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Out in the Woods
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Sunday morning, I got out orienteering for the first time since last September, at Hickory Run State Park in Pennsylvania. When I orienteered regularly I did the expert (Green) courses at local meets but now that I’m in the woods only sporadically I do intermediate (Orange).

The park’s terrain is a glaciated confusion of potholes and hillocks interspersed with a few deep cuts made by narrow streams. After gouging the landscape on their advance, the glaciers melted, leaving rocks everywhere. In many spots the rocks are strung out in long lines, as if a giant had cast out buckets of them. These rock fields are mostly open to the sun since only ferns and scrub brush can take root there. Luckily the courses didn't approach the huge boulder field, although once, a control flag was hung in the middle.

Despite the diversity of features, it's rather a jumble, and most of the ups and downs are not very prominent. A three meter change in elevation indicated by a single contour line is easily seen on the map but not so easy to discern in the actual woods, particularly with the trees and bushes just leafing out. On the Orange course, fortunately, there's always a road some short distance away if you miss your target, even if it does look (and feel) like you're in the middle of a trackless wilderness.

The weather, cool for May, was perfect for hiking and the steady drizzle, unpleasant in the parking lot, rarely penetrated the tree cover out in the woods. Although I often strayed off course and had to relocate to a road or path to figure out where I was, the errors were forgotten those few times when I navigated correctly, down the hill, and over the stream, and past the boulder, to find the orange and white flag exactly where I'd expected, hung on a bough beside the black water of a forest pond.

Orienteering is a little like writing in that regard. The times the words come to you easily, exactly right, make all the struggles worthwhile.

I didn’t do very well, but as often happens in orienteering (especially at Hickory Run) I did less badly than a few others on my course and finished 4 out of 11.

I couldn’t help thinking that since most of my navigation errors had been stupid ones (like being distracted by a control marker I should’ve known wasn’t mine, or spending time searching for the wrong feature which I’d somehow misidentified on my map) I might very well be able to move up to the Green course where I belong with a little practice.

Orienteering is like writing also in that success, however elusive, always seems within one's grasp.

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