BY STEPHEN DALE
Article was originally published in the October print issue of Ottawa Magazine.
Originally created early in the 20th century as a training exercise for the Swedish military, orienteering is now seeing a rise in popularity as a recreational pursuit. On Thanksgiving weekend (Oct. 10 – 13), athletes from across Canada and the United States, along with competitors from as far afield as Uganda, Barbados, and Romania, will descend on Arnprior for the 2014 North American Orienteering Championships. Enthusiast and event co-organizer James Richardson talks with Ottawa Magazine about the growing appeal of a sport that uses traditional way-finding techniques.
Ottawa Magazine: Since orienteering isn’t well known, can you paint a picture of what it involves?
James Richardson: It’s a running sport, a little like cross-country running, but you choose the route. You have a map that shows a series of points, known as controls, and you have to get from point to point in the most efficient way possible. There’s no GPS and no way to cheat. A big challenge is to choose your route. If there’s a hill in front of me, I could go straight, but I’d have to go up over a hill and then down. A trail might be easier to navigate, but maybe it takes a longer route. People’s most efficient routes may be different. My knees aren’t the greatest, so I’m probably not going to choose the hill.
OM: It sounds like it’s a test of brain and brawn.
JR: You have to think really fast. You can’t plan things in advance. But when you get really good, you can look at a map and interpret it in five seconds.
OM: What’s in the orienteer’s toolkit?
JR: Not much more than a compass, a whistle (in case you get lost or meet a bear), the map, and a list of the controls. And you probably want shoes that are better than your Converse sneakers.
OM: What brought you to the world of orienteering?
JR: Growing up in Newfoundland, my father was heavily involved [in the sport], and our family used to travel across Canada to wherever the Canadian championships were being held. I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Then we moved to Ottawa and drifted away [from orienteering]. When I came back in my 30s, I thought, I’m spending a lot of time at a desk — I need to find a hobby where I get out and do something.
OM: How does geocaching compare with orienteering?
JR: Geocaching is a bit more of an adventure or a game, while orienteering is actually a sport. Geocaching has no time limit, and you can use GPS.
OM: Are orienteering enthusiasts competitive?
JR: There’s a real collegial atmosphere within the orienteering community. Of course you want to win, but if you get to a control and there’s someone there, you don’t throw a hip check to get them out of the way. It’s also a sport everyone can participate in. We have a category for people 85 years and older and one for kids under 10.
OM: So it’s a kinder, gentler sport than hockey or football.
JR: Yes, but it is still a physically tough sport with a lot of injuries. It’s not a gentle walk in the woods. Our club has two training sessions a week, plus our regular weekly meet. Our elite guys train almost every day.
OM: What places around Ottawa provide the best terrain for orienteering?
JR: We have maps that cover most of the Gatineau Park area, which has mountainous areas, forests, and swampy areas, and we have maps of many of the Ottawa parks that tend to be a bit flatter but swampier.
OM: How are preparations for the North American championships going?
JR: Arnprior is our host town, and they’ve been phenomenal. They are actually shutting down a downtown street for one of our races, which is unheard of. We’ve also been able to go to schools in Arnprior and get them excited about the sport.
OM: Is orienteering the kind of social sport where people go for beer after a race?
JR: The drinks tend to be non-alcoholic, since our club meets on Sunday mornings. But yes, it’s a very social thing.