Deep in the forest primeval, I pace- counted my way through gullies, crags, ridges, valleys, depressions, small knolls, vegetation boundaries, stream-trail junctions, open areas and semi-open areas. Every third step I stumbled on the slippery slope of dead leaves, which afforded me yet another look at my contour map and compass.
I could not find the white-and-orange flag (a tiny numbered circle on my map). I wasn't lost, however.
"Orienteers never get lost," Sheldon Schwartz had said. "Orienteers just get mis- oriented."
The other day at Prince William Forest Park, Schwartz led several novices through the orienteering short course. "You can all tell, probably, that I'm active-duty army," he said in the park's nature center before taking us outside. "This is a great sport: a combination of map-reading and navigation. It was started in the 1880s by a major in the Swedish army."
Besides me and a friend, half a dozen students were clinging to every word: two Boy Scouts after a merit badge; a craggy chap with a grin; and an earnest-looking couple who wanted to know if they could follow Sp. 4 Schwartz into the wild and still return in time for the backpacking movie. The ranger on duty was doubtful.
"This pace-counting part is important," Schwartz said. "For your average man, there are 115 natural steps to every 100 meters. That's daytime over a flat terrain. Nighttime your steps are shorter, and you tend to walk around in large circles. For your average woman, I'd say it's anywhere from 125 to 130 steps. For me, I know it takes about 126 of my own little steps to make 100 meters.
"If you really get interested in this," he added, "one thing you can do is go to any football field and practice. Do the length plus one endzone very carefully about seven or eight times, and you'll get a pretty good idea of your count."
I had a tough time seeing myself trudging up and down a football field while counting out loud. But it was a bright, brisk day in Virginia, and I was happy to try some stepping in the woods.
Armed with government-issue compass and plastic-covered map -- drawn to exacting scale, Schwartz said, by a team of visiting Swedes -- we set out into the neighborhood of Turkey Run Ridge. Our route described a pancake in a spider's web of contour lines, with five numbered points showing stakes in the ground. These, Schwartz said, sported the orange-and- white symbol of the International Orienteering Federation.
We worked in pairs; I let my partner do the work. Stakes 1 and 2 were at the side of a road -- a solid black line on the map -- and we found them with no trouble. Stake 3, however, was between the trees, and we actually needed the tools of the trade to get there.
My partner took a bearing of 204 degrees, guessed it was 160 meters away, and, getting a fix on a faraway tree trunk, off we strode. "One. . .two. . .three. . ." I muttered. We held out our maps and compasses, the better to cushion oncoming branches. "We're lucky there's no leaves on the trees," Schwartz had said. "It's a whole different world with leaves."
The leaves lay in beds on the ground, sliding under my smooth-worn Oxfords. New grass peaked out from the leaves; also the occasional mat of lichen and blooming flowers. Wind whooshing through the forest felt good. No matter that we were going the wrong way.
I decided to stay the course, while my partner pressed on for a time in her very own direction. At long last -- and relying more on ears than compass -- we arrived, with the earnest-looking couple already well along to other stakes. Smiling like a man striving not to be disappointed, Schwartz looked up at us. "Your compass work okay?"
Smiling back, I blushed to think that competent orienteers run, don't walk, from point to point; I may also have mused over the words of one Henry St. John, the erstwhile Viscount Bolingbroke: "Truth lies within a little and certain compass, but error is immense." I might have, but I didn't. PACE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE The next orienteering session at Prince William Forest Park's nature center will be on Sunday, March 27, at 1. The park is about 17 miles south of the Beltway off I-395. In the meantime, you can find out more about the sport from the Quantico Orienteering Club, which is holding a meet at the Quantico Marine Base this Sunday at noon. Call Sidney Sachs at 703/971-2092.