Find Yourself (By Getting Lost First)

The competitive sport of orienteering (using a map and compass to navigate a racecourse) has been around for decades, but it’s recently gained a new following as people are looking for more ways to get outside. Washington is the perfect playground for the activity, and Bob Forgrave, president of Cascade Orienteering Club, told us all about it.

Reflections magazine: What is orienteering?

Bob Forgrave: Orienteering is the sport of learning to navigate with a map and compass. Some people will leave “learning” out of the definition, but there’s always something new to learn about different skills, terrains, types of maps, types of course, and more.

Rm: Who is best suited for orienteering?

BF: The best orienteers seek out new challenges and are always using each map as a chance to get better.

Rm: What advice do you have for those looking into orienteering for the first time?

BF: Don’t be afraid that you don’t know enough to get started. Just do it. Courses range from novice to advanced, and you can progress at your own speed.

Rm: What if you don’t feel fast enough to compete against

BF: Don’t be intimidated by fast runners; this is one sport where walking is just fine. An accurate runner can easily be faster than a lost runner . . . if you even care about speed. Sometimes it’s just about an amazing walk with purpose in nature. Also, even if you are a speedy 10K runner and look down on short courses like a 5K, don’t assume that your distance based on roads starts you off immediately at the expert long-course level. Some navigation is involved now!

Rm: How did you get into orienteering?

BF: I was 20, and a reasonably fast distance runner, when my college ROTC unit went to a local orienteering course in Virginia. Three times on one course I made navigationally questionable decisions, with some slow, old dude—I think he was like 40—passing me after each mistake, sometimes with a laughing “parade wave”! Despite my kicking up the pace and passing him twice, he finished ahead of me, and my attitude adjustment was complete. I now had a lifelong respect for how orienteering brings different generations and skill sets together.

Rm: What has orienteering brought to your life?

BF: To me, orienteering is about resilience. When my navigation is good, all those checkpoints are about fast interval training as long as my body responds. On days when my navigation is not so good, resilience is about bouncing back, making the next leg more efficient than the last one.

But perhaps the best experience of all is teaching youth how to knock down challenges one at a time, to the point where they are perfectly comfortable getting a new map and launching successfully into a high-speed tour of completely unfamiliar terrain. And to have that be safe, because of all the resilience work they’ve put in on navigation—how to avoid getting lost, and if they do lose contact with the map anyway, how to relocate quickly and get back in the race.

Rm: What’s your favorite memory as an orienteering coach?

BF: It’s been my honor over the years to coach middle schoolers to a winning orienteering league season, a national win, and to eventually see two of those youth represent the United States in international competition. And then . . . to build on that personal expertise to direct orienteering events, the Washington Interscholastic Orienteering League, and Cascade Orienteering Club itself to help grow the sport. What a way to connect folks to the outdoors!

Rm: In your opinion, how does orienteering contribute to a healthy community and environment?

BF: Like it or not, we live in a time of high gadget obsession, low-budget investment in our parks at all levels, and especially low awareness of the natural world. Go to Google, type in “park,” and most of the images are of flat, mowed grass, with no connection to natural spaces.

Without systemic programs for gradual immersion in the great outdoors and familiarity with how to get around, this trend of disconnection will continue. As a society, we don’t invest in what we don’t know about and don’t care about.

Orienteering reverses this by making it a sport to immerse yourself in nature as much as you want to, developing critical outdoor skills along the way. Some families take the experience only that far, learning how to respect a recreational area, enjoy it, and leave it unharmed at the end. Maybe they grow up to vote in favor of the parks and recreational bonds in areas where they have fond memories.

Rm: And some people go much further with it?

BF: Yes, many youth go a lot further. Countless graduates of our orienteering league have gone on to major in environmental science, focused on how to protect what they value, while expanding their map skills with outdoor georeferencing in the sciences. Yet others take orienteering to the next level, getting involved as outdoor guides or Search & Rescue.

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