Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Bearing Down

Did you know that there’s a right way and a wrong way to use a compass?

And that I’ve been using it the wrong way for the past three years?

Um, yeah.

Yesterday morning, Laurie, Bill, Brent, and I piled into the car to head down to Ridley Creek State Park for the penultimate (I love that word) orienteering meet of the season.

Laurie and I settled on the intermediate course, and the boys set off on two different versions of the advanced.

When it was my turn to begin, I checked my trusty compass to figure out which way was north, turned my map accordingly, and took off down a trail toward checkpoint #1.

I ran to the first intersection, and then the second, my eyes carefully trained on the map.

Suddenly, I heard someone thundering down the trail behind me.  I looked back and there was Brent, in fast pursuit of the first flag.

Without thinking, I followed him for 100 meters or more, but where he went straight, I decided to turn right – only to realize that in my excitement, I’d lost complete track of my place on the map.

This was not the first time that had happened to me.  In my limited experience with orienteering, I would hazard to say that roughly 75% of my races have gotten derailed because I’ve paid more attention to another person than to my own map and route choice.

Slowly, I pieced together a general sense of where I was and then proceeded to wander aimlessly through the woods until I saw a woman emerge from a small depression not five feet away from me.


I punched the CP and continued on my way.

The next flag was several hundred meters away, and there was no obvious route that jumped out at me.

So, it was back to the compass.

I looked down, found north, rotated my map, and picked my way through the thorns, jumped across the stream, and ran up the road on the other side.

I was looking for a trail that shot off from a parking lot on the left side of the road.  I found the parking lot with ease, but the trail was less distinct.  No problem, I thought.  I’ll just return to my tried-and-true compass skills.  I figured out which way was north, made sure it lined up with the north arrow on the map, and went.

Except I didn’t get very far.

In fact, I spent the next 30 minutes wandering around in circles, unable to figure out exactly where I was, let alone how to pinpoint the flag.

Ultimately, I found my way out to a road, asked a fellow racer to point to my location on my map, and utterly demoralized, moped back to the start line.

I’d been out for nearly an hour and had collected exactly one checkpoint.  At that rate, I figured, I’d be out on the course for three hours or more, and I didn’t want to make my friends wait all that time.

By the time I made it back to the start, I was ready to abandon all navigational pursuits.  Some people are visual, and some are not, I told myself.  It’s all genetic.  I have no control over the fact that every other orienteering race I attempt ends in failure.  I have other good qualities, I reasoned.  We can’t all be Santa Claus.

And with that, I went to the car to sulk.

Bill arrived a short time later, and Brent not long after that.

We all looked at the maps to try to figure out what I’d done wrong.

“So, what did you do here?” Brent asked, pointing to the ill-fated parking lot.

“I tried to bushwhack up to this trail,” I said, pointing to a dark line less than an inch from the road.  “But I must have ended up on a different one, and then I got all turned around.”

“Well, did you take a bearing?” he continued.

“No,” I responded, confidently.  “I don’t do that.  I have another way of reading the maps.”

“Another way?”

“Yeah.  I just figure out which way is north, turn the map that way, and then go toward the next landmark.”

Brent and Bill looked at each other and promptly dissolved into laughter.

“And that’s what you’ve been doing at every o-meet?”

I nodded.

“Wow… that explains so much…”

Brent spent the next several minutes reminding (um, showing) me how to take a compass bearing.  This involves lining up the blue grid on the map with the lines on your compass, turning various dials, coordinating an arrow or two, and doing a little jig before setting off in the direction of your goal.

“So you do all that every time you use your compass?” I asked incredulously, turning to Bill.

“Every time.”


“And you, too?” I prompted Brent.


I remained unconvinced as the conversation moved on to other things.

Laurie returned half an hour later, having successfully fought her way through a tough intermediate course.

As we threw our gear in the car and got ready to head back to Philly, I turned to her.

“So, when you use a compass during a race, do you take a bearing and everything?

“Of course,” she said automatically.

“Of course…” I thought.

Taking a compass bearing from Dan Goodwin on Vimeo.


17 responses to “Bearing Down

  1. Laurie December 5, 2011 at 9:11 pm

    This is my favorite blog post of all time! And just think… I’ve been doing it right and am still terrible at nag. At least you have an excuse! Redemption this weekend!

  2. Laurie December 5, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Or, nav. Bill says I am in fact quite good at nag.

  3. Kate December 5, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    I’m excited that this all actually made sense to me. 🙂 Despite having read this technique in my map and compass book AND having been taught it in a workshop, it took until our last orienteering meet for it to actually click.

    Too bad this was your last meet…it would’ve been good to put your new skills into play!

    • cinephilism December 5, 2011 at 9:25 pm

      There’s one more meet! Next weekend we’re caravaning down to Delaware to finish out the year with a bang. I have a high hopes for my date with the orange course 🙂

  4. Anonymous December 5, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    I hate to have to throw Brent under the bus, but I am going to blame him for this one. You’re married and have been racing together for years now. He never before noticed that you did it wrong, or tried to figure out why you were always getting lost? Anyway, very funny. Now let see if you do any better with this new found knowledge.

  5. Gina @ Running to the Kitchen December 5, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    I’ll admit, this post is mostly over my head as I have no idea how to use a compass at all but it had me laughing hysterically regardless. Just think how awesome you’re going to be next time! Haha 🙂

  6. kari @ Running Ricig December 6, 2011 at 8:24 am

    First of all, I love the word penultimate too!

    Secondly, that is hilarious and sounds EXACTLY like something I would do. OR I’d be like “I have a great sense of direction, who needs a compass??”

  7. RunToTheFinish December 6, 2011 at 9:17 am

    ahh that is too funny…largely because I think to me what you were doing sounded completely logical! i’d have been lost in the woods for days

  8. mallory December 6, 2011 at 10:17 am

    I blame Brent as well. Ha! At least you figured this out!

  9. Kristy December 6, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    i find this hysterical even though i only have a vague idea of what you are trying to do! who needs a compass anyway?!?!?

  10. Julie (A Case of the Runs) December 6, 2011 at 12:17 pm

    I love the word “penultimate” as well! And all the compass method is news to me!

  11. misszippy1 December 6, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    I guess look at the positive–you have no where to go but up on this issue from here, right? And you learned something pretty valuable. So I think it’s a win!

  12. Sarah S @RunningOnWords December 6, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    Wait, what? I would have done exactly what you did. I am, however, directionally challenged, so you should never ever follow me anywhere. This post was hilarious!

  13. Kara December 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Haha, yeah it’s totally your husband’s fault. Wasn’t “Thou shalt guide your wife through the woods and teach her how to use a compass” in YOUR wedding vows??

  14. Jill December 8, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Hahah! I have a minor in cartography and I remember the first time I “thought” I knew how to use a compass in class – it was just like you :).

  15. Pingback: Breaking Even « Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

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