By J.F. Pirro

Though it’s not her intent, Allentown’s Jennifer Graffman could scare you off with her story about the time she ran into three bears, a mamma and two cubs, in a ravine at Delaware Water Gap in November 2003.

“I stood very still,” she remembers. “She was growling and hollering, and then she figured out it was okay, that I wasn’t going to do anything. It took me a little off course (to finish), but I was off course anyway.”

A fellow Delaware Valley Orienteering Association (DVOA) member was up on a hill above the scene, saying, “Shoo, bear.” “But that didn’t help at all,” recalls Graffman.

Orienteering is an adventure sport, a timed run through the woods, that only competitors have never run before. They’re guided only by a map and a compass. Swedish in origin, the sport migrated to Philadelphia in the late 1960s. DVOA is the country’s oldest and largest orienteering association.

On one of seven differently colored and challenging courses, orienteers rely on symbols and related terminology on custom-designed maps for survival and success. For example, what looks like an upward-turned mouth (or a “U”) indicates a small depression or a hole where a tree once stood. The symbols are also printed on a smaller clue sheet.

Orienteering’s color system is like karate’s. There are white, yellow, orange, brown, green, red and blue courses. White and yellow courses are for beginners. Orange is for intermediate and brown through blue are for advanced. A 5.5-kilometer course is an average run, and at a clip of 10 minutes per kilometer, a participant can finish in just under an hour. There’s a three-hour time limit before organizers start worrying if you’re lost in the woods.

DVOA, whose territory includes the Lehigh Valley, runs 35 full events a year and another 10 white- and yellow-only courses for newcomers. Competitors leave the start anytime between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., then race against the clock, using an SI (SPORTident) card whose computer chip records each stop at a control, or checkpoint. At the finish, competitors download cards and get a printout with a finishing time and splits for each leg of the course.

In the Valley, there’s a map for South Mountain Park, owned by Lehigh University but rented to the City of Bethlehem, and at Bethlehem’s Illicks Mill , a great introductory course. The next closest are maps at Lake Nockamixon State Park in Quakertown and at Green Lane Park in the Upper Perkiomen area. The plan is to reopen an old course at Hickory Run State Park in Jim Thorpe.

Dave Evans, a teacher in the Northwestern Lehigh School District, has mapped a course on district grounds. For the last 10 years, he’s trained some 200 sixth graders a year in map reading and orienteering. First, students work indoors to learn the basics. Then, they run the district’s course before finishing with a field trip to Nockamixon’s course. “Our hope is to expand this to other schools in the Lehigh Valley,” Evans says.

Jennifer Graffman and her mother Karen, both DVOA members, have been orienteering instructors at the Lehigh County JAKES and Youth Field Day at the Ontelaunee Rod and Gun Club in New Tripoli for what will be seven years. They are the only female instructors at the sportsmen’s event, which draws 200 participants. The first year they taught orienteering, they received a standing ovation. Eight activities, like canoeing, trapping, turkey calling, first aid, and archery, are prerequisites to four advanced outdoor skills: orienteering, mussel loading, tree stand and blood trailing and survival. “At JAKES, (orienteering) is one of their favorites,” Karen says. “They love it.”

DVOA’s Ed Scott runs the Mid-Atlantic Scout Orienteering Championships. They draw 500 to 1,200 scouts. Troop 131 in Wescosville has often done well.

At South Mountain Park, Bethlehem’s Steve Aronson, who met his girlfriend Sharon Siegler in DVOA, has designed the courses on what is now a two-year-old map. No course is ever the same, color to color or year to year. “In golf, there’s only so many places you can move the hole,” says Siegler, who serves as meet director. “But can put a control anywhere.”

At last count, 75 participants will run and return— about what’s expected, considering the club’s most elite members are competing in New York at Harriman State Park.

Aronson says the club’s strength is its weakness. DVOA covers as far north as Delaware Water Gap and as far south as the Chesapeake Bay. An average weekend meet is a three-hour drive. “It’s a whole-day thing, but I’m glad it’s up here (in the Valley),” Karen Graffman says.

She’s taking along her husband Sam on what amounts to an advanced walking course. Karen says they’re not diehards, though she once was. They both say the sport is as hard as you want it to be. “To me, orienteering is hiking with a purpose,” Sam says. “I’ve stopped and watched wildlife.”

Their older daughter Katey first took up the sport in Girl Scouts, where Karen remains a service unit manager for the West-Central Allentown area. Two years in, Katey, then 14, traveled to Sweden as a member of the U.S. Junior Worlds team. Jennifer, who is 2 1/2 years younger, was initially “like a mascot,” her mother jests.

Karen was a gymnast for 13 years, and is now a physical therapist, so she’s kept in shape. Along with gymnastics, she played tennis in college, then on a coed softball team at work. But orienteering became her most beneficial physical activity. These days, it’s her eyes that limit her the most. “Since the bifocals, I can’t see the maps,” she confesses.

In her prime, she competed on brown, or shorter national-level events, for four years. She currently enjoys teaching others, as does Jennifer, a Girl Scouts co-leader who can now beat her mom on the same course. She prefers intermediate events since work keeps her from orienteering every weekend. “Blue and red courses are insane,” says Jennifer, who works at JC Pennys, where she’s been eyeing a pair of Adidas trailblazers.

“You crash through stuff with no regard, then you huddle around a map and compare your wounds.”

Siegler spent her 53rd birthday on her first orienteering course. At the end, a young scout absconded with the finish line flag, causing extra confusion. “But I still kept on orienteering,” she says. “A lot think it’s something you have to be good at, but you don’t. You might just want to get outside, get some exercise and enjoy some nice terrain.”

Aronson says orienteering is a simple sport to learn, but it takes a lifetime to master. “The smiles and giggles are what I like,” he says as a trio of pre-teen girls finish the local course, which is distinguished by its steep slopes, rocky soils and soaring trees.

As the organizer, he can’t compete. He’s designed the day’s courses. When Aronson does run, he knows what other club names to look for on the result charts. “For the guys who are way ahead, there’s no sense in looking at their times,” he says. “They train for this. I don’t.”

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