WEKIWA SPRINGS STATE PARK — Orienteering can be frustrating, especially for a middle-age guy with bad eyes and a bum knee like me.
But the organizers of this meet assured me that even an old-timer with moderate map-and-compass experience can quickly learn the basics of this competitive navigation sport.
"It is a hiking game for the puzzle lover," one enthusiast told me.
"It is a cross-country race for map junkies," another explained.
Orienteering traces its origins to Sweden in the early 1900s, where it was employed as a military training exercise. Americans heard about this game that combined problem solving and fitness, and soon it blossomed into an outdoor sport that combines map skills with hiking and/or running.
The meets, which usually take place in public parks and last a couple of hours, are open to people of all ages and abilities. At this particular event, my crew and I encountered moms pushing babies in strollers and grandparents in sweat pants hiking with ski poles.
The degree of difficulty ranges from "string courses" for children to expert routes, which can take several hours to complete. The concept is simple: You pay $6, sign a waiver and receive a detailed topographical map of the local terrain.
You then choose a course, ranging in length and difficulty from beginner to expert, and locate on your map a series of checkpoints. The goal is to move from checkpoint to checkpoint in numerical order.
The only other thing you take with you is a compass. The starter hits the stopwatch, and you're off. You can walk or run. Checkpoints are marked with little white-and-orange flags called controls.
Each control is numbered, and you must do them in order, not numerical, but in the sequence that they appear on your map. For example, you may find No. 34 and then see No. 35. But you might actually be looking for No. 26, and if you "punch" your card out of order, you're out of luck.
Some courses have electronic controls. Your time, or how long it takes you to find and check all 12 controls, is recorded automatically, which makes for more accurate results and greater accountability on the part of the participant.
Compass skills help, but a keen eye and an affinity for detail are more crucial. The topographical maps are highly detailed.
At our last meet, my crew missed a small dirt trail and ended up trekking through waist-high grass for a quarter mile in search of a control. We had to backtrack, retrace our steps, and practically start over before moving on. That's why the Florida Orienteering Club's brochure calls it "the thinking sport."
Orienteering meets usually have three levels of courses. The "leisure" course is ideal for beginners, scouts and aging outdoor writers. The courses are usually 2 to 3 kilometers in length and stick mostly to marked roadways anrid trails.
Intermediate courses are 3 to 5 kilometers and designed for those with more land navigation experience. Adventure courses, 6 to 10 kilometers long, are for experienced orienteering enthusiasts and seasoned adventure racers.
In the end we finished --— hot, sweaty and thirsty — in a little less than two hours. My teammates didn't care about our official time. They just wanted to know when they could do it again.