Local racing organizers, Michigan Adventure Racing offer Night orienteering events a couple times a year in correlation with their Urban Adventure Races. It's an opportunity for people to learn about orienteering ahead of the race and to practice. These events are open to everyone though, even if you don't plan on participating in the Urban Adventure Races. Heck, they might even convince you to give them a try.
Orienteering is not for the faint of heart. If you like to get lost in the woods, crawl through shrubbery, wade across creeks, and come face-to-face with Mother Nature's finest, then this is the challenge for you!
So what exactly IS orienteering?
That's actually a pretty good definition. When Runner's World called it the original obstacle race, they weren't joking. Except in this scenario, your obstacles are the nature-made kind, like hills and valleys, swamps, creeks, your fellow orienteers, and an occassional skunk... (Read on!)
When you arrive at M.A.R.'s Night Orienteering, the guys will give you a packet of information that covers the basics of reading and using maps to navigate. It talks about reading topographical maps, using a compass to follow directions, and they give you some pointers with regards to measuring distance and plotting a course. After about a half hour session of discussing the what and how to orienteer, everyone sets out on a practice course, with only a few checkpoints. This is where the fun begins!
Think of it like on America's Next Top Model when the models have to go on castings. It's a lot like that.
Each of the checkpoints will have some sort of flag or indicator to allow participants to find it. Ours were hanging lanterns with reflective stripes. Each flag has a special stamp on it, so that you can tell which specific checkpoints were reached. In addition to your map, you were given a "scorecard" where you would place the stamp for each checkpoint.
I had originally planned on doing this with a friend, but she had to cancel at the last minute, so I headed out to Robinette's Apple Haus on my own to give it the ol' college try and got partnered up with another girl who was on her own for the evening as well. We also ended up adding a third to our little rag-tag team because he was on his own as well. None of us had ever done this before but were all fairly capable runners, so we were hoping we'd be able to make a decent go of it. (Look, me, making more new friends! Shocking, I know...)
Our times started once we had recieved our maps and we took a few minutes to attempt to plot out a course before we got to far into it. There were 11 checkpoints we needed to reach, with most of them (7) being to our south and the rest up in the orchard to the north. We decided to head out to the farthest south ones first and work our way back up, guaranteeing that we would at least get the majority of the checkpoints. The first two were pretty quick and we though we had a good game plan for getting to our third...
Key word: THOUGHT.
Turns out, their was a giant swamp right in the middle of our proposed route. None of us were prepared with waders or boats, so that quickly forced us to change our plan. We decided that it might be best to head down a road and then cut back into the wooded area to get to the next checkpoint. We would add some distance by not taking the most direct route, but we figured we would save time by staying on the road and avoiding crashing through the shrubbery.
Well, we ended up going too far past the end checkpoint and had to trace back our route to try and find where we needed to cut back in. And another one of those natural obstacles introduced itself: a baby skunk. Having been familiar with skunks from owning two dogs, I immediately stopped dead in my tracks and started backing up. Since I was in the lead at this point, my two teammates noticed my sudden change in velocity and followed suit as I explained that I had no desire to take a tomato bath that evening... Add on some extra miles to avoid being sprayed. Trust me, those extra miles were worth it.
Once we crossed the street into the northern portion, the terrain was much different. The southern end had been almost all forested and swamp, with a small college campus in the middle, allowing for a few bits of nicely paved trails. The northern end was fields of corn and an apple orchard, which you would think might be easier...
But it's misleading. The orchards can be very hilly and there were PLENTY of hills to traverse to find our last four points. We managed to finally get to all four and headed back out, with only minute to spare before the time deadline expired!
As we sprinted our way back through the apple trees and fields of corn, we were elated with having been able to successfully find all (or least what we thought were all!) of the checkpoints. We ended up missing the time deadline by 1 minute, but since we had gotten 10 out of 11 checkpoints, we still placed 9th out of 28 teams. Turns out that the 11th checkpoint had NOT been stolen, but had been placed inside the front porch of a foreclosed home... Most teams (read: all except one!) had opted to not break into the front porch to find the flag, so only one team ended up with all eleven. Of the teams that got ten checkpoints, we were the slowest, but some teams only found three, so we still fared pretty well.
Overall, it was a great time and I would definitely reccommend that it you enjoy adventure racing and obstacle courses, you should give it a try sometime. Michigan Adventure Racing has another one schedule for September 28th and I can imagine it will be another challenging course. Those guys do a great job! I won't be able to make the next once, since I'll be in New York, running Ragnar - Adirondacks, but you should give it a try!
Some tips for those who are thinking of giving it a try:
Invest in a headlamp. Especially if you're doing night orienteering. This is a must have so you can see the trail. Added bonus: Turn off your headlamp and go into ninja-stealth mode. This way you can sneak up on other teams who have already found a checkpoint without them knowing or prevent other teams from following you to a particularly tricky checkpoint. Every team for themselves!
Own a compass and know how to use it. And a decent compass at that. Something designed for using with topographical maps is best. It will be your best friend, not only for finding checkpoints, but for also finding your way home once you get lost in the woods... And other useful things like measuring distances and planning out your routes.
Wear long pants and long sleeves. Besides thorns to watch out for, you also need to worry about insects (mosquitoes, ticks, and other stinging bugs), as well as poison ivy. You might get a little warm, but it's worth it not be covered in scratches and bites at the end.
Bring your sense of adventure! This may be the most important. With orienteering, things won't always go the way you want or plan. But this is the type of race where it's more about the journey than the destination. Be prepared to get lost but make sure to laugh along the way!
And remember, "It's better to be lost in the woods than found at home." - Unknown