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Getting my bearings

  • Judy Karpinski shows reporter David Rainville how to find his way through the woods with a topographical map, compass, and landmarks like the high tension lines behind, at a New England Orienteering Club meet at Northfield Mountain Recreation Center Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    Judy Karpinski shows reporter David Rainville how to find his way through the woods with a topographical map, compass, and landmarks like the high tension lines behind, at a New England Orienteering Club meet at Northfield Mountain Recreation Center Saturday.
    Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • A member of the New England Orienteering Club checks in at one of several "controls" placed throughout the woods of Northfield Mountain Recreation Center during an orienteering meet Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

    A member of the New England Orienteering Club checks in at one of several "controls" placed throughout the woods of Northfield Mountain Recreation Center during an orienteering meet Saturday.
    Recorder/David Rainville Purchase photo reprints »

  • Judy Karpinski shows reporter David Rainville how to find his way through the woods with a topographical map, compass, and landmarks like the high tension lines behind, at a New England Orienteering Club meet at Northfield Mountain Recreation Center Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville
  • A member of the New England Orienteering Club checks in at one of several "controls" placed throughout the woods of Northfield Mountain Recreation Center during an orienteering meet Saturday.<br/>Recorder/David Rainville

NORTHFIELD — Finding one’s way through the woods with a map and compass may sound more like a survival skill than a sport, but it can actually make for quite the competition.

I ditched my GPS-enabled smartphone and headed to Northfield Mountain Recreation Center Saturday and found out for myself, with some help from the New England Orienteering Club.

I signed my life away via liability waiver, grabbed a map and a loaner compass, and club member Judy Karpinski gave me a quick rundown before we headed into the woods.

“Orienteering is the ‘thinking sport,’” she said. “You have to run as fast as you can and navigate through the woods at the same time. Some people are great runners, but they’re not great with maps, and overshoot a lot of the markers.”

Not a runner by any means, I decided I’d focus on the navigation aspect.

I took a beginner-level map, on which eight “control” points were marked in red. Harder courses had more controls, but all maps shared the easy-to-find start and finish markers. To find the rest, I’d have to use my map and compass to find myself.

“The maps are enhanced versions of GIS maps,” Karpinski explained.

The club takes the basic topographical maps and adds features like boulders, cliffs, hiking trails, clearings and thick wooded areas, as well as the course’s controls. An arrow on the map denotes magnetic north, allowing me to properly orient it.

Karpinski showed me how to plot a course from one control to the next by lining up the compass’ edge, turning an inner ring to mark north, then turning the compass itself to find my bearing.

“It’s not as much about finding the next marker as it is finding the quickest way there,” Karpinski reminded me. “That’s one of the fun things ­— after a meet, people will get together and compare notes.”

Sometimes it’s best to follow the trail. Other times, it’s faster to follow a straighter line, running through thin woods or across streams to shave off seconds from your time.

When runners get to each control, they put a “finger stick” device into it, and it records their time. The quickest one to find all markers, in order, wins, though the competition is broken up into age groups.

It’s easy to overrun a marker, though, if you’re running full-tilt. Karpinski advised me to pick an easily recognizable feature on the map past the marker, so I would know when I’d gone too far.

Though I wasn’t running, I still overshot a couple of them, but doubled back and found them nonetheless. When all was said and done, I finished the 1.6-kilometer beginner’s course in exactly one hour, which would have been downright embarrassing had I not been stopping to take pictures and notes, and shooting the breeze with my guide the whole time.

Usually, runners go off on their own in staggered starts, and try to keep themselves more focused.

While it’s fun as a solo activity, it’s also great for families, said Karpinski. She and her husband, club president Jeff Saeger, got into the sport because they wanted something fun to do with their two daughters.

“There are all different levels for different ages,” said Karpinski. “For kids, there’s a ‘string course,’ where they follow bright strands of surveyors tape, and there are stickers and things for them to take when they find the controls.”

Older kids will move on to a “white-level” course, where all the controls are placed right on the trails.

The club has more than 60 course maps in different New England locations, said Saeger. They also include canoe and bicycle courses, as well as urban courses, which use maps with all the street names removed.

If you’d like to learn more, or try your own hand at orienteering, visit the New England Orienteering Club’s website, at www.neoc.org.

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279 @RecorderRain

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