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Orienteers March to Their Own Compass Readings : Former Military Exercise, Popular in Europe, Has Evolved Into a Sport for All Ages

November 02, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

It is not on any map; true places rarely are.

--orienteer Bob Henderson

quoting from "Moby Dick"

The name of the game was orienteering, but Jill Van Houten was seriously disoriented.

She was trying to locate the northeastern corner of a particular clearing at Mt. Palomar State Park in San Diego County. (Orienteers use a map and compass to find their way cross-country to predetermined checkpoints.) Van Houten held a compass in her palm and took a bearing on a dead tree. She slid down a steep bank of wet pine needles in her tennis shoes.

She could not find the designated control point. She could not even find the clearing.

While she was searching, however, Van Houten, 26, did discover a trio of dappled, button-like mushrooms and a glistening spider's web.

Therein lies a lesson: Orienteers should have the largess to admit being lost, and the presence of mind to enjoy it.

Invented as a military exercise in Scandinavia in the late 1800s, orienteering evolved slowly into a sporting event. When the game was introduced to the U.S. in the 1940s, "It didn't start with a bang," said Robin Shannonhouse, executive director of the U.S. Orienteering Federation. It wasn't until the early '70s, when the national organization was formed, that the sport began to grow in this country. Today there are about 10,000 orienteers in the U.S., said Shannonhouse. The game is as popular as any mainstream sport in parts of the Orient, Scandinavian countries and some areas of of Europe.

All that's required to participate in a meet is a pair of tennis shoes and long pants to protect your legs from brush. (Informal instruction is available at all meets.) Several participants showed up at the Mt. Palomar meet in European orienteering suits made of rip-resistant material. Such special gear is not neccessary, said one man, "It's just easier than tearing T-shirts."

You'll need a compass. They can be rented at the monthly meets of the L.A. or San Diego clubs for 50 cents. (It costs $1 to enter the meet if you're a club member, $2 if you're not.) Orienteers prefer a combined compass-protractor that sits on a clear plastic base. They can be purchased for about $10 at sporting goods stores.

There are detailed rules of competition for major meets, and some highly competitive orienteers. (The sport gained some recognition when national orienteering champion Peter Gagarin recently appeared on Wheaties cereal boxes as a winner in General Mills' "Search for Champions" contest.) But the majority of orienteers compete mostly with themselves, and they harbor highly individual reasons for participating in the sport.

There are geology buffs, ex-Boy Scouts, nature lovers, analytical types and competitive runners looking for a new challenge. (An advanced course may be as long as nine miles.)

Bob Anglin, a sales representative who belongs to the Los Angeles Orienteering Club, makes it a point to challenge runners to try orienteering, also called "cunning running." But he advises: "Don't get discouraged the first time you try it."

While there is a standard of achievement that allows runners to boast about their winnings, Anglin warns, "You can't sit around and brag about how well you did in the orienteering meet, because nobody knows what you're talking about."

Times can vary considerably on a orienteering course. Depending on your personal style of problem solving, you might go twice the actual course distance before you're through. In orienteering, there are always optional routes. An orienteer is constantly weighing decisions like "Do I go over the hill or take the long, fast way around?" Anglin said. "You don't have the answer until it's been done."

Over beers at day's end, orienteers are apt to discuss advanced strategies such as how best to conquer a barbed wire fence without losing time. Do you take it at a run, and jump it; or do you flop to the ground just before you hit the fence and roll under it? Orienteer Karen Dennis said that faced with that situation, she looks until she finds a break in the fence and walks through.

'I Get Lost'

Not all orienteers run. Some say that it's hard to run and think at the same time. "If I run, I get lost," said Dennis, of San Diego.

Mike Lebo pointed out the advantages of being slow-but-smart in this sport when he told a story about being passed on a hill by a world-class runner traveling at a rapid rate during one meet. Lebo thought he would surely lose to the more athletic runner--but all was not lost.

"Let me tell you, at 4,000 miles an hour in the wrong direction, you never get there," chuckled Lebo, who presided at the check-in table at a recent meet wearing a Padres cap and the standard orienteer's neck ornament: a compass on a dirty string.

"I don't run at all," Jill Van Houten said. "Never been a runner. Not much interested in being a runner."

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