Orienteering and Doing It Somewhere You Might Not Expect

Last week on June 14 my husband and I participated in an orienteering event. I’m going to tell you all about it. But first, I’ll talk a little about the sport of orienteering.

Basically, orienteering is following a course from point to point using a map and a compass. You progress through the points in order and check in with an electronic device at the marker at each location. It’s a competition, with the fastest person winning, but winning is also relative.

For one thing, at events, there are different courses set up over the same ground with varying difficulty levels. So there’s a “fastest person” in several categories. And then there is the idea of the personal challenge – getting around the course at all (my goal), figuring out how to manage obstacles, completing the course in the most efficient manner…all these things are achievements. Last, the pleasure of being outside, in the woods or meadows, and the fun of climbing or scrambling around or running on trails…that’s maybe the best part of all.

We belong to the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association and we are rank amateurs, having started last year and done maybe ten events. But we really enjoy it and I can’t say enough about how friendly, helpful, and encouraging the group has been to us.

Anyway, I participated in the orienteering event in the recent Senior Games. And I’ll take this moment for an aside: my photo appeared on the cover of the 2017 brochure from my 2016 performance – I am in the upper left corner wearing the pink sweatshirt.

Anyway, while there, I learned about a Wednesday night series the DVOA was doing this summer. The idea was to go to a different location each week, offer two courses at beginner levels, and shoot for an event lasting about 2 hours at most. It sounded like a great way for me to improve my skills. My husband’s participation is dependent on the course; he is still recovering from his fall and rough terrain is not good for him.

A couple of weeks ago, we did the event at the Schuylkill Nature Center – two courses in a traditional wooded trail setting. I did both courses and my husband cheered me on. But then – we realized there was one coming up we both could do. And it was something unusual for the club as well – the location was the grounds of the Norristown State Hospital.

One of the buildings still in use. The grounds are open and green with trees and lawns and plenty of space.

This facility is a mental hospital, founded about 140 years ago, a large campus located about 30 minutes from our house. The Norristown Farm Park, immediately adjacent to it, and where I did orienteering in the Senior Games, is now a county park. It was originally the farm attached to the hospital, where patients worked in fields, a fish hatchery, and with livestock, as was common practice in the past.

The hospital now is almost entirely closed down. There are still some patients who live there; some of it is used for day programs; and there is a heavily guarded forensic section (we did not go near this part of the facility). The remaining residential patients are transitioning out. Most buildings on the campus are closed and some are being torn down.



All this means for our orienteering experience is that acres of landscaped grounds with an array of buildings are there, waiting for the challenge. And, since it is a “tame” landscape, nicely mowed, my husband could participate.

OK. We arrived at about 6 PM and got ourselves set up. I planned to do course #2 first and he took course #1. We clicked the start and got our maps.



The control points are numbered and straight lines connect them (not that you should follow those lines, indeed. It’s harder than that). There is also a key to the locations’ exact positions once you arrive in the general area – I use the one written out rather than the one done in symbols.


You are looking for these markers. When you find the one you want, you insert your clicker into it to register your arrival.



I won’t go into the details of my two sessions – just a an overview of things. And while I talk, I’ll show you pictures of the grounds as I go along. (I took them after the event, not while I was running.)

Keep in mind that unless I say differently, every one of these buildings is closed and mothballed, no longer in use.

First of all, you need to understand that I am a good runner, pretty fast and with endurance. Number two, I am terrible at relating the map to the actual landscape. Just terrible. My technique is sort of like water circling the drain – I get close, I go around and around, I run back and forth, and I finally come in to the control point with a big flourish and an internal sigh of relief.


I ran over these stairs several times on my way to control points. They traverse a semi-sunken passageway between buildings in the older section.

I also have a tendency to miss the plain and simple things the map is shouting at me and so I often end up very perplexed; when I review the situation suddenly it is clear, and I would have sworn the map had changed, in my hand. This tendency leads me to explore a lot of places I didn’t have to on my way to the control points.


I did have a nice talk with two workers on a break who wondered what we were doing. I stopped for a couple of minutes to show them the map and they helped me by pointing out the control point I was looking for behind a hedge. Remember, they knew nothing of orienteering before I came along, but they could read a map…


This building is in a newer section – it has an interesting circular auditorium inside the rectangle form of the building, or so it looked, through the windows.


But I digress. My husband, on the other hand, though a slower runner than me even at his best, can go directly from point to point. Hits the target every time. It all just flows for him. He was held back by his walking speed on this occasion.


Anyway, I finished the course I was on and he was already in. I decided to go out again and do the course he had done, while he rested. I beat his time (I’m running, remember) by about 15 seconds. Well, if you run in circles, this is what is going to happen.


I’ve got a better idea now of what I need to do to improve. First of all, I know I can’t go from point to point. I do better when I pick out intermediate points in between and work my way along. Second, before I start running off, I need to slow my thinking down enough to focus HARD on the map so as to try to anticipate the places I will get confused and what will signal me that I have gone badly wrong. Third, standing and thinking is ok. I don’t have to let the clock ticking in the back of my head urge me on before I am ready.


I got very mixed up in this area. I thought the control point should be in front of me, in the grass to the left. It was behind me, hidden by a hedge (which was of course on the map…)


Nonetheless, I really love the focus and the exhilaration of orienteering. I love running along with a goal in mind and meeting the challenges of each segment of the event.

I also found that the experience of playing a game in this particular location led to quite a bit of reflection. Not that long ago these buildings would have been full of people – a whole society existed here. As I ran along I imagined what memories these buildings, all silent now, hold in their bricks and concrete. I wondered if it were disrespectful to the patients and their suffering that I was running heedless through their walks and courtyards or jumping over stair railings.



I noticed, though, that the outside world is seeping in. There is free access to the site now, with an open gate. Near our start point a large crowd of brightly-dressed children were playing in a soccer game while their parents cheered, sat on lawn chairs, and ate dinner from coolers. There is a community garden with greenhouses, worked by members of the surrounding neighborhood (they have signs advertising their plant sale at the gate). I noticed quite a few people obviously out for an evening stroll or walking a dog – people from nearby making use of the lovely grounds.

As my husband said, it is a good thing that we can add happy memories to the history of this location. I think he is right. I am very grateful for being able to have the simple pleasure of doing an outdoor activity with other people, all of us enjoying ourselves.


About Claudia McGill

A person who does art and writes poetry. That's me!

13 responses to “Orienteering and Doing It Somewhere You Might Not Expect

  1. As a society, we have yet to figure out how to integrate those who fall outside our view of “normal”, those who need help to function and deal with the world. Locking people up does not seem like a good answer, nor does burdening the family with all of a person’s special needs and care. I’ve been puzzling this for a long time.
    I think the fact that people are using this space is good.
    And I sympathize about maps. I am very bad at translating 3 dimensions to 2 and vice versa. So good for you for taking on the challenge! (K)

    • When I first got out of college I worked for a bank working in commercial loans. I had a group of customers who were community mental health centers; I got involved because of them needing lines of credit to deal with cash flow issues arising from the way their funding came in vs. how they provided services. So I had to learn all about the business. This was just after the big exodus from mental institutions was started and these places got all the people and issues thrown on to them, and there just wasn’t enough care to go around. No plans made, just close down the hospitals and it would all work out. From warehousing people to just…abandoning them. Almost 40 years later and things the same. Look the other way. I couldn’t help but look at all the abandoned buildings, and I only showed some of the grounds, there was more, and think, surely this could have been adapted? Changes made? People helped in this setting that already exists, but in a different way? I think it comes down to money. Always. Anyway. The event was a lot of fun, very challenging, I think more than being out in the woods. I am trying to improve my spatial skills out in the world, another mission I am on, with handwriting and running.

      • “Spatial skills in the world”–exactly right. I need better spatial skills in the world too.
        I agree about people just being abandoned. And money. Most of the people on the streets here just need a helping hand, meds, therapy, a little supervision, a room of their own. Now they don’t even have shelter, however bad it was (and it really was in some cases). There is never enough money for the powerless.

  2. What wonderful buildings to be wandering among but what a sad history they possess. I wonder if it would feel better if they were to be refurbished and new life breathed into them, perhaps as some sort of community center. Years ago I visited the workhouse where my orphaned ancestors younger siblings spent their childhood (my ancestor having scarpered to London, leaving them behind) and it troubled me on some level that the workhouse was now very swanky and exclusive apartments. It wasn’t that I felt it should have been left to decay either. I suppose just the juxtaposition unsettled me.

    • I don’t know what the future holds for this site. When Haverford State closed eventually it was all torn down with a park and housing built. At Norristown it’s complicated by the fact of the Forensic unit that will remain, essentially a prison, that is an obstacle. I think some admin must also stay. The buildings were purpose built and difficult to remodel given today’s code regulations and environmental concerns such as asbestos. Plus the stigma associated with them because of their past. I would think eventually they’ll clear the site and build anew. A park would be great and a hopeful turn for this location after so many decades of sadness. Or a really nice rec center. And I like the community garden, it’s nice. I am sure these buildings won’t be converted into luxury condos. I agree, it is disturbing when sites of a serious nature get fancied up. It seems disrespectful.

  3. I’d be totally useless at this. I have no sense of direction which annoys me not least of all because that failing is considered (by fools) to be a stereotypical trait of women. My best friend also female, is the opposite – she always knows where she is without a compass. At least I make her laugh! 😄

    • I have recently learned I have a moderate case of face-blindness (I’ve spent my life not recognizing people, embarrassing myself, so on and so on, and I had no idea there was a name for this or that other people didn’t go around with people recognizing them but not having any idea of who that person was. You would not believe the number of conversations I’ve had with people while frantically trying to figure out who they are. I mention this because inability to recognize landmarks or figure out directions like I’m trying to do in orienteering is related to face-blindness (place-blindness???). You should see me trying to do trail-running, it has caused a lot of laughs when I end up crawling through bushes thinking I’m on a trail, and so on. So this orienteering thing is really challenging for me, I like it. And like you I hate that stereotype women getting lost thing. I have met a lot of women in orienteering already in my short time doing it who are perfect at figuring out the course. And men who can’t find their way out of the parking lot. Well, there’s my rant. Thanks for listening!

  4. It’s neat that DVOA is doing these weekly Wednesday events (looks like Ridley Creek is coming up soon?). You can get an orienteering fix mid-week and be done by 7:30. And running through the Norristown grounds would be really interesting, the Farm portion is a different feel.

    FWIW, I’ve definitely found it helpful to pick out intermediate points before the controls… and to also note a feature that would tell me if I’ve gone too far! “OK, if I hit this small creek, I know I’ll have to double back…”

    • Yes, we are doing only the ones pretty near us. Ridley is on the list as is Fort Washington. I do try to use intermediate points but I need to space them even closer than I do, I have very little ability to maintain a picture in my head of the landscape as a whole, I must go piece by piece. I use the control feature idea, but once again, I am limited by how distorted my spatial understanding of the terrain or layout is. Trial and error is always going to be my method, I’d just like to cut down on the time it takes me.

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