My third grade teacher breezed through the instructions on how to use a compass so quickly that nothing stuck, but the instrument looks simple enough, so I decided to give it another shot in April. I dropped by Cunningham Park with the intention of experiencing an orienteering class and learning a new skill I might or might never need to use.
“With GPS and computers,” said Urban Ranger Jeff Billak, who was leading our group, ”we’re kind of losing our navigational skills. To break it down to an analog style, everyone should know the basic directions and basic functions of a compass.”
He handed out neon colored plastic compasses to the eager participants, a diverse group ranging from children to young professionals to retirees. The directions North, South, East and West were clearly marked, there were numbers going up to 360 all along the perimeter of the circular compass and there were two compass needles, one red, which always points toward the earth’s magnetic north pole.
“You always want to put ‘Red Fred’ in the shed,” said Billak, his way of saying you need to get the red needle to point north.
Just how do you do that? There is a direction of travel arrow at the front of the compass, so twist the compass until the direction or degree is aligned with the direction of travel arrow. Then, with the direction of travel arrow pointing forward, hold the compass still but turn your body in any direction until the red compass needle is perfectly aligned with the part marked North. That’s really it in terms of basic compass functions.
It was definitely a sight to see: a group of people standing on the grass next to the parking lot and taking 20 steps northwest at 280 degrees before turning around and walking in another direction for the next drill.
Afterwards, the group took cover from the blazing hot sun and headed into the shaded woods for a scenic hike. We didn’t even use the compasses since the trails were clearly marked, but it was a nice way to see what city parks have to offer to the nature-seeking urbanite.
“New York City can be a little stressful,” said Billak, “so to get out here, see some bugs, hear some birds sing, feel some breezes, it’s the nicest part of connecting with nature.”
Orienteering was a unique and fun experience. We didn’t get to use the compasses with a map, but hey, that’s what GPS systems are for, right? At least until the next session.
There are two upcoming orienteering sessions, one at Fort Totten Park in Queens on June 6 at 11 a.m. and the other at Crotona Park in the Bronx on June 27 at 1 p.m. Billak pointed out that the Department of Parks and Recreation runs year round programs including hiking, winter survival, biking, canoeing and even entymology
To learn about all the great, FREE programs Parks offers, visit www.nycgovparks.org/events.