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Hobbyists Beating a Path to Sport of ‘Orienteering’

Times Staff Writer

About 11 years ago, runner Jeff Jacobs read about a new sport he thought might be more interesting than pounding the pavement. He went out to an isolated spot and signed up with 40 or 50 other participants, then set off with his gear--a map and a compass--and promptly got lost in the snowy wilderness.

“I didn’t believe my compass,” Jacobs explained, “I probably didn’t wander very far, just went around in circles until I followed some footprints back to where I started.”

Despite the inauspicious beginning, Jacobs has joined the tens of thousands of enthusiasts of “orienteering,” one of the least publicized of sports. Now, at 42, he has reached a high level of expertise in the sport, which combines brains and brawn in competitive heats of cross-country navigation.

Jacobs, a customs broker, joins the San Diego Orienteering Club for their monthly contests, which are held, rain or heat wave, year around. While experts use their wits and wind to compete around a four- to five-mile wilderness course, beginners are strolling the easier one-mile courses, designed to teach the techniques of map-reading, compass use and common sense.

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One fact beginners learn right from the beginning in orienteering: A straight line is not always the quickest way to get from A to B. Math teacher Sally Levens joined the orienteering club about three years ago because she enjoyed the mental maneuvering that goes into solving the course.

“I go at a brisk walk,” she explained. “I don’t compete against anyone but myself. But I get a kick out of solving the problems, taking gambles. It’s a solitary sport, because they start you out at three-minute intervals. The first time I went out, it was quite a jolt to realize that I was out there in the woods all by myself.”

Levens’ favorite orienteering event was an urban meet held in Mira Mesa in which entrants were given street maps with the names blacked out.

“There was a subgroup for bicyclists and I joined that. It was very challenging and lots of fun,” she said. Before her divorce a couple of years ago, Levens tried to convince her husband to join her in orienteering, but, “He said ‘no’ because it reminded him too much of his Army days.”

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Bill Gookin, the founder and spark plug of the San Diego Orienteering Club, also had negative vibes back in 1969, when a Marine acquaintance who had learned orienteering during training sessions at Quantico, Va., asked Gookin to help him form a San Diego group.

Back in the Army

“I had done something like it in the Army and it wasn’t fun,” Gookin said. “I agreed to help him out, but I didn’t intend to get involved.”

Once he tried it, however, he quickly became an addict. “I was hooked when I got out on the course and realized that it wasn’t just map-reading. It was problem-solving. It’s a mobile mind game.”

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Gookin, who is pushing 50, used to compete in the “blue” division, the elite of the orienteers, but admits that he will never cop a national or international championship now, not so much because he is less physically fit, but because his eyes aren’t focusing as quickly as they used to, slowing down his map-reading and decision-making. “I guess I came along just a few years too soon to get in at the (popularity) peak of this game,” he said.

Other orienteers say that Gookin hasn’t slowed down a bit. “He’s really great,” one beginner said. “He dashes through the course like a madman, jumping branches and crashing through bushes. I hope I’ll be able to do that some day.”

Mapping Out a Course

Orienteering consists of plotting a route, using map and compass, to circle a course--locating eight or nine marked control points along the way--in the shortest time. The most experienced orienteers discard their compasses and navigate the course by dead reckoning, Gookin said.

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Gookin organized the San Diego club in 1971, which makes it one of the oldest in the nation. He has watched it grow to 170 members, 50 to 100 of whom come out for the group’s monthly event, usually held in the mountains and hills of national and state parks north and east of San Diego.

The sport itself became popular in Sweden in the 1920s and spread to Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia and Japan. An international meet in a Scandinavian country attracts 30,000 participants “who really can trample down a forest,” Gookin said.

San Diego’s largest event occurred last year during the Olympics. About 300 orienteers from around the world participated in a three-day event here, coupled with a two-day competition put on by a San Francisco orienteering group.

“We had Scandinavians tell us San Diego was the best place they had ever seen for orienteering,” Gookin bragged.

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Orienteering, said 76-year-old John Hanna, “is for everybody.” He and his wife, Gail, compete in the green division, for older, more experienced orienteers, but, once in a while, when he is feeling his fittest, Hanna slips into the harder red group to vie with younger competitors. He holds his own, fellow orienteers say.

Usually the event is held in wooded hillside areas, but variations are numerous. Orienteering can be done in canoes, on skis, on bicycles and, although Hanna’s never seen it, under water with the aid of scuba gear.

Once Held in Park

Balboa Park orienteering sessions, popular with beginners, have been shelved since the park has become more populated, Hanna said. Competition with other park users (who sometimes steal the control-point markers from the courses) and concern about the safety of women competitors on the isolated canyon trails prompted the change.

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Hanna said “there’s only one thing wrong with orienteering--all the work that goes into setting up the courses.” Every experienced orienteer takes a turn at mapping out the five-course plan, ranging from short and easy routes to long and tough ones.

The control markers, about the size of half a pillowcase marked with orange and white triangles, usually are set out the day of the event. Water jugs also are placed at intervals around the course because orienteering is thirsty work, even in cool weather.

The hazards of the sport are poison oak, snakes, rough terrain and the weather. Only one club member has been a snake-bite victim, Gookin said. Ten or 12 years ago, that member, who he said shall remain nameless, sat on a startled rattler that retaliated.

Heat Can Be a Problem

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Heat is much more of a hazard than cold, Gookin said. Most orienteers prefer a cool, even drizzly, day to a bright, hot one for their sport. Eastern and Midwestern clubs usually recess during the hottest months, but Californians don’t.

First-aid kits are present at all meets, he said, but they are rarely used. The problems usually are minor ones like skinned knees and scratches. Many newcomers to the sport wander off the course and lose their bearings, requiring rescue, but few are injury victims, he said.

Most of the events are held in an area surrounded by roads so that the strays can be rounded up when they follow basic instructions and strike out in one direction until they find a roadway where they can be picked up.


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