B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
ORIENTEERING FUSES FOOT racing, navigation and bushwhacking to create an outdoor sport for the adventurer and mellow ambler alike.
Participants march over varied terrain in pursuit of markers called "controls." From the crazed champion crashing through the underbrush to the first-time novice, courses accommodate all levels of speed and skill. Groups like the all-volunteer Tucson Orienteering Club showcase these skills with meets coursing, routes of varying difficulty for competitors to follow. The result is an event in which everyone from beginners to world champions can take part, often sharing the same course.
During this particular competition, a swarm of Cub Scouts from Pack 210 out of Mesa Verde School was orienteering for the first time.
"We're moving from arts and crafts and trying to orient them more toward outdoor activities, like archery and hiking," says den leader José Salinas.
Salinas saw a flyer for the meet and decided the den should give it a wing.
"They're real excited," he says.
Orienteers compete in either the men's, women's or team categories. After the meet, the best times in each category and the overall best time are printed in the club's newsletter. Being a stick-together kind of group, we opt to form a team. Since we arrive at the meet before it officially begins, "Too Early" seems a likely name. But as there are three in our group, we amend that to "Three Early." Our mothers always said we were clever.
After naming ourselves, we pick up a blank map and punch card. Then we amble over to the timekeeper and have him log us in. Once the start time is logged, we can look at the sealed map, which shows the precise control locations and the master punch card, which provides a written description of the setting around the control (wash, hill, terrace, etc.). This is the time to take great care in copying the exact location of each control onto the blank map. Knowing which side of a wash hides a control can make the difference between a quick encounter or half an hour of wandering around.
On the beginner routes, controls sit alongside trails or on obvious landmarks. The expert routes require participants have a well-honed set of navigational skills in order to intersect the controls. Although bright orange, controls on expert courses are often hidden among bushes or in tiny, overgrown ditches, making them impossible to spot until you're on top of them.
If you fail to find every control marked on your map, you fail to finish the course. Which isn't necessarily bad if you aren't feeling competitive. You can even opt to follow a route as a recreational orienteer, which means you check your time, but no one will print it or consider you as seriously competing.
Having taken part in a Tucson Orienteering Club meet two years ago, we consider ourselves veritable experts and choose the intermediate course.
Tom Danehy, The Weekly's sports columnist and resident TV junkie, once asked me, "This hiking thing, I don't understand it. What do you do? Isn't it the same thing all the time?"
Tom, apparently, will never understand the limitless possibilities inherent in exploration, or the wonder in seeing a bighorn sheep sprint along a sheer cliff, or the joy in taking on the challenges nature throws at you in her neighborhood.
Personally, I don't care. The more people that concentrate in the cities, the happier I am. But if you find yourself stuck with a Danehy-like character, perhaps you can begin bringing them into your world through orienteering. It makes a sport out of hiking. It demands strength, endurance, skill, intelligence and maybe even little luck to reach the top. And you can beat other people at it.
Of course, if you're challenging groups like ours, that victory may feel less than rewarding. Meandering at our own speed, the real thrill in orienteering for me is discovering the nooks and crannies you would otherwise never encounter.
While loosely following the course, our little band comes across a six-point white-tail buck, a deer skull, a shed eight-point deer antler, a handful of cool little rock coves and a myriad of other small discoveries. To boot, part of our adventure was supervised by a curious red-tail hawk gliding from saguaro to saguaro.
It takes us four hours to complete what many consider no more than a two-hour course, but we had fun. Victory comes in different ways for different folks.
The Cub Scouts certainly had a blast.
"This ranks ahead of archery for the kids," says Salinas after the meet. "The challenge of finding each checkpoint really did it. It was a big game for them. We found something both the parents and the boys like. When I find something everybody likes, I stick with it."
What more could you ask for a sport. And besides, no one ever goes on strike or moves the franchise to a new town.
The next orienteering meet is January 21 in Greasewood Park on the west side of Tucson. Meets start at 9:30 a.m., and you can enter as late as noon on event day. Fees are $5 for individuals, $7 for teams.
The Tucson Orienteering Club is hosting the western states championships February 17 and 18. This is a first for Arizona and the club, and they could use additional volunteers and even some folks willing to board a few out-of-state orienteers during the meet. Call any of the club officers for more information: John Maier, president, 586-7300 (Benson); Mike Huckaby, vice president, 881-0559 or Marilyn Cleavinger, membership supervisor, 795-2081.
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