TELL 13-YEAR-OLD Francis Hogle of Baltimore to get lost, and he's liable to take you up on it. That's why he's streaking like a bullet through a clearing in Montgomery County's Little Bennett Regional Park. Equipped with map and wrist compass, he's looking for a small rockpile, trying to figure out exactly where in the woods he is. Dry leaves crunching underfoot, Francis charges up an incline and veers to his left, prying branches out of his way.
"There it is!" he shouts triumphantly, rushing to a bright orange-and-white cloth cube dangling from a tree, over a rockpile.
Francis has discovered paradise in the sport of orienteering. A mix of cross-country running, backpacking and road rallying, it offers the challenge of navigating through woods via eight to 12 checkpoints in the shortest amount of time possible.
The beauty of the sport is that it can be demanding, leisurely and adventurous all at the same time. And it offers a chance to get very close to nature. Competitors set off at staggered times; this assures that you'll be alone most of the course, swallowed up in nature's solitude. It's easy to let your mind wander, but the unfamiliarity of your surroundings always serves as a reminder of the search. Finding each checkpoint, or control, can be as exhilarating as finding a treasure trove or as comforting as a lifeline. And while the sport doesn't claim to be survivalist in nature, orienteering can certainly help you feel at home in the woods.
"The great thing about orienteering," says Hilary Cane, who took the sport up in her native Australia, "is that it prepares a kid for life. If he can go into the woods alone and find his way out, he'll never get lost in a city, providing he's got a map."
Francis no longer fears being alone in the woods as he did during his first solo outing -- he finds it exciting. A year ago he took up the sport with his scoutmaster father (who's running an advanced course on this day) to earn an orienteering merit badge. He's continued ever since as a member of the Quantico Orienteering Club. By now, Francis has developed the navigational skills of a pioneer and the surefootedness of a mountain goat. "I like the excercise the most," he says.
En route to the various checkpoints in Little Bennett, Francis runs down dirt paths, leaps creeks, notices animal footprints and scrambles up gullies. At each checkpoint, he punches his card to prove he's been there.
The final two controls are particularly easy for Francis this day, and in no time he's sprinting the last leg. He hands in his card at the finish line (with controls properly punched), then stretches out on the lawn to eat a picnic lunch and wait for his father.
Other club members are likewise relaxed as they hang around the starting , which has the casualness of a golf club's 19th hole. The garb is as diverse as the age and athletic ability of the competitors. Wearing cut-offs and running shoes, a middle-aged member talks about why he competes: "I like relaxing in the woods. I never run," he says, just as a knee- high boy wearing an oversized Dallas Cowboys cap comes sprinting past.
Another orienteerer clad in hiking boots and jeans and bearing a knapsack says she enjoys the orienteering for its similarity to backpacking. Others seem to thrive on the competitive aspects: They stand out in their club suits from Scandinavia, where the sport originated in the 1890s and remains very popular.
"It's a way of life over there," says Dave Linthicum, who teaches orienteering to Boy Scouts. "Swedish kids start off in grammar school, where they become familiar with a map in order to find candy bars hidden around the classroom," he says. "From there they graduate to the schoolyard, park and, finally, woods."
"I wish I started as a kid," says 40-year-old Peter Gagarin from his home in Massachusetts; Gagarin took up the sport in the Washington area at the age of 28; he has since gone on to become five-time national champion and is now the current national team coach. "The sport gives me a chance to be a kid again," he says.
Though Gagarin isn't a household word yet, you'll soon be seeing his bearded, bespectacled face nationwide. Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions, will be putting him on the front of the box.
Young Francis has proved himself something of a champion, too, having won his division in this meet in just under an hour and nineteen minutes. As Francis basks in his victory, a club member yells from across the parking lot: "Your dad's not back yet."
"I know," says Francis, still lounging on the lawn. "I think he got lost."
FINDING YOUR WAY IN THE WOODS
While the recommended minimum age to begin solo orienteering is around nine, families can go out together to introduce younger children to the sport. The distance for novice courses averages around two kilometers.
The following will help you get off on the right foot and path.
QUANTICO ORIENTEERING CLUB -- 6212 Thomas Drive, Springfield, Va. 22150; 703/471-5854 or 256-5451. With more than a hundred members, the Quantico Orienteering Club sponsors area meets primarily in the spring and fall and offers memberships for all ages and abilities. A family membership fee of $10 keeps you up to date on local meets and reduces costs for registration, maps and compass rental. Upcoming meets: Saturday, noon to 2, Wheaton Regional Park; June 9, noon to 2, Fountainhead Park, Virginia. For more information, call 703/471-5854 or 703/256- 5451.
GREAT FALLS PARK -- Visitors Center, Great Falls Park, Virginia (off Old Dominion Drive and Georgetown Pike). The Park Service offers introductory orienteering courses for families and novices; recommended minimum age, nine years. The instruction includes an hour lecture followed by a chance to run through an orienteering course for yourself; equipment is provided and the event is free. Upcoming courses: Sunday at 11; May 27 at 11; June 1 at 10; June 15 at 10. For more information, call 703/759-2915.