On any Saturday, it’s common to see scores of people converge onto one of the region’s state parks or nature preserves with nothing but compasses in their hands. Each will pay a person perched under a picnic shelter a few dollars for a map, then disappear into the deep woods.
It’s called orienteering – a speed sport in which people navigate through rough terrain using only maps and compasses for guidance. Along the way, they must find and record a series of control points, usually marked by flags. The first contestant out of the woods wins.
The sport of orienteering has been around for more than 100 years. Its history can be traced back to the Swedish military, which held contests in land navigation for its officers. Somewhere along the line, civilians decided they wanted to play, too.
In Charlotte, that time came in the 1970s, when Carolina Orienteering Klubb was formed. The club meets once, and sometimes twice, a month at area state parks and preserves.
Orienteering is different from geocaching, which uses GPS technology to send participants on scavenger hunts for hidden treasure at coordinates spread throughout any landscape, from city blocks to a dense forests.
Orienteers use nothing but a map and a compass.
“Orienteering, if you do it right, is a running sport, where you have to think on the fly, encounter unknowns and interpret map symbols,” said James Sisk, co-director-at-large for the club.
“It’s kind of a personal challenge. Can I know where I’m at by looking at a map?”
Right now, Carolina Orienteering Klubb has 40 members, but that’s not an accurate measure of the number of people who come to the meets.
During last January’s event at the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve in Huntersville, 450 people participated.
The sport attracts all kinds, from hikers and former military, to youth organizations. Boy and Girl Scout troops come in droves to earn their orienteering merit badges, and high school students in Junior ROTC programs can earn their uniforms’ green chords.
“We’ve been doing it for 10 years,” said Army Junior ROTC First Sergeant Rick Greeno, 56, of Columbia, S.C.
Greeno sat on his school bus at Reedy Creek Park during one of the club’s recent meets and waited while 25 of his Army Junior ROTC students from the Chester County School system found their way through the woods with only a map and a compass.
The fact that he drove by a road called Lost Boy Court on their way in didn’t bother him much. “They know their way around,” he said. In 2003, students in the school district brought home a championship title in the sport.
No two orienteers seem to prepare the same way. Some stretch long socks called Gators up their shins to keep the thorns at bay. Others bring walking sticks as thick as young tree trunks.
Michael Dewsbury, 63, of Providence Plantation, sat at the picnic table with a protractor over his map and a notebook full of calculations he worked out.
“I’m measuring the distance I need to walk,” said Dewsbury.
“He’s a retired engineer,” said his wife, Deborah, 58.
Few people ever report any hazards after they finish a course, even though they’re off any established trail.
Sisk has seen only three snakes in his decade of orienteering. He has seen orienteers chased out of the woods by a swarm of disturbed bees.
“I saw a group of kids running out of the woods, taking their clothes off. By the time they got to the bathrooms, they were pretty much in their underwear,” he said. “But most of the time, it’s a lot of fun.”