“Can you see the control from here?” asked UC Santa Cruz second-year Cameron Ferguson.
Standing on a knoll overlooking the sun-blasted valleys and hills of Pacheco State Park, Ferguson wiped the sweat from his face and scanned the landscape. After a moment broiling under the sun, Ferguson — oblivious to the heat — pointed to a tree a kilometer from his position. Squinting, Ferguson noted the tree’s position on his topographic map.
“It’s right there,” Ferguson said. As if on cue, three runners in the distance loped through the high grass toward the tree. Ferguson, already jogging down the knoll, called over his shoulder, “See?”
The sport is orienteering.
In a wilderness setting, participants use a topographic map and a compass to find “controls” — small markers that have an electronic register to record the time when a runner locates it. The controls can be placed several hundred meters to several miles apart. The goal is to find all of the markers in the correct order as fast as possible.
Half cross country racing, half wilderness survival, orienteering combines all the physical rigors of endurance athletics with the mental acuity of a chess game.
But despite an enthusiasm for racing and the wilderness, Americans have yet to make orienteering popular in the United States. Given the sport’s widespread popularity in Europe, enthusiasts wonder: What’s keeping orienteering off the map?
Jay Hann, an event coordinator for the Bay Area Orienteering Club (BAOC), said that it is sometimes difficult to explain the appeal of orienteering.
“It’s what you get when you cross mathematics and P.E.,” Hann said. “It’s hard to explain what’s fun about it — it’s a lot easier to explain when you’ve experienced it.”
The BAOC is one of 74 clubs in the United States that belong to the International Orienteering Federation. Each year, there are a multitude of international championships held for different types of orienteering, but the biggest ones are trail and skiing. In the United States, individuals compete in A-level meets to qualify for a spot on one of the U.S. championship teams.
On Saturday, Hann was organizing the second day of a three-day meet in Pacheco State Park for the U.S. Intercollegiate and U.S. Interscholastic Championships, which the BAOC was hosting.
Despite the swarms of participants streaming in from Seattle to West Point, Hann said this event’s numbers were nothing compared to those in Europe.
“In the big European events, they’ll have camera crews out in the field taking pictures of the runners,” Hann said. “They’ll have a big display board in their arena and have 1,000 or 2,000 people watching the video footage coming across.”
Gavin Wyatt-Mair, another event coordinator for the BAOC, said that because of the sponsorship given to orienteering in Europe, Europeans tend to dominate the United States in international orienteering competitions.
“We usually have some people go over there, but they kick our butts,” Wyatt-Mair said, laughing. “They are so much better than we are!”
However, Wyatt-Mair is the father of a successful navigator. His son, Malcolm Wyatt-Mair, is a U.S. orienteering champion and UCSC graduate who competed in Australia and Sweden for the Junior Orienteering World Championships in 2007 and 2008.
For Gavin — who has been orienteering for 24 years — orienteering has practical value off the course as well.
“When you are in a job, you have to make decisions quickly,” he said. “Orienteering teaches you how to make quick decisions. It also teaches you to focus on a goal — your next control — teaching you to focus on it and get there in the most direct way.”
For the few college students who do orienteering on the West Coast, the benefits of the sport are outweighed by the logistical troubles of reaching a meet.
“You have to get to these different state parks around the Bay Area, and most college kids don’t have cars,” Ferguson said. “If it were big in the states, it would be big among college kids, because then colleges would take buses to the events.”
BAOC coordinator Hann said orienteering has the potential to catch on as a popular sport in the United States, but that would require teaching orienteering early on in schools.
“We’re trying to figure out ways to make it easier for P.E. teachers to do it,” Hann said. “It’s kind of a mind sport, and there are a lot of things about it you can’t tell people through photographs.”
Taking a break from helping a few dozen latecomers register for their races, Wyatt-Mair described the philosophical benefits of orienteering.
“One of the things that occurs in life is that you’re going to get lost, and it occurs in every aspect of your life,” Wyatt-Mair said. “Orienteering teaches you to relocate. And when you do that, it’s a wonderful experience because you say, ‘Yeah, I was lost, but I’m going to find my way out.’”