North Andover, Mass.
It seemed an unlikely time for a romp through the woods. My ''blue bomber'' fought its way down the road through a machine-gun fire of rain and a wind that made occasional nasty suggestions as to which way the car should go.Skip to next paragraph
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I pulled into the parking lot. Several people were already there. During the next hour we would be tromping around the forest, map and compass in hand, trying to locate orange and white markers hidden in the soggy brush.
It was my introduction to orienteering - ''the thinking man's sport,'' according to the people who travel as far as several hundred miles each weekend just to find their way around the woods. Many hikers probably recall orien-teerers as the intense-looking people who crash out of the woods onto the trail only to smash their way back into the woods again.
By the way, since an orienteering meet takes considerable preparation beforehand by organizers, it's practically never canceled.
Although there are probably as many ways to orienteer as there are types of burs that like wool sweaters, the most common method - and the one organized by orienteering clubs across the country most weekends in the spring and fall - is cross-country orienteering.
Cross-country orienteering begins with registration. At tables located at the start of the course, names are taken, maps given out, and compasses rented to those who don't own one. As well, staggered departure times are assigned.
The challenge of the sport is finding the orange and white markers - or ''controls.'' For this, orienteerers use their map and the compass to calculate which direction they must go. To complete the course, they must punch in at the half dozen or so different controls in order, then cross the finish line. The shorter the time elapsed, the better one has done.
''It's hard to explain the hold orienteering has on people,'' remarks United States Orienteering Federation president Al Smith. ''For me, it's the sense of satisfaction. I enjoy the competition - not against other people - but I enjoy the challenge of trying to find these markers in the woods, and I enjoy the satisfaction I get when I get there.''
I spoke with Mr. Smith at a state park in North Andover, Mass. Several hundred orienteerers from across the US and Canada, and from Sweden, Britain, and other countries, had come there one weekend this fall for the first two days of the 1984 North American Orienteering Week. A jovial crowd of finishers was gathered nearby comparing results.
''Look at the socializing going on,'' comments Smith, who exudes a folksy enthusiasm about the sport. ''This is typical at an orienteering meet. Everyone's got a story or experience to share; how they made a big mistake or how they got there in an especially good way.''
Smith adds, ''It has a great educational value for young people. It teaches self-reliance and decisionmaking in a fun way. When a child goes out orienteering with his map and his compass he's on his own. ... He's got to figure it all out himself. And when he does right he gets an instant reward (of finding the marker).''
Smith predicts that ''orienteering is on the verge of a major growth.'' He estimates that there are 5,000 to 6,000 members of various clubs across the US - with perhaps 10,000 people having previously done the sport in the last year or so.
''Our chief problem is to make people aware of the sport. We feel that half our battle will be simply to tell people what it is and how much fun it is.''