Orienteering

Max Jacoby checks a bearing on his compass near Phillips Reservoir.

My son Max was so focused on following the heading on his new compass that he didn’t notice he had dropped one of his black ski gloves.

Neither did I.

This was a problem.

Max, who is about a month shy of his 9th birthday, tends to develop an instant, and intense, affection for objects which don’t normally carry much sentimental value.

Black ski gloves, for instance.

(They were, to be fair, a Christmas gift.)

He has misplaced items as ordinary as a bookmark and thrust our household into the sort of search more typically associated with lost nuclear codes or vast fortunes in Spanish doubloons.

As we stood in a snowbound ponderosa pine forest near Phillips Lake on a recent Saturday morning, Max clutching his one remaining glove lest it too get loose, I deployed one of the parent’s most versatile tools — distraction.

I pointed out to Max that at least he hadn’t lost his newest possession, the compass.

(It, unlike the glove, came attached to a handy loop of cord. Ever mindful of episodes such as the bookmark debacle, I had insisted he slip the loop around his neck.)

I also pointed out that if we retraced our route, looking for the glove, we’d have to climb the steep slope we had just descended. Also, we were less than half a mile from where we had parked.

The tactic was marginally successful.

Max went along, albeit grudgingly. I had to reassure him several times that his mom and I would buy him a new pair of gloves. He accepted the offer but continued to mourn the missing garment, saying, with a rather touching wistfulness, that the remaining glove would forever be without its mate.

Dropped glove notwithstanding, our modest excursion through the pines served to introduce Max to orienteering.

And it rekindled my enthusiasm for the hobby.

I’ve never been especially devoted to orienteering. I hike most of my miles on trails or roads; and when I head off cross-country it’s usually in an area where I’m intimately familiar with the topography.

Still and all, I think it’s a worthwhile skill — to be able to use a compass and map to plot a route and then follow it and end up approximately where you expected to.

The ubiquity of GPS has of course made traditional orienteering if not obsolete then at least quaintly nostalgic.

But batteries die.

And electronic devices fail.

Besides which there is a certain satisfaction that comes with properly employing decidedly analog items such as a paper map and a compass in a largely digital world.

Most importantly, Max had that new compass and he was keen to try it somewhere other than his bedroom.

It’s a fine instrument, made mostly of metal rather than the plastic I expected based on its $8 price, and with a fetching camouflage pattern on the case.

Max, who bought the compass with a gift card (another Christmas present) picked a lensatic compass, a type I don’t have much experience with.

I told him I would bring along my orienteering compass, a Silva I’ve owned for close to 30 years, because I was more familiar with how to use its baseplate to plot a course on a map.

After we strapped on our snowshoes I calculated the bearing on my compass, set the same number on his compass, and off we went.

As I hoped, Max was fascinated with the procedure — lay the compass on the map, twist the rotating dial to align its vertical lines with those on the map, then adjust the bearing to account for declination (the difference between magnetic north, which the compass needle points to, and true, or geographic, north on the map).

He seemed relieved that both my compass and his aimed us in the same direction.

After a week or so of generally benign weather the snow was spring firm, and our snowshoes in places scarcely scratched the icy crust.

This makes for easy walking but hard talking, as the shoes with every stride make the sort of crunch you might get if you stepped on a pile of corn flakes. An unlikely scenario, to be sure, but you get the point.

Because the terrain near the reservoir is relatively gentle, lacking prominent peaks that would be ideal destinations when navigating by map and compass, we had to settle for a nearby power line, and then a modest ridgetop barely tall enough to be depicted on the topographic map.

From there I plotted a course back to the car.

The key to navigating, I told Max, is to pick out a landmark that’s on the proper heading, walk to that, recheck the bearing and choose another landmark.

In the forest, naturally, these intermediate goals tend to be particularly tall trees.

Max enjoyed this selection process — he seemed especially pleased when I had the good sense to agree with his preferred tree.

We were getting close to the road when Max, who was walking about 10 feet behind me, uttered a sort of half cry, half moan.

I turned around and, seeing the crestfallen look on his face, assumed that only the loss of his compass could provoke such anguish.

My immediate thought was that the snow crust was so firm that at least the compass probably hadn’t plunged out of sight.

When he told me the missing item was a glove I was relieved. And after just a few minutes I glimpsed our Toyota through the pines. Max’s sorrow turned to enthusiasm as he realized that the compass really worked.

A few days later I drove back to the reservoir, followed our backtrail and within 15 minutes I came across the glove, dusted with snow. I took a photo of the glove and texted it to my wife, Lisa, so she could let Max know his gloves would soon be reunited.

The next day a major storm dropped more than a foot of snow — more than enough to have buried the glove, making that reunion all but impossible.

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