Ski race at Dewey Mountain involves navigating with map, compass
By Tim Rowland
Thirty seconds before the starting horn bellowed, a group of 80 hardy souls at Dewey Recreational Center in Saranac Lake this past weekend were handed a topographical map of the cross-country ski trails, along with the location of a handful of checkpoints they would need to tag before returning to the starting point twice more for new sets of instructions.
Brushing aside sub-zero temperatures as if it were lint on a lapel, the job was to instantly process the undulations of the mountain and plot a course that would take them to each checkpoint with the least amount of effort (relatively speaking).
The sport of locating these two-dozen checkpoints with the aid of map and compass is known as orienteering, but “It’s a lot more complicated in winter,” said David Hunter, who with his wife Janet and other volunteers organized the three-day event, that included short, mid-range and long courses.
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What is orienteering?
Orienteering, or finding your way around in unfamiliar terrain in any season, is one of those military-turned-sport pursuits like biathlon or dressage. Popular in Europe and Canada, the sport is what one skier described as “a niche within a niche” in the States, where national races such as this one are in some years nonexistent. But those who have tried it say it’s a blast.
Chris Burnham of Stowe, Vt., said some friends got him to enter a competition that turned out to be a baptism by fire. “In 2018 I went to the world championships and got completely rocked, and then I got hooked because it was so much fun,” he said.
Reading the map and skiing hard involve a mental component and a physical component, and the trick is not to let one overshadow the other. “Thinking while racing is a balancing act the whole time,” said Burnham, a software developer for underwater robots. “If you go charging off in the wrong direction, you can waste a lot of energy and lose a lot of time.”
Hunter said the course is precisely laid out with the help of state electronic mapping and GPS. It’s so precise that organizers have to double check the route to make sure groomers haven’t made any miniscule changes in the trails. All skiers have a small node on their fingers that they wave at each checkpoint to record their presence. At the race’s end, their analytics are downloaded into a computer program.
There are several ski-orienteering (Ski-O) clubs in the Northeast, including the Empire Orienteering Club out of Albany, and the weekend’s events attracted participants from Canada and up and down the East Coast, along with at least one European entrant.
They were seeing the mountain for the first time, said Sandy Fillebrown, a volunteer from Philadelphia. Those with local knowledge of a course can participate, but are not part of the competition.
Skiers “will have looked at the trail map (of Dewey), so they understand where the ground goes up and goes down,” she said. But the location of the checkpoints, or controls — and the most efficient way to tag them all — have to be processed on the fly.
Ari Ofsevit is a transportation planner in Cambridge, Mass, whose prowess took him to the championships in Norway where the sport is hard-core. The goal, he said, is to compose a route in your head that will pass by each control without backtracking. “It’s always best not to turn around,” he said.
And what looks simple on a two-dimensional map can become complicated and disorientating in the actual terrain, especially under the stress of heavy exertion and bitterly cold temperatures. “You start out with a strategy, but it can be hard to keep everything straight,” Ofsevit said.
A mid-length course will take the best skiers about 45 minutes to complete, while the long course — held at Paul Smith’s VIC — covers about 20 kilometers (12 miles) in two to three hours.
To keep everyone from arriving at the same control at the same time, skiers of similar abilities are given different maps to start, and the fastest skiers are at the front of the mass-start. Most skiers wear their map on a rigid shelf perpendicular with their chest, so they can read it, and their compases, while skiing.
Both direction and elevation matter, Hunter said. The shortest distance from one control to the other might not be the optimal route if it gains more elevation than the longer route.
A loyal following
While the sport may be intense and tactical, it also attracts a close-knit group of followers. When the heat failed in the hotel in which he was staying, Ofsevit said he received numerous offers of warm quarters.
Mary-Ellen Connolly of Chelsea, Quebec, said the conditions at Dewey, the organization and the camaraderie were all excellent.
“It’s a good group of people, open to all ages and all abilities — no judging.”– Mary-Ellen Connolly
Off the course, at least. On the course, “you don’t say hi or make eye contact because you can lose focus,” she said. Losing concentration can find a competitor in the middle of the woods with no firm idea of their locale. When that happens, a time-consuming process of backtracking is necessary to re-establish contact with a familiar point on the map.
For more information about Ski-O, upcoming events or to learn how to join the fun, visit the Empire Orienteering Club website at empoclub.org.