Family time: Over the river and through the woods...

Meg Parson, with her orienteering map in Estabrook Woods in Concord. Meg Parson, with her orienteering map in Estabrook Woods in Concord. (Bill Polo/Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Nancy Shohet West
Globe Correspondent / December 2, 2007

Like a lot of youngsters her age, 13-year-old Meg Parson feels a little lost sometimes. But she knows just how to handle it.

When Meg is lost, she whips out a compass, consults a topographical map, and makes a rough estimate of the dimensions of the nearest boulder.

That's usually enough to put her right back on track.

Meg, an eighth-grader in Carlisle, has been competing in orienteering events since she was 8. Last month, at the US Orienteering Championships in Triangle, Va., she was named top female orienteer in her age group nationwide.

"Orienteering is a combination of racing through the woods and finding your way to marked points, called controls, by reading compasses and maps," Meg explained.

"It's kind of like a scavenger hunt. You do it by yourself, but sometimes you run into other people or hear them crashing around in the woods. Sometimes you go to where you see people because you think they've found a control you are searching for, but that can throw you off, because they might be looking in the wrong place, or they might be competing on a different course. It's kind of tricky that way."

The sport, which originated in Scandinavia, is growing in popularity nationwide.

The United States Orienteering Federation has 6,870 members, said spokesman Jerry Rhodes. However, since many nonmembers compete in its events, the organization considers a more significant number to be what it calls "starts," the cumulative number of people lined up at the start of a meet over the course of a year.

By this standard, in 2006 there were 45,842 starts, and for 2007 that number is already more than 46,000.

Success in the sport, said Meg, requires a combination of physical stamina and wits.

"You have to be fast, but if you make mistakes, you waste time and that cancels out your speed. We were at a meet in Ontario last year when I totally messed up and I got so mad at myself. Because I was frustrated, I started running really fast and then just made more mistakes. You can't get discouraged. You have to keep going and not give up."

Adding to the mental component of the sport is the fact that competitors can take various approaches to the same challenge. Some opt for the straightest route from one control to the next, even if it requires them to forge through swamps and thickets; others prefer to circumnavigate the tougher terrain but move faster on the trails to make up for it.

"After a meet, everyone gets together and talks about how they did the course and you learn that each person approached it differently," Meg said. "I find that part really interesting. You learn a lot from other people."

For the Parsons, orienteering is a family affair.

Tim, Meg's father, discovered the sport shortly after he and Elizabeth married. "I have always loved maps, and I like running," Tim Parson said. "When I was in my late 20s, a friend told me that there was this sport that combines the two. I looked up the New England Orienteering Club and made my way to a local meet."

The arrival of two children within three years curtailed Parson's orienteering activities, but only until Meg and her brother, Ben, now a freshman in high school, could walk through the woods along with him.

As members of the New England Orienteering Club, they began attending meets as a family when the children were still tiny. While the father competed on one of the advanced courses, Meg and Ben could try out the "string courses" designed for small children.

"Elizabeth and I like running, skiing, and sailing. We've always tended toward solitary sports and endurance sports," said Parson. "Our kids never really took to soccer or other traditional team sports, but they've always been good at orienteering. I think the only downside to being so good at a very obscure sport is that the kids don't get much recognition from their classmates."

Courses are ranked by color. Meg competes primarily on the yellow courses but is gradually phasing into the more advanced orange ones.

The gradations in skill level are determined by how strenuous the course is and how much interpretation of the terrain is required. For the yellow courses, competitors stay mostly on a marked trail and divert only to find controls; at the more advanced levels, they are more likely to be bushwhacking through the woods or across marshy wetlands.

In recent years, the Parson family has traveled to Canada, California, Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, New Jersey, and New York for orienteering events.

Locally, they take part in races sponsored by the New England Orienteering Club, which according to club president Caroline Fleming was New England's first orienteering association. Now similar organizations have sprung up in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maine.

Competitions are most often conducted on foot, though there are also events at which orienteers race on cross-country skis, bikes, or canoes.

At age 15, Ben Parson is ranked fourth nationally in his age group.

"One of the hardest parts about reading an orienteering map is figuring out what you do need to pay attention to and what you don't," Ben said.

"Around here, there are a lot of rocks near every trail. If you spend too much time locating the different rocks on your map, you just get confused. Being able to think quickly is one important skill for orienteering, and another one is not taking too long to make decisions. When you're looking at your map, you have to make decisions about how to navigate different areas. You can't spend too much time thinking it over; you have to just decide to do something and go do it."

Because of their interest in the sport, the Parsons travel "to places we wouldn't ordinarily go, and we have a lot of fun together," said Tim Parson.

"This is a great sport for kids and adults alike, combining physical and mental challenges, all while being out in the woods. I see it as a wonderful antidote to having a desk job.

"When you're out running through the woods, jumping off cliffs, and wading through swamps, you get to feel like a kid again for a while."

Nancy Shohet West can be reached at

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