Teen Naturalists Go Orienteering

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Here is what it said on the orienteering map…”Orienteering is a competitive sport for people of all ages.  It involves finding your way through unknown terrain with a map and compass.  Using a detailed topographic map as your primary tool and a compass to stay oriented, you try to select and follow the best route between specified points”.  Let me repeat.  “…you TRY to select…”  

The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education was the location for the latest event organized by the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association (www.dvoa.org).  We took 15 Teen Naturalists, (the Delaware Nature Society’s nature and outing club for teenagers), to this event yesterday in order to give this sport a try.

After some instruction in the morning at Ashland, and then again when we arrived at the Schuylkill Center, we were ready to get on with some orienteering.  I impressed upon them that their brains were the most important tool that would get them through the course, not the map and compass.  We soon broke into five groups, each with three eager teenagers.  Two groups elected to try the yellow course, which was for advanced beginners, and the other three groups tried the white course for pure beginners.

Besides our brains, the map and compass are the tools of orienteering.
Besides our brains, the map and compass are the tools of orienteering.

I reminded everyone that once they start the course, they would be on their own.  Sticking together was paramount, and getting lost, er…mis-oriented, was a real possibility in this 350-acre wild area within the city limits of Philadelphia.  My final piece of advice was to communicate with each other effectively, think, take time to read the map, and take a bearing with the compass each time they set off for a new waypoint. 

Groups departed at 5-minute intervals to prevent cheating or lurking on the group ahead of them.  Most groups walked, but a few ran, trying to make a competition out of it. 

Three Teen Naturalists quickly approaching a waypoint while orienteering at the Schuylkill Center in Philadelphia.
Three Teen Naturalists quickly approaching a waypoint while orienteering at the Schuylkill Center in Philadelphia.

Dave Pro and Catherine Owens co-lead the Teen Naturalists with me.  Our job was to monitor the situation and provide assistance where needed.  Within minutes we could see that several of the groups were heading in opposite directions, which is not a good sign when they are doing the same course.  We decided to head them off by doing the courses backwards.  Indeed, we saw exactly NONE of our Teens for about an hour.  Where did they go?  We had a serious time-limit after all…the Philadelphia Eagles were playing the Arizona Cardinals later that day, (I would later regret that I made it back to see the game).  None of us wanted to be involved in a police-helicopter, sniffing-dog, infra-red nocturnal hunt for a lost (mis-oriented) group of teenagers in the Philadelphia wilderness.

"Punching in" at a marker.  At the end of the day, you get a print-out of your total time and times between waypoints.
"Punching in" at a marker. At the end of the day, you get a print-out of your total time and times between waypoints.

The clock was ticking, and a few of the groups began to hit the finish line.  The two fastest groups had slipped by without detection and finished in under 40 minutes.  This was pretty impressive.  Other groups were not as fortunate and discovered for themselves that using a compass backwards will not only put you on private property, but will create long, unintended uphill trudges to backtrack. 

By the last few minutes prior to our scheduled departure and an hour-and-a-half into the event, we were getting worried about our last group still in the woods.  My nightmare of hopelessly tracking wayward teenagers in the city during the Eagles game was cuing, just as this final group joyously returned.  “While we were mis-oriented, we decided to have fun in the woods and explore”, they quipped.  “We turned around when we saw a house and a private property sign”.  They had used their brains after all and everyone enjoyed their exploration and the sport of orienteering.

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