It’s Like Solving a Puzzle

I think we may have been talking too much,” says Eleanor O’Donovan. She’s on the crest of a hill facing Grey Mountain, staring intently at her compass and map.

“You don’t pay attention, it’s easy to lose your way.”

We’re about 45 minutes into our orienteering hike on a gorgeous solstice evening, blue sky and long shadows in the forest. O’Donovan and Aileen McCorkell are my guides.

It’s my fault we’re talking too much, and now we’re lost.

Well, not lost. These retired teachers are experienced orienteers with years of trail hiking to their credit. We’re just turned around a bit, looking for the next flag in our course.

“You think you know where you are going, then the trail plays tricks on you,” says McCorkell.

O’Donovan swats at a mosquito.

“This is when you make a mistake,” she says. “Because you’re getting bitten, not concentrating. You can wander around for awhile but it’s a good idea to back to your last point of reference.”

We head back down the rise, shin-deep in soft moss. Roses and lupins scent the forest air.

Back on a sandy trail, the women re-check their maps and bearing. We head into the bush again, a little to the east this time.

“There it is,” says McCorkell as we enter a clearing. An orange cloth wrapped around a pin. A red electronic register, like a USB port, sits on top. Number 114.

“It’s obvious when you take care.”

Getting lost is not really a concern.

“If we don’t know where we are, we will take a compass reading and go to the road,” O’Donovan says. “You can always get to a safe spot.”

Another position check and we move off through the bush, stepping over moss-buried treefall and pushing saplings aside. On to 115.

We’re on Course Two, and intermediate, 2.5-kilometre hike near Long Lake. Dozens of other orienteers are in the area, but we don’t see many. The occasional young person will jog by, concentrating on spotting the next flag, racing against the clock.

We’re not.

McCorkell and O’Donovan have been members of the Yukon Orienteering Association (YOA) for a decade. They come out for the weekly or bi-weekly hikes into the bush all summer. But they’re not in competition with anybody.

“All it is is an excuse to walk in the woods,” says O’Donovan.

“We started by going out with a friend, who was competitive,” recalls McCorkell. “But we weren’t. We just like finding the flags.”

“It’s like solving a puzzle,” O’Donovan adds.

A few more compass checks, and we head down a slope. Somewhere, a few hundred yards away, another flag is waiting to be found.

“There’s an orienteering bumper sticker that says ‘Why Just Run?'” says Barbara Scheck, a past president of the YOA who has helped build the club for more than a decade.

The combination of the mental and physical, the challenge of using a map while running or hiking, has helped make orienteering one of the more successful sports in Yukon.

With about 170 members, the club has produced western, national and even international champions.

And not just young athletes. A few years ago, Whitehorse’s Nesta Leduc captured three golds for Canada in the 75-80 year-old category at a meet in Australia.

Besides its inter-generational appeal, orienteering in Whitehorse is also convenient, Scheck say.

“In a place like Vancouver, you might have to drive to Merritt or Kamloops to participate in an event.

“Here you can drive five minutes to the edge of town, and you’re in open forests with incredible trails with all sorts of levels of difficulty. So it’s easy to go out on a Wednesday evening and run a course.”

This year the club is particularly busy. More than 200 athletes from across Canada are coming to the territory for two events: the 2011 Western Canadian Orienteering Championships July 16-18, and the national-level Canadian Orienteering Championships from 22-24.

Volunteers have worked for months – even years. Among other logistics such events require, maps have been drawn up and approved, courses developed, fundraisers held.

A junior squad of runners from across Canada has been here training since the snow melted, Scheck points out.

“We are doing this because we’re building a legacy for locals.”

Back in the wilds around Long Lake, the only legacy I’m building is for the next generation of mosquitoes. A long-sleeved shirt and long pants would have been a good idea. I peer into the forest, hoping to catch sight of the next flag.

“It shouldn’t be far from here,” says O’Donovan. “As the crow flies, about 200 metres.”

“If we stay on this contour there is a cutline more or less heading right to it,” McCorkell adds, not glancing up from her map.

“Let’s just head a bit to the right,” says O’Donovan. “We don’t want to go down the hill just yet.”

Eventually we do head down the hill. At the bottom of a dry gully (the orienteering term is “re-entrant”) there’s a flag and a welcome jug of water. We take a minute and refill our bottles.

“We’re on our way home from here,” says McCorkell, as we climb up out of the gully again. A few minutes later we’re back on the hardpacked trail, just a few more flags and about a kilometre to walk.

Over a rise, the city comes into view to the west, at an angle you never see in photographs.

“This is why we do it,” says O’Donovan, commenting on the vista. “We never have been on these trails before.”

“You never would have walked around here otherwise,” agrees McCorkell. “You see old vehicle or old wagon tracks – people have been here for a long time.”

Eventually we make it back to the starting point, where we check in. We’ve been on the trail for about two hours. A sign suggests a course completion time of 30 minutes.

Whatever. I’ve had a workout, used my brains, and seen part of the city’s historic trail system I’d never encountered before. Fresh air and gorgeous Yukon vistas.

Putting a time on it seems almost beside the point.

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