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Getting Lost on Purpose - FernLeaf's annual orienteering race in partnership with WNC Orienteering Club

FernLeaf offers many annual whole school events which often showcase some of our signature programming or FernLeaf Fundamentals. Our annual orienteering race is one of these events and a way to build community, invite the public to enjoy our beautiful space as well as give students and families a fun and adventurous way to be together.

On the last Saturday in March, without a cloud in the high sky, over 150 people queued at the top of the Wilderness Campus to check in for the third annual FernLeaf Orienteering Race. The line was a melting pot of groups of students, families racing together and individuals from around the area and from neighboring states. Some were there to support the school, some to try something new and some to race hard and challenge themselves in the woods. 

Orienteering is a land navigation race using a map to find control points in the environment, said Chris Gkikas, owner of Northline Navigation and the mastermind behind the event. 

"Orienteering is a lot like soccer," he said. "In parts of the world, events draw 300 to 400 participants three or four days per week. It's just not as popular here." 

The event at FernLeaf highlighted what a loss that is for the American public.

"One of my favorite things about orienteering is how full of metaphor it is," Chris said. “It comes down to, ‘Where are we?’ ‘Where are we going,’ and ‘How do we get there?’ There are so many parallels between land navigation and life in general.”

At FernLeaf, as participants huddled over their maps outside the registration tent trying to make sense of the colors, topographic contours and mysterious, almost hieroglyphic symbols, it was clear that orienteering also aligns neatly with the school's ethos of community, adventure, challenge, outdoor experiences and playful curiosity. 

"Orienteering is known as The Thinking Sport," Chris said. "It's a puzzle that taxes every part of a person. It tasks them with setting a goal, making a plan, executing that plan and most importantly, adjusting and recovering from errors along the way. Getting through an orienteering course is a lot like getting through life.”


Chris created the Wilderness Campus map by combining satellite data and aerial imagery with old fashioned boots-on-the-ground exploration. The result, something Chris has made for clients across the state and around the world, is a detailed picture of the school's 90+ acres, its trails, boulders, ravines, buildings and cliffs; a resource the school now uses with students in classes and afterschool programs. 

At the race, participants took the map of their chosen course (there were five to choose from, each progressively longer in distance and demand), a “finger stick”  (a timing device used to check-in at the ordered controls points listed on the map) and a deep breath before dropping into the trail system on the south side of campus. The goal was to connect the dots. The route was entirely up to the racers.

For orienteering rookies, even those with experience hiking, running or biking on trails in the area, the ambiguity, flexibility and possibility of an orienteering event can be, well, disorienting. Controls might be on the trail, but they might not. The boulders shown on the map might be these to the east, but maybe it's the cluster up ahead. The fastest way to the next control may be down that ravine and then back up the slope on the other side, or it might be to follow the long way around. 

For orienteering veterans, however, the ambiguity, the disorientation, is part of the fun. 

Val Hardin started competing in orienteering and adventure races after retiring from her career in software sales. She is a regular at Chris’ WNC Orienteering Club events, and is part of a group of seasoned racers who show up rain or shine.

At the FernLeaf event, Val decided the best way to the first checkpoint on her map was not the direct path but one that bypassed some of the steep topography at the top of the mountain by cutting across the lower section. Instead of saving time, however, she missed the control point and ended up wandering in circles for 40 minutes. 

"I just went too far," she said with a laugh. "My mind tried to make the features around me fit the map." While she admits to some progressive frustration building during the delay, she also admits those challenges are at the heart of what brings her back again and again. And, her dogged refusal to quit something that she's started is what got her across the finish line at FernLeaf, hours after starting.

"I'm 63 years old," she said. "I hope to be doing orienteering events into my 80s. Instead of completing crossword puzzles, I read maps and I love being out in the woods." 

The race was the first exposure Val had to FernLeaf. "I loved seeing all the kids and families out there," she said. "I would have loved to do something like this when I was a kid."

Meghan Woods, and her friend Jennifer Rauland, made a commitment to ensure their kids had that opportunity. 

The two parents of FernLeaf students competed in both of the previous races at the Creek Campus and brought their experience up the mountain. Racing alongside her kindergartener and Jennifer's second grader, the foursome wound their way through the woods reading the map and finding a way.

"My kids are all at the Creek Campus," Meghan said. "It was so much fun to come up and explore this whole new world."

She acknowledged that orienteering is a rich opportunity for participants - kids and adults alike - to embrace challenges and discomfort and learn that they can be overcome. 

"We missed a control near the end," she said. "The kids were tired and thirsty and we had to spend an extra 15 minutes looking for the control. They were uncomfortable but they did it." 

Scarlett, an upper-school student at FernLeaf, competed in the race with a team of three of her friends. She was also drawn to the event after last year's race at the Creek Campus. The map there included obstacles, a maze and an assortment of sporting challenges to make up for the flat terrain and open scope of the site. 

"It was fun, but not that challenging," she said. "I wanted to try again on the mountain to see what orienteering was really like." She learned, quickly, that orienteering was very physical and an exercise in problem solving, teamwork and fortitude. 

Bent on beating another team made up of classmates, Scarlett's team embraced the flexible nature of the sport and took an approach to the map that relied on the resilient nature of teenage bodies to attack topography directly rather than strategically. 

"There were several moments where I was ready to quit," she said, "but I was also having fun."

A regular hiker and mountain biker, she said that the race was nothing like a typical hike where she stays within the lines of a defined trail, putting one foot in front of the other. In fact, she said, she was hardly on a trail at all. 

That off-trail creativity is important for kids and adults alike, said Philip Trummer, a parent of two FernLeaf students and an experienced veteran of Chris's orienteering events in the area.

"To be able to read a map, to navigate a landscape, to know where you are without a device is a skill that everyone needs," he said. It's a necessity born out of practical considerations, he believes, but also philosophical ones.

"A lot of kids, a lot of adults for that matter, can't begin to point east or north when asked," he said. "They're dependent on their screens to tell them where they are and where they are going. Orienteering requires us to be fully in the place." 

It's also, regardless of the topography, flat out fun.

Encountering Philip in the woods during a race, with his map and thumb compass (a "very useful tool" he and other experienced racers use to keep their maps and their steps pointed the right direction), is both startling and inspiring. He likely has superficial scrapes from brambles, he will likely be talking to himself, ("collecting features" Chris called it, comparing what he sees with what the map is telling him) and, without a doubt, he will be wearing a grin from ear to ear.

"It's total anarchy out there," he said. "It's so much fun. I love to be off trail, exploring, searching."

Knowing that FernLeaf is connected with Chris and his map making skills and orienteering at large is a point of great pride and excitement for Philip, not only for his own kids' growth and development, but for the entire school community. 

He, and many other racers - rookies, seasoned veterans, students, grandparents, neighbors and families - can't wait to come back to campus next year to see how they can get lost and find their way back again. 

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