Plight of the Young Navigators

Eighth-graders learn orienteering firsthand at Rock Bridge park.
Sunday, October 17, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

Get lost.

  Those were the test instructions science teachers at Oakland Junior High School gave eighth-grade students on a sunny Friday morning.

More than 120 Oakland eighth-graders took their final exam on orienteering — a form of land navigation — at Rock Bridge State Park.

The students were given two and a half hours to find six wooden markers located between the park’s log cabin and Devil’s Icebox Cave.

Their tools? A laminated map, a compass and their 13- and 14-year-old wits.

The half-day exercise is the culmination of a quarter semester of teaching on orienteering, said Harry Webb, an Oakland science teacher for three years.

The orienteering unit teaches students to read a topographic map and legend, handle a compass and determine directions, Webb said.

For their final test, groups of two to three students were required to locate varied sets of white poles with red stripes within the woods. Students were given 12 points for every marker they discovered.

In theory, Webb said, students should hike approximately three miles between their starting point and final destination.

But for many teens, the test was no walk in the park.

The adventure begins

8:30 a.m.: Brian Baxter and Kevin Chase, both 13, brace themselves in the icy air and plot a labyrinthine path among their assigned six markers. Using a compass, the duo determines they must head 216 degrees southeast to find the first pole. “If we get lost, I’m blaming the compass,” Brian said.

9:12 a.m.: After spiraling down a dizzying cluster of well-worn foot trails, the team decides to hike back to the log cabin and start over. “I think we’re lost already,” Kevin said.

9:28 a.m.: Brian points his hand south. Forget the trail — they blaze their own path down a hill clotted with brush, mossy stones and crackled leaves. At the foot of the slope, they realize they have trekked a giant circle.

9:42 a.m.: Brian spies a striped pole and claps his hands. The pair hustles toward their Land of Oz icon and record its letter code for their teacher. “Even though we may fail this (test), we’re going to learn something,” Brian said.

With little more than an hour to locate their final markers, Kevin and Brian endured a series of lessons. They chose to omit a marker from their checklist; the task was too much to accomplish on this journey. They paused to help someone find her way back to the log cabin; kindness seemed worth the delay. They refused to panic over the clock. “Frustration gets you nowhere,” Brian said.

Problem-solving and cooperation are lifelong skills students learn through orienteering, Webb said.

“If you’re given a smaller activity like orienteering and asked to find markers in the woods by interpreting symbols on a map, then maybe you’ll be able to solve larger problems, like managing a small business or discovering the cure for a disease,” he said.

Since 1982, every eighth-grader in the school district has participated in the orienteering activity at Rock Bridge State Park. Oakland sent a group of 120 students to the park last Wednesday, and a similar-sized set will orienteer tomorrow.

Penny Parsons accompanied her 14-year-old son, Kris Hufford, and two other boys on their orienteering course. She said straying off trails to hunt markers was an educational experience for her and the students.

“I couldn’t read the map the way they did,” she said at the end of the course. “I entrusted my life to three teenage boys’ hands, and they got me out of here!”

By 11 a.m., Brian and Kevin arrived at the Devil’s Icebox parking lot, having located five of their six markers.

“Even if we do get a C, it’s better than being at school,” Kevin said.

“Well,” Brian said, “I still blame the compass.”

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