KENMORE — It’s a wet Saturday morning at Saint Edward State Park, and the constant fall of rain has so waterlogged the ground that walking across the grass produces a rooster tail.
Yet the unpleasant conditions haven’t deterred the nearly 200 elementary, middle and high school students who have given up a portion of their weekend to gallivant through the woods, trying to locate boxes faster than the rest.
This is the Washington Interscholastic Orienteering League, a league that has individuals and schools matching their wits and running abilities in competitive orienteering. The sport, which is part cross country race and part treasure hunt, is a mystery to most. But it’s one that’s thoroughly enjoyed by those who participate.
“I think it’s really fun,” said Kamiak High School junior Audrey Javadoff, who is among the top girls competitors in the league. “You really do feel a sense of accomplishment. People don’t even know this exists, but you navigate on your phone all the time. This is doing it as an actual sport.”
The WIOL, which is organized by the Cascade Orienteering Club, takes place between November and February. It includes schools from throughout the Puget Sound region, and this season the WIOL is holding events in locations as far north as Langley and as far south as Spanaway. Among the Snohomish County high schools taking part are Kamiak, Everett, Arlington and a combined Marysville team.
So what exactly is orienteering? It’s using a map and a compass to navigate through difficult terrain, achieving multiple checkpoints in a specific order. The individual who’s able to complete the course the fastest is the winner.
“It’s land navigation,” Senior Chief Petty Officer Carl Arbogast, who coaches Everett’s team through the Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps, explained. “The maps themselves are going to show you not just where things are, but when you look at the maps they’ll also identify what the topography is like — whether there’s an increase or decrease in elevation, points of interest or other landmarks, whether it’s a heavily wooded area or a flat grassy area. All that information is identified, and therein lies part of the skill. They have to find a way to get from here to there efficiently, and that may mean not taking the most direct route by going up that cliff or through that lake.”
The competitors bring their own compasses, and they’re given a device for their finger so they can register reaching each checkpoint. They aren’t allowed to see the map until they begin the course, so the main skill is being able to orient oneself and interpret the map.
And since time is a factor, the ability to cover long distances quickly — the varsity course at St. Edward Park was 3.4 kilometers as the crow flies, which means the competitors were more likely to run about 5 kilometers — is also important.
“It’s definitely not for the feint of heart, that’s for sure,” Everett team commander Cody Tyler said. “As you can see it’s raining, you’re out in the woods, it’s muddy and there’s rotten logs. You have to be fit, you have to know what you’re doing because you could easily get lost out there. You just have to be all-around athletic, and you have to know how to work your way around a map.”
Javadoff is one of the best. After three events she leads the standings in the Varsity Girls division. That makes sense for someone who has been competing in the sport for seven years, has placed at national events, and is a member of her high school cross country team.
“Every minute you’re making a decision, basically,” said Javadoff, who finished fourth in her division at St. Edward State Park, the league’s third event of the season. “Every little time you look at the map there’s so many different trails that you just have to look and make quick decisions, calculate how far that trail or route is going to take you, or how much less time it will take versus another route. I think every single trail is a decision to make.
“I get it right maybe 80 percent of the time,” Javadoff added. “I think by now I’m pretty good at it. Sometimes the routes look pretty similar, so I just go for it. You don’t have the time. Once you start just sitting there trying to make a decision you’re wasting time. Sometimes you just have to go for it.”
Javadoff is the de facto leader of Kamiak’s team, which isn’t run through the school. Fellow Knight Zane Robertson is the top local competitor in the Varsity Boys division, ranking 12th. Because Javadoff and Robertson are the only regular competitors from Kamiak who take part, the Knights aren’t a factor in the team competitions.
Everett, which competes in the Jr. Varsity Boys North division, is currently in third place in the team standings. Tyler Sweeney is top among Everett’s individuals, ranking sixth, while Minhyok Kim won the season’s first event on Nov. 4 at Magnuson Park in Seattle.
Arlington is fourth in the Jr. Varsity Girls team standings, led by Hallie Williams who is in 10th in the individual rankings. Marysville is sixth in the Junior Varsity Boys North team standings, led by Brendan Bullock in seventh, and seventh in the Junior Varsity Girls team standings, paced by Emma Burkett in 12th.
“It’s a good, wholesome outdoor activity, but it’s also a worthwhile skill, and it’s fun,” Arbogast said. “The kids who take part in this, they come out on their own Saturdays and run around in the woods for an hour or hour-and-a-half with a compass and map. They come back soaking wet, exhausted, red cheeks, covered with mud, sometimes bleeding a little, but grinning from ear to ear because it’s fun for them.”
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