face was scratched, blood made a rill down one cheek. He was panting and wheezing and seemed a little popeyed behind his shades. And he ran through the weeds for the last 150 yards as fast as he could go and finally tottered beneath a banner marked FINISH. Then he sagged, but he smiled, he smiled.

A tiny crowd, not more than three dozen strong, was sitting on a small knoll. Two or three applauded politely. The man waved to his well-wishers and brushed some dried leaf bits from his shoulders and began to speak animatedly, though still panting, to anyone who would listen. Lost? Hell, yes, he had been lost. Here he was coming in two hours after everyone else, of course he was lost. But, look here—he rattled the map—wasn't this a mistaken marking here? Wasn't the boulder field actually beyond the stone fence and wasn't this stream supposed to be west of the control point—here?

No, someone said gently, patting the man's back. No, the map was right. The man in dark glasses was told that he had made some kind of mistake, probably gotten his compass bearing wrong or turned his map the wrong way or tried to find his way through the woods in dark glasses. He sighed, he frowned, but he did not complain further. In fact, he smiled. This was his first competition, wasn't it? He had finished. He had found his way to the FINISH. He was an orienteer now.

Undeniably, orienteering is an exquisite sport, an addictive sport, but it is strange. Perhaps the strangest thing of all about orienteering is that it is still so strange to so many Americans. After all, this is the age, is it not, of the rugged, suburban commuter-environmentalist, the citified nature lover, the deskbound fitness freak, the antispectator sportsman? This is the age, is it not, of at least an embryonic rebirth of retread frontiersmen: of hikers and backpackers and touring skiers, of Aquarian activists and outdoor aesthetes?

Well, orienteering is exactly the game for such times. It is a sport that actually injects intelligence and life into jogging, that most relentlessly mindless and boring of all leisure-time pursuits. Orienteering demands wit and stamina, sound logic and good lungs. It demands a lucid mind and a sure foot. It is played on vast acres of God's best tapestries, among great boulders and brown pine glades, beneath the melting gold of maple trees and over streaming fields of russet weeds, past crumbled stone walls and along cold, tumbling brooks.

It takes Vasco da Gama's appreciation of a damned fine compass and combines it with John James Audubon's love of nature. It takes Roger Bannister's adoration of the long-distance run and combines it with Marco Polo's love of a fine map. Orienteering combines fresh air with personal risk (though not much) and physical exertion with mathematics (though not much). It can be played by men, women, children. Also by old men, old women, old children.

All in all, orienteering offers an oddly exalted sense of achievement—even if you have lost, even if you have been lost out there.

In Scandinavia orienteering is a national sport, on the order of cricket in England or tennis in Australia. Orienteers are heroes. Champions are stopped on public streets and besieged for autographs. In Sweden there is a mammoth annual orienteering competition called the O-Ringen 5-Dagars. No fewer than 9,500 men, women and children turn out to compete in 25 classes. They eat and drink outdoors, slumber in sleeping bags and, when the competition starts, they plunge into the wilderness in their thousands, running like frightened reindeer, all clutching sweet map and dear compass. Russia, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland and Bulgaria have scores of thousands of orienteers. There are, by conservative estimate, one million addicts in Europe today. And in Japan people can hop off their bullet trains at a number of stations and rind orienteering maps and routes with the stationmaster.

By contrast, an event labeled the Third United States Orienteering Championships was held the other day on Ward Pound Ridge Reservation in northeastern Westchester County, out in the best rolling, wooded section of New York City exurbia. About 150 people, no more, turned up. Quite a few of them, like the bemused, bespectacled fellow with the headband and the faulty map, didn't know what the sport was all about. They had simply read about it in a local paper. Most of the really serious classy orienteers, it turned out, were military men, members of the Marine Corps and Army—professional orienteers by any definition. A hard-muscled USMC captain named Roger Liesegang finished first, far ahead of the field. Trophies were presented, courtesy of Leatherneck magazine. The undeveloped state of orienteering in the U.S. is probably as well defined by the preponderance of military men at Pound Ridge as by any other factor. Before it became a thing of joy for civilians, it was a tactic of war. In the U.S. orienteering is still essentially a war game, though perhaps it will not be for long.

The sport of orienteering was invented in 1918 by Major Ernst Killander, a Swedish national youth leader who felt even then that perhaps the world was too much with spectator sports and not enough with participation. The good major organized a series of cross-country running events through Swedish forests, laying out points in the woods to be found with map and compass by the long-distance-running contestants. The game proved most appealing to Scandinavian penchants both for the love of endurance and for the rewards of logic.

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