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Lost in th O-Zone 

Orienteering is no walk in the park

I've always enjoyed walking as exercise and, to a lesser degree, hiking, so I couldn't imagine a more pleasant way to spend a weekend than moseying through the pastoral mountains of Marshfield. Unfortunately, I got lost.

I had jumped at the opportunity to try out orienteering, a sport that's relatively new to the U.S. The two-day event, organized by the Green Mountain Orienteering Club, included Vermont's first "A-level" meet, in which participants are ranked by age and gender, and the annual U.S. Relay Championships, with 65 teams from across the country participating.

Introduced to the East Coast in the late 1960s by a visiting Norwegian, orienteering comprises following a course through the woods as quickly as possible. What originated in the Scandina-vian mountains in the 19th century as a form of army training is now an international competitive sport. Not surprisingly, the Scandinavians are the current world champs, followed by the larger European Union countries. In Sweden, an annual, five-day "O-Ringen" draws as many as 25,000 trail-tacklers, making it one of the world's largest participatory sporting events.

About 35,000 people in the U.S. regularly participate in orienteering events. Close to 400 of them showed up in Marshfield two weekends ago. And what a colorful bunch they were. Bright and early Saturday morning, crowded into the main registration tent at organizer Vivien Fritz's Beaver Brook Farm, they were a vision of lightweight nylon sweatsuits and slender shoes with rubber cleats specifically designed for the activity. Compared to their slick, serious appearance, the amateurs -- including me -- looked like we were there for a casual stroll.

Had I wanted to update my outfit, I could have done so at vendor Larry Berman's accoutrement-filled stand. Berman has been an orienteer for 30 years and owned an orienteering-supply mail-order business since 1997. "Like any sport, as you improve your own skills as much as you can, you've got to improve your equipment," he advised.

I wasn't interested in shopping. But Ross Smith was buying a new pair of shoes. Now 19, Smith has already had an illustrious 11-year orienteering career. He belongs to the U.S. Junior Team, and his club, Cambridge Sports Union, would go on to place first in one of Sunday's relay races. "I wouldn't call myself an elite orienteer," he said modestly.

"He's an elite in this country," Berman interjected.

Having spoken to Fritz beforehand, I knew I'd be using a carefully detailed topographical map and compass to follow one of several routes that had been specially charted for the weekend's events. Since I've always fancied myself something of an urban navigational wiz, I was confident I'd prove to be an orienteer savant. How wrong I was.

Flags of various colors designate courses of different lengths and levels of difficulty. I received a map for the white course, the most elementary level an adult can take. Then Jim Howley, president of the orienteering club, gave me some tips and a compass lesson.

Howley assured me that I probably wouldn't need the compass on the beginner courses, since the control flags participants must locate on those routes are conveniently stuck right on the trails. This was good news: Since comprehending geometry is key to understanding the bearings on a compass, I knew right away my compass might prove more foe than friend. When I actually got out on the course later that day and the next, I watched with a combination of awe and fright as the A-listers left the trails and charged fearlessly into the dense woods.

Accompanying the map was a small chart explaining the landmark features that would be visible near each control flag. For the more advanced, written explanations are replaced by symbols. The map includes markings for everything from cliffs to small boulders.

Each control is marked with a two-digit or letter code corresponding to the one on your map. However, since numerous courses take place simultaneously, you can ecstatically stumble upon a control only to discover that its code doesn't appear on your map.

My first course had 12 controls. I didn't know what made me sweat more -- the challenge of the hilly, uneven terrain or the prospect of an unwelcome encounter with a black bear. On the other hand, actually finding my way from flag to flag was a breeze. I located numbers one through five perfectly and became convinced I was an orienteering genius. And that's exactly the point at which I got, well, disoriented.

Time after time, as I searched for control number six, I found myself back at flag five. After using my powers of deduction to eliminate the wrong paths by taking every one, I realized there was more to this orienteering business than I'd thought. Supremely frustrated, I gave up and returned to control one. Howley awaited me. Though he was the epitome of courtesy and charm, I could tell he was taken aback at how I had managed to muck up such a basic route so magnificently.

Day two was an improvement over day one, though it didn't seem terribly promising at first. This time, the start and end points were at the same place. After a couple of minutes of skulking about, I was too embarrassed to admit that I couldn't even find the start of the course. Instead, I decided to go backwards, starting at the second-to-last control, number nine. The only reason I could spot this flag was because it was directly in my line of vision as I left the registration tent.

Orienteering has many attributes, but simplicity isn't one of them. "This is intellectually challenging. It's a very different kettle of fish from pounding the pavement," Fritz observed. "It's the thinking man's sport, but it's also exceptionally democratic. If you can walk, no matter what your age, you can go out and do an orienteering course."

By lunchtime on Sunday, prizes had been awarded, Ben & Jerry's had been scooped, and the stripy nylon contingent was slowly winding its way back to the parking lot. With my sneakers covered in mud and smelling none too fragrant, I drove home dreaming of a hot shower -- and the elusive set of controls I would surely master at the next orienteering event.

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Domonique Herman


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