PUNTA GORDA — For members of the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at Charlotte High School, geocaching seems like child’s play. These students have taken the popular hobby, which leads outdoor lovers on a scavenger hunt through the woods using a GPS, to the next level — or maybe back a notch.
“Today everyone has a GPS on their cellphone,” said NJROTC student Dylan Sands, 15, “but what happens when your phone dies and you are out in the middle of nowhere?”
That is why two years ago CHS became the first school in Southwest Florida to have an orienteering team, and now members plan to invite the public to participate.
Orienteering uses the same principles as geocaching, which is looking for a small container that another person hid, mostly in a secluded area, and has logged the GPS coordinates on any number of websites dedicated to geocaching. The container, which is usually watertight, can hold a note or small object. Using a GPS device with the correct coordinates will get the seeker within a few feet of the object.
But with orienteering, the team members don’t have an electronic device to help them navigate, and instead the use the “old-school” version — with only a map and compass aiding them across unfamiliar terrain in order to locate markers.
CHS will play host the first public orienteering event in Charlotte County starting at 10 a.m. Oct. 27 at South County Regional Park, 670 Cooper St., Punta Gorda.
The team is encouraging area residents to learn more about the sport by navigating one of three courses that will be set up in the park. Anyone wishing to participate who has no navigation experience can take the 1.5-mile leisure-level course, those with some experience can take a 2.2-mile intermediate course, and experts can try a 4.7-mile adventure course. Checkpoints will be positioned throughout the park, on nearby streets and school grounds, and in the wilderness in between.
“We are going to set up way points around the park for families or small children with no experience,” said NJROTC Capt. Mike Farley. “The adventure course extends all the way to Edison (State) College.”
Each orienteer, or group, can purchase a topographic map for $10 with the various control points circled. Each point has a flag marker and a distinctive punch that is used to mark a scorecard. In a competition, orienteering involves running from checkpoint to checkpoint, but Farley said the event at the South County park is just for practice.
Until this year, CHS students had to travel to Central Florida to compete against other teams because there were no orienteering maps created for the Charlotte County area. But this year, an area snowbird offered some assistance.
Gord Hunter, a Canadian map-maker, has become the catalyst to get a new association of orienteering started locally. Hunter has been involved in the sport for more than 40 years, and creates his own maps from various sources posted on the Internet. He plans to create one new orienteering map per month for local parks.
“This area has great terrain for people to get a taste of what orienteering is all about,” Hunter said. “South County (Regional) Park is not exactly in the wild, but it has great possibilities to host an event and to get people involved.”
Enthusiasts say one of the best parts about orienteering is discovering new places and observing wildlife.
“During my first competition, I saw a doe and her baby fawn,” said Amy Keen, commander of the orienteering team at CHS. “It was pretty amazing. After that I was hooked.”