Young navigators: orientation programs for schools in the South

When David Moss retired from the Navy, he decided to pursue his childhood dream of driving 18-wheelers. Hauling dry goods for Averitt Express up to 550 miles a day, he was able to see the country from a new perspective his first career hadn’t afforded him: overland. He loved the freedom and the vastness, the competitive nature of the job and his reliance on maps. He drove trucks for three years and would have done it forever, he says, if Henry County High School hadn’t come in 2010. The school needed a Navy JROTC instructor …and an orientation coach.

Using a topographical map and a compass, orienteering is a sport that requires participants to traverse a series of designated checkpoints, or “checkpoints,” with equal speed and efficiency as possible. Depending on the level of difficulty of the course, a participant may be tasked with following ridges, climbing steep slopes, or navigating a number of natural features to reach each control. It attracts everyone from adult adventurers to high school JROTC units. Although no stranger to maps, Moss had no experience with the sport of orienteering until he arrived at Henry County High School, located in McDonough, Georgia, and has since been renamed McDonough High School. .

“So I had to go and do my research because nobody else wanted to do it because it’s very demanding,” he explains. “You have to go out in any weather and make it happen.”

He started with the Georgia Orienteering Club, an organization that holds events and competitions across the state. He read and attended summer camps, even founding his own, the Georgia Orienteering Advanced Training, or GOAT Camp, in partnership with the GOC. He has built a coaching system for his teams that relies on both classroom instruction, such as map reading and navigation skills, and physical fitness. One day in class, the next day outdoors.

The results have been spectacular. McDonough has won seven national championships, traveled to 12 states for competitions, and exposed many Moss students to a world in which they previously had little or no experience. “I work at a school where it’s 98% minority, and a lot of them have never been to a state park before, so I’m already exposing them to something totally new, and that’s the “One of my goals was to break down mental barriers and expose them to a new world and something they had never thought of doing before,” says Moss.

While the tactical element of orienteering makes it a natural fit for the JROTC program, it also appeals to adults and children who just want to challenge themselves in the outdoors. Based in Virginia, Quantico Orienteering Club is a similar organization to the Georgia Orienteering Club. It hosts between 20 and 25 orientation events in any given season, between September and June, at parks throughout the DC-Baltimore metro area. The Quantico District stretches as far south as Quantico, Virginia, where they have permission to go to the Marine Corps base, and as far south as Oregon Ridge Park, north of Baltimore.

The Quantico Orienteering Club, based in Virginia, hosts up to 25 events per season. Photo courtesy of Quantico Orienteering Club

“We’re Eastern Woodlands, so we’re almost always in the woods,” says Quantico President Don Fish. “Occasionally we’re also in parks with open fields, which makes it interesting because you go back and forth between different types of terrain.”

The challenges of a given course depend on the park. Mason Neck, located in southern Fairfax County, Virginia on the Potomac River, is very flat. According to Fish, this makes orienteering more difficult because there are no ridges or landforms to follow. Just across Mason Neck, however, is Pohick Bay, which is conversely steep.

“Even though Pohick Bay would be physically harder to steer, you have stricter guidelines you can follow to find the controls because when it’s flat and there’s nothing there, no ditches, no streams, it’s really difficult,” says Poisson.

Prince William Forest or Fountainhead in Virginia and McKeldin in Maryland are also steep and contain deep ravines that can require up to 500 yards of climbing over the length of a course, but newcomers should not be intimidated by the challenges of high-end routes. The combination of available courses and metropolitan population has made Quantico one of the biggest clubs in the country, and there are options for all skill levels. The difficulty of the course is indicated by color. Beginners can choose to try a blank course, which will keep them on a trail for its entire 2-3 kilometres. Blue is the most difficult, veering over unmarked terrain and measuring 10 to 12 kilometres. Timing is done electronically, recorded on arrival at each control and at the finish line.

Fish says good weather could generate an attendance of 250 to 300 people for an event, many of which are Baltimore-area JROTC teams, but may also include mountain bikers looking for a new challenge or families looking to go into the woods.

“We have everything from little kids who first hang out with their parents and then from 8 or 9 years old start taking their own easy classes, to members in their 80s who go out and do these things,” he says.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Moss will host this year’s state championship at Mistletoe State Park near Thompson, in partnership with the GOC. He expects the event to draw nearly 25 teams, the top of which will qualify for the Navy JROTC National Championships in California this year, and from there to the U.S. Junior All-Service National Championship in Cincinnati, where the Moss’ group is the defending champion in four of the five competition categories. Winning is great, but it’s the real implications of what he teaches that fuels his passion.

“If a kid is going out on their own and they don’t have that self-discipline, that mental control to calm down and refocus and commit to something, then they’re not going to be too successful,” Moss says. “So it teaches them a lot of maturity, and that maturity carries over to other things in their academic and personal lives.”

Cover photo: Cartographic skills are essential for navigating the orienteering courses. Photo courtesy of Quantico Orienteering Club

Dino J. Dotson