Sunday, November 24, 2013

Powhite Park Orienteering

On Friday, I got an email from the Meetup Group that I sometimes go hiking with, Richmond / Charlottesville Adventurers, asking if I would be interested in orienteering at Powhite Park yesterday.  I have never done formal orienteering on a course before, and it sounded like fun, so I replied "yes."  And yesterday being a really nice late fall day, I showed up at the park, compass in hand.

My compass and route finding skills are pretty rusty.  How rusty?  Well, let's say if I had the same skill level for my job, I would have been fired long ago.  Especially since the advent of handheld geographic positioning system receivers, the compass pretty much stays in my emergency gear bag buried in my pack.  I always bring it when I hike, but it never sees the light of day.  And that is bad.  Anything electronic, like a GPS, can fail at any time, and having a compass that I have forgotten to use is not really a backup, is it?  So I think I need to make a goal of relying less on the GPS and relearning those orienteering skills - and improving significantly on what I used to know.

It turns out that the founders of my meet up group, Alec and Ellen, are also very active in the Central Virginia Orienteering Club, who put on events like this every month or so.
When I got there, I paid $5 for my map (a compass is next to worthless without a map - compass and map are one of the 10 essentials you should always take hiking).  I bought the beginner course map.  Then Ellen gave several us an orientation to orienteering, explaining how to navigate and what to do when we find one of the 17 "flags."  For this course, as it turns out, we could pretty much move along an extensive and unmarked trail system to locate the flags, so the map was really essential, and the compass less so.  The map we got was amazingly detailed, even marking things such as gullies, boulders, and large uprooted trees.  Whoever prepared it did a wonderful job, and after I had found a few flags, I learned how to make use of all of the information beyond just the contour lines.

Here is a section of the map showing more detail.  The paths (which are unmarked) are the dashed lines and the 3 meter contour lines are the narrow orange lines.  The numbered purple circles mark the locations of flags we are to find.  You can see number 3, 4, 5, and 7 here.
Here is a partial legend for the map.  On the left are a few of the symbols and markings found on the map.  On the right are some of the flags we are to find with their identifying letters.  For example, if you are looking for #8 and the flag you are looking at doesn't have an "X" on it, you are in the wrong spot.  They also give a clue what type of feature each flag is near.  For example, flag #7 is in a small gully.

After our orientation, I signed in to get my time marked down - people do this competitively as a race - and started moving to find the first "flag."  The woods are still lovely this time of year, even without many leaves.
This is an example of one of the flags.  They are meant to be easy to see.  This is not geocaching, where things are hidden.  See the red hole punch hanging below the flag?  I'll explain that in a second.  One young girl, who was trail running the more advanced course, told me how much she loves orienteering and how geocaching (which actually sounds kind of fun to me) is for "weaklings."  I had to laugh at her enthusiasm, and it was great to see a girl out by herself developing her sense of confidence and strength.  I ran into her parents later back at the starting point and complemented them on raising their kids.  They had three girls out doing this course yesterday.
So, on the side of the map is a series of little numbered boxes.  Each one represents the flag we are to find for that number.  The flags are marked with letters, and have a hole punch.  Each punch has a different pattern, so it can be determined if you really found the exact flag.  We are supposed to find the flags in numeric order, which I did, except for a little mishap where I got disoriented (and I knew I was but I didn't check my compass for some reason) and ended up finding flag 13 (which was on the east side of the park) instead of flag 8 (which was on the west side).  But even so, I did not punch the box for 13 until I found it again after 12.  I also found about 3 of the advanced course flags just by chance, because the orange and white stands out in the November woods.
Some of the paths are very easy to follow, like this one.  Others, because of leaf fall, are obscured and hard to find and see.  That is why I ended up at flag 13 instead of 8.  I knew I was going in the wrong direction but couldn't find the intersecting paths.  So I backtracked all the way back to 7, my last known exact condition, and tried again until I found it.
Flag 10 was by this pretty river.  I had lunch near here.  What, lunch, during a timed event?  Well, I was doing this for fun, not competition, and my peanut butter sandwich was calling.  It was after this point I ran into another guy, I think at flag 12, and we did the rest of the course together.  It was nice to chat with someone else while walking through the woods.
Can you imagine the force needed to snap these two large trees about 15-20 feet up?  Must have been a helluva storm!
When I got back to the start, I got my time recorded (it was a total of about 2 hours and 7 minutes, something like that.)  I don't know how far I walked.  If you did the course point to point, I assume along compass bearings, it would have been 3.2 kilometers.  But I did it along trails for the most part, and made some gaffes, so I would guess it was more like 6 or 7K.  I enjoyed this and would like to do it again, and become better and finding my way through the woods with map and compass.  Something to focus on in 2014?


  1. Sounds like fun though a little bit out of my comfort zone!! : )

  2. It was a lot of fun. You might like it, try it with a friend so you have some support. :-) Art