Orienteering: “Not all who wander are lost”

Climbing through ankle-deep grass in the scorching late September sun, you wonder if taking that narrow path from the main road from Nissequogue State Park to Kings Park was such a good idea after all.

Especially when the man you’re supposed to follow is holding the card upside down.

But Ken Michelson, 65, from Selden, knows what he’s doing. He checks the compass hanging from a lanyard around his neck; consult the map — and point to an old stone wall on the crest of the hill. “The checkpoint is right here,” he said. Sure enough, there it is, hanging from a bush like a Japanese lantern: the orange-and-white triangular marker that indicates the group is on track at the Long Island Orienteering Club’s first fall event.

Apparently reading the map like Michelson did, south to north, is the correct way to orient yourself in the woods, which is what this sport is all about.

“We call it ‘a walk with a purpose,'” said Michelson’s brother-in-law, Chuck Schleifer, 58, who lives in Lake Grove. Both men are part of a family team that has been competing regularly at club events for 14 years: Michelson’s wife, Cathy, 65, and Schleifer’s wife, Rose, 56, are sisters. On this hike, held on September 24, they were joined by the Michelsons’ grandchildren – Joey, 10, and Jocelyn, 4 – who accompanied them to the nooks and crannies of Nissequogue Park. Together they followed the handout map and a set of clues prepared by the event organizers, to get to 13 checkpoints, or “checkpoints” in orienteering lingo, along the 2.1 mile course. (Competitors must punch a card at each checkpoint to prove they were there.)

Over the years, the adult foursome have attended club meets in Caumsett, West Hills, Sunken Meadow, Stillwell Woods, Muttontown Preserve and Avalon Park in Stony Brook. “It’s amazing to see some of these parks that we didn’t know about,” said Ken Michelson.

Members of the Michelson-Schleifer family were among 91 participants at the event in Nissequogue. Unlike some others, however, they had a team name: IOWA, which has nothing to do with their affinity for Hawkeye State.

“It stands for ‘Idiots Out Walking Around’,” Chuck Schleifer explained.

They even have t-shirts with the team name and a team motto that Rose promises will appear on “the next edition” of the jersey: “Not all who wander are lost.”

The line, from JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, evokes Middle-earth. But the cast of the sport today is most definitely middle-aged. Long Island Orienteering Club president John Pekarik, 76, of Sayville, said more than half of the members were 50 and older. At the Nissequogue meet, the percentage was even higher: subtract a group of Boy Scouts from Troop 214 at Rockville Center (who competed as part of their job for an Orientation Merit Badge) and the attendees were almost exclusively in their fifties and over.

Many of these people had taken circuitous routes to go orienteering.

“I’ve always been fascinated by maps,” said Marilyn MacGown, 60, of Hicksville. Growing up, she said, “I was always my dad’s navigator on road trips. When I heard about it, I immediately liked it. »

George Seifert, 70, of Ronkonkoma, discovered him in the late 1980s, while serving as a chaperone for an overnight trip with his son, who was in high school. “I went out with one of the accompanying mothers for what they called the orienteering,” he said. “I wanted to know more.”

Seifert, a retired accountant, said he found the specificity of reading maps and locating markers (“flags,” as they’re called in the sport) to be entirely in line with his thinking. . He and longtime friend Rob Upson, 66, of Manorville, compete in club events on Long Island, as well as orienteering competitions in New England and upstate New York. “It’s part of how we hang out,” Upson said. “We laugh a lot, we walk, we always have fun.”

That’s how it is for most participants. But competitive career pathfinders approach it differently. They don’t walk, they run the course – and it’s generally a longer course, more challenging and involving checkpoints deeper in the woods than the beginner and intermediate courses. The organizers had set up four courses for the Nissequogue event. The fastest overall competitor, Stefan Slutsky, 55, of Brooklyn, completed the competitive “Brown” course – 3.7 kilometers (2.3 miles) and 17 checkpoints – in 34 minutes and six seconds.

The price? “Only the fame of seeing your name in our newsletter and on the website,” said club secretary Glen Malings.

There’s no need to whip out your iPhone and ask Siri for directions for orienteering. The use of GPS is prohibited. Instead, participants must use a compass and read a map.

“Today everyone relies on GPS,” said Malings, 58, who lives in Syosset. “They have no idea how to navigate using a map and compass. We teach it and that’s part of the fun.

Originally developed as training for officers in the Swedish army, orienteering became and remains popular in Scandinavia and Northern Europe. In the United States, however, it has long been a marginal sport. Why it is, it’s not entirely clear: what kid doesn’t like to run around in the woods looking for clues? The Michelsons’ grandchildren and the scouts at the club’s Sept. 24 event certainly seemed to enjoy the challenge. Ken Michelson said there was an added bonus: “It’s better to have them sitting inside playing with the smartphone.”

For most adult competitors, part of the satisfaction is successfully navigating the terrain. “I always love the thrill of figuring out how to get to the next checkpoint and get over the top of the hill and there it is, right where it’s supposed to be,” said two-time team member Kris Beecroft. American national, who is now president of Orienteering USA.

But it’s also beneficial for older competitors in other ways. “It’s an outdoor activity, first of all,” Pekarik said. “And you can take these courses quickly or slowly. We have seniors who just like to walk in the park, and we also have outdoor enthusiasts.

Despite their self-deprecating name, Team IOWA, which completed the 2.1-mile Nissequogue Intermediate Course in an hour and 32 minutes, gets the best of both orienteering worlds: they enjoy a vigorous walking through the woods, while using their noggins to find checkpoints and enjoy parts of the park that are literally off the beaten path.

For example, a staircase leading nowhere near the southeastern tip of the park. Once these steps, built with carefully inlaid stones, must have led to something grand; possibly the residence of a doctor or the administrator of the psychiatric hospital that once stood near here.

Now it’s just empty woods.

“That’s what’s great about this sport,” Schleifer said. “They give us this detailed and cool map, and you have the chance to explore this amazing park.”

And don’t get lost in the process.

Dino J. Dotson