West Coast orienteering champions come to Tahoe to get lost in the woods
Orienteering has been called “cunning running” or running while playing chess – requiring thinking, agility and speed.
Some of the top people in the sport of orienteering were racing around Burton Creek State Park in Tahoe City this weekend for the Pacific Coast Regional Championships, the culmination of a week-long orienteering frenzy at Tahoe’s North Shore.
Orienteering is a sport of navigation that combines map and compass skills with athletic ability, and is for people who love being outdoors, said Evan Custer, festival director for the Bay Area Orienteering Club’s Sierra 2000 O-Fest. The festival attracted about 300 participants.
They run or walk through the forests (both on and off trails), over or around boulders, through creek beds and up and down steep hills looking for little orange and white canvas or nylon “triangles.” Using a detailed map, with brief directions and compass headings to guide their way, they each try finding the series of points in the fastest time.
The timed event puts pressure on the competitors, especially when the cream of the crop shows up for the event.
“There were four very good people in contention to win,” Custer said of the multi-state Championships.
The four were Andy Dale of Great Britain, James Scarborough of the Bay Area, who is ranked number two in the country, U.S. Orienteering Team member Eric Bone of Seattle, and 11-time U.S. Champion Mikell Platt of Wyoming (who was the favorite to win).
They competed, on the brand-new course set up in the hills above Tahoe City, in the “M21” division, the premier category along with 24 other competitors who ran the 10-kilometer routes on Saturday and Sunday.
“Andy was first after Saturday, Platt was second, down by two minutes. Platt made a bad mistake Sunday on one leg, an 11-minute error, realized he was out of the competition, so he dropped out,” Custer said.
Dale’s two-day total winning time was 190 minutes, 40 seconds. He finished six minutes ahead of local favorite Scarborough and 22 minutes ahead of third place finisher Bone.
In the women’s competition, Pavlina Brautigam, a U.S. Team member from the Western Connecticut Orienteering Club, out-paced her competitors in the 21-year old age division finishing the 8.5 kilometer courses in a two-day total of 187 minutes, 31 seconds.
In second place, 55-year old Sharon Crawford from the Rocky Mountain Orienteering Club scored a time of 225:46, just seven minutes ahead of third place Marie-Catherine Bruno of Canada.
“Crawford is one of the U.S.’s great orienteers. She has won the U.S. Championships quite a few years and won her age category at the World’s Masters last year,” Custer said.
Despite the high level of competition, the bulk of the competitors are in it purely for the fun, as it is a recreational sport.
Orienteering began at the turn of the century in Sweden as a military exercise, then gradually became popular with the general population, Custer explained. In typical Norse/Swede rivalry, it is also reported that the first competition took place in Bergen, Norway in 1897.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the sport achieved notice in the United States, Custer said. One report says Swede Bjorn Kjellstrom, also called the Johnny Appleseed of orienteering, brought the sport to North America in the 1940s and founded the now-ubiquitous Silva Compass Company.
The number of orienteering participants in the U.S. is nowhere near the number of participants in some of the Swedish orienteering happenings, with reports of 182,000 people participating in a meet as far back as 1963.
“They create whole cities just for the events,” Custer said.
The BAOC was established in 1978 and is the second-largest orienteering club in the United States with more than 500 members. There is also the Gold Country Orienteering Club based in Sacramento, a co-host of the Sierra 2000 O-Fest. The O-Fest included the annual meeting for the U.S. Orienteering Federation and a number of courses and competitions, some designed for first-time orienteers, and a variety of workshops.
“We had about 20 recreational people just drop in,” Custer said of the weekend’s activities. The non-competitive participants take a more leisurely pace; even those in other “competitive” categories may not be as aggressive as the top classes, Custer explained. There were also mountain bike orienteering events at Northstar, a meet held at Spooner Lake State Park and a nighttime event.
Participants came from San Diego, Los Angeles, Pennsylvania, Great Britain, New York, Sweden, Vermont, Ohio, North Carolina and Northern Ireland to the event based at the Northstar-at-Tahoe resort.
The BAOC had a special map produced for the event, using aerial photos overlaid on a contour map. A base mapper puts it all together and then a field checker is hired to walk the terrain, add features and details such as buildings, boulders, vegetation and terrain features.
“It costs us about $10,000 to make a map for each location,” Custer said. The map is used to design a dozen courses for the event for different abilities and age levels.
The orienteers’ reliance on the compass “varies depending on the terrain. Moderately complex terrain such as at Burton Creek with no large terrain features and a lot of similar smaller features makes it tough to find an attack point so you rely on the compass more like 25 percent of the time,” Custer said.
Reliance on the compass is much less on the beginners course, maybe only to orient the map before following trails and looking for trail junctions, Custer said. Advanced beginner courses use points just off the trails, or near trails, or use linear features like a path, fence or power line.
Intermediate courses are partly off trail and may offer a more direct cross country route to the top of a hill or rock outcrop, he said. The advance courses have more physical and navigational difficulty, with more length and use of terrain.
“About 50 percent of people in our events (about 30 a year) are recreational. People who like to hike or run or recreationally walk and like maps are attracted to the sport,” he said.
The sport is not equipment intensive, and easy to learn. All you need is a compass and sturdy shoes.
“The potential here for a club is good, with lots of terrain for meets. If anyone is interested in starting a club or getting involved with our club they can contact us through our website, http://www.baoc.org,” Custer said.
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