The Dutch Prisoner

About 10 years ago, I introduced Dondi to the sport of orienteering for one of our first dates well before getting married.  It can’t all be about dinner and movies, right?  At that time it was a winter O meet (we often say O instead of orienteering to simplify) up in Ponderosa State Park in McCall, and we took to snowshoes to tag all the controls in some winter sunshine.  It was, in retrospect, almost comically straightforward.  A winter meet is all on trails, the flags stood out brightly against the snow, and for once I managed to pick an intermediate course to avoid any major trauma.  We finished rather easily and she wasn’t particularly impressed as to why I was doing this sort of thing.

Not too long after that, Dondi introduced me to an old movie she wanted me to puzzle through called The Spanish Prisoner.  A reasonably confident engineer who thinks he has things all figured out turns out to be fooled more than once in a very bad way.  The ending arrived and left me wanting to watch the confidence game at least one more time to try and figure out where he went astray.  Who can he trust, really?

Many of our local orienteering meets with CTOC tend to have rather straightforward maps given our lack of trees and subtle terrain locally.  These are good for introductions but don’t build a skill set very well – or impress future wives in most cases.  Until recently our only moderately difficult map was in Idaho City which is generously strewn with roads and trails to fall back on, but now I can say for certain we have some REAL orienteering maps to play with up near Stanley.  These were based on superb contours generated by LiDAR, thanks to the patient efforts of club member John Murray who found the data and put together the initial base maps.  Then last fall our club fully committed and paid a professional mapper to come and do the complex and time consuming field work.  On August 8th and 9th we had our first real trials for a local club meet.

Naming a map can be a tricky thing.  In this case, one map with the original name of Swamp Creek was pulled given the rather gloomy sounding nature of the thing and instead baptized as Dutch Lake.  Which lake is Dutch, I cannot say.  The second map was more naturally called Trap Creek.  My personal experiences on these maps served to remind me of how much I have to learn.  I hereby name this entry The Dutch Prisoner.  No big bucks for a “process” are at stake, but in the end you can only trust yourself out there and not let anything slip by…

To make the large complex maps more digestible, I broke them out into sections for this report.

Saturday = Dutch Lake (Advanced, 5.04km, 17 controls)

Here are a very few legends to orient the unfamiliar:

  • triangle = start
  • double circle = finish
  • circle = control flag (classically done in sequence)
  • thick dashed line = rough road
  • green circle = distinct tree
  • dashed line highlighted in blue = my estimated route
Warm-up in the confidence game.
Warm-up in the confidence game.
Control descriptions, lots of variety.
Control descriptions, lots of variety but many depressions…

Ben Brock generously graced us with a few warm-up legs on the road.  This really helps give a sense of the distance, especially for a less common 1:7500 scale and super fine 2.5m contours.  Instead of slogging through brush right away I took the road and veered off shortly past the junction to find #1 on the distinct tree.  A sluggish 2:46 getting there, especially as it took me a few seconds to find it behind other greenery (yellow=rough open, white=runnable forest).  I beelined back to the road for #2, opening my eyes to look for the clear ridge and transition to denser slow green.  When I reached that I headed just briefly uphill and found it in 2:58.  Having learned much last year on the preliminary map (a DNF for me), I reverted to “fast” hiking as I ascended and focused on keeping a bearing through the trees.  The ridge was a helpful guide but was pretty wide – eventually I slipped up and was east of the control after crashing a bit of deadfall (slash green).  Given the clear re-entrant and what was the right distance, I headed back up and west and actually found it there.  8:52.

Attention required.
Serious detail: attention required.  Depressions have short lines pointing inside contour.

Looking at control #4 did not encourage me to start running, as I would quickly lose contact with the map.  I broke it down into pieces I could manage, starting with a short climb to the small hill, and then gratefully hitting the trail almost exactly, although it was plenty faint and required a second look to be sure.  I took it briefly to where it bent, then up another small hill and finally dropping down into the depression at 6:33.  To actually find this one after long trial and error slogs and a DNF last year notably improved my confidence, even if I was puttering at a snail’s pace.

I don’t show it on my memory sketch, but now in writing I remember aiming off for the distinct boulder above (black dot) using a bearing.  I found that and ascended upward to the larger hill which had a bit of clearing on top to see the immediate surroundings.  This made it straightforward to drop down into the tiny depression just northwest, which included a water drop if needed.  5:43.  Just a little bit faster.

Control #6. On a hilltop.
Control #6. On a hilltop – very wooded.

To reach #6 I descended down the larger hill with the clearing, stayed high and watching for the depression south of me, and generally aimed for the even larger hill through the trees while trying to steer clear of the worst deadfall.  8:12.  Definitely not so fast for a similar leg distance, perhaps thanks to all the trees and subtle contours to track.

Legs 7-12.
Legs 7-12 require continued vigilance…

From #6 I generally tried to stick to a bearing while watching the subtle contours.  I did not have much luck on this as I ended up closer to the small marsh and yellow open, but this gave me a good reference to find the right saddle.  5:09.  On the way to #8, I again mucked up the bearing and ended up seeing the marsh on the map shown but recognizing it from last year…but my memory worked against me because I remembered it as a clearing.  It took me a minute to realize the new map had updated its status, probably more accurately…and I used that to reset my bearing and head uphill to the hilltop in another slow 8:11.

Northern Goshawk, keeping me very alert.
Northern Goshawk, keeping me very alert.

It was no problem finding the boulder field just south and east of the control, and then descending down the small spur.  At this point though I got a very good warning from a Goshawk that Ben told us about at the beginning.  Knowing how aggressive they can be (they have divebombed some ultrarunners in McCall and taken hats) and listening to him get all fired up as he would swoop from tree to tree tracking me, I was paying as much attention to the sky as the ground.  I also spent a good minute or two trying to get a decent photo, not really helping my time but perhaps my birdwatching record.  Eventually I reached the very large (it’s all relative in these woods but this was obvious after the prior terrain) hill which had a good clearing on top, descending through some green, and fumbled around in the multiple depressions before finding #9 in 11:30.

From there I got to move a little more confidently through the marsh and clearing to the other end, then up a small hill, then tracking a creek gully which didn’t have much water to confirm its existence.  To my surprise the control was not exactly on the east end of the stream but more into the clearing itself, but it was close enough.  A slight placement nik perhaps but not bad at all.  6:35.

Control #10, far south end of the marshy clearing.
Control #10, far south end of the marshy clearing.

I tracked the east side of the marsh and couldn’t resist one more comparison photo of the same control looking back.

It's a big clearing.
It’s a big clearing.

At this point I was perhaps starting to get a bit confident in my process.  Mistake.  After I departed the marsh edge I took a bearing through the tricky contours, staying high, but after seeing too many depressions sans controls and being a little too stubborn to turn back, I finally gave in after going much too far.  The only sure point I could discern was to return to the clearing, so I did that  and changed tactics.  I went to the north end of the clearing and followed along the small depressions instead, then the large reentrant.  Ding, ding!  At 20:04, however, it was almost certain I got passed in the dense trees somewhere…

To reach 12 I stayed with the low approach and rounded the larger ridge I was wasting time on earlier.  By staying slow and steady I actually found the boulders on the map and used those to help me pinpoint the correct depression in 5:33.

Contours start spreading out.
Contours start spreading out.

I managed to use the small pond to the west to get me started on the right track, even though it was nearly hidden in the trees.  I hopped from small hill to small hill, and managed to descend correctly to the even smaller hilltop for #13.  I looked for a moment for the boulder Ben couldn’t find nearby, but I didn’t see it either.  10:08, very slow but reasonably sure.

It was around this point in the course many others got tripped up.  For some it was the loss of fine contours to track, making bearings and attention perhaps even more important in the trees.  I had better luck and managed to keep a reasonable bearing to the small depression midway and then tracked the ridgeline to reach the rather subdued saddle for #14 in a pretty clean 5:28.  Then I followed the big ridge a little too well, with lots of deadfall to sidestep along the way, and realized I was definitely high but the distance was about right.  I dropped down and managed to pinpoint the right hill in just 5:55.

Final controls allow leg stretching.
Final controls allow leg stretching.

From there I dropped to the road and actually opened up for some running, my legs stiff from all the hiking.  I reached the junction and was briefly misled by the beginner control on the distinct tree, the first I encountered that day on the advanced course, and kept going to the creek.  There I tracked the creek looking for a clearly distinct tree which was hardly definitive…eventually I found the control on a tree as large as any other.  Sometimes you can’t trust these distinct trees.  From there I bore back to the trail junction, punched the final control, and ran to the finish.  My leg speed however mocked me…I had hardly run all day and it felt like it.  More importantly, however, I finished this time.  That was definitely something, more than last year.  2:01:47 total.

The big O finish party.
The big O finish party.  I was indeed passed…

John, Ole, and myself camped near the day 2 map, and had the pleasure of watching a flock of Sandhill Cranes in the meadows.  Initially mistaken for…coyotes by one of us.  Control flags still burned into the retinas I think.  Binoculars helped clear the situation.

Sandhill Cranes heading for bed nearby.
Sandhill Cranes heading for bed nearby.  A beautiful night to camp in Idaho.

Sunday = Trap Creek (Advanced, 4.91km, 17 controls)

Sergey announced “It’s all about the boulders!”  As I looked down at my control sheet…I saw that every single control was on a boulder.  My first reaction was “good”, since boulders aren’t moody depressions but then my hope was tempered remembering an elusive one hour of my life hunting for a boulder on a map near Lake Tahoe, a small thing buried in a copse of trees.  I then checked the sizes of said boulders, and adjusted my reaction to “hmm, this could be tricky”, as many were well under 1m high.  I had no tiny advantage at all from last year either, as we never ran this map before.

Up the hill and down to the creek.
Up the hill and down to the creek.  Those contours look just as fine as yesterday.
All about the boulders.
Rocks everywhere.

Control #1 was another warm-up but a hilly one.  I climbed much too quickly as I didn’t want to contour for the duration, and ended up finding the very last control first.  I attempted to evaluate the contours nearby with little luck, but instead moved on and indeed found the correct double boulder at 0.5m.  This gave me confirmation of what I was in for, with a middling 5:26 but nobody caught me yet.

#2 was notably longer than #1 and required more attention.  I stayed near the steep slope edge first, then climbed the small hill, the easiest way to start.  Then I dropped own and edged around the deadfall and then stayed high above the depression to the southwest.  Then came two subtle form lines (less than 2.5m contour) but I just dropped down to the creek area.  My bearing was not quite right, and I diddled around back and forth a bit before spotting the control a little bit west and uphill – where it was supposed to be and I was not.  8:19.  For #3 I really did intend to stay “high” and then follow the line of deadfall instead of the creek, but alas, I ended up along the green and the creek anyway.  I was pretty sure of my distance however, and headed back north, at which point I found the small boulder cluster in 8:12.  I looked around expecting someone to pass me any moment yet.

Not my finest hour.
Not my finest hour.

From #3 I dropped back along my track to the creek and found a clear place to cross on a log.  I could have waded but wasn’t in the mood for wet feet on deadfall.  I kept a bearing through some green as I went uphill to find the boulder, which seemed right, but then ended up rather badly off track to the green in the east.  I only corrected when I spotted the marshy clearing (glorious guideposts in this terrain) to the east, at which point I went to the north end and took another bearing.  Then I found the boulder on the north end of the big depression, no problem.  12:07.  I thought I could hear someone crashing through nearby but never did catch sight.

Then came my biggest puzzle in the Dutch Prisoner weekend.  It began simply enough with a bearing and a climb up the obvious hill, but as best I can surmise my bearing was simoply off and I ended up foolishly wandering nearby depressions hoping for some luck my way.  I gave up sooner than I used to (a good thing) and returned to the known ridge line, looking for the other three distinct boulders shown and thinking I could take a fresh bearing off one.  I never could entirely convince myself I actually found all three, which made it very difficult to know which one I was at.  Around this time John Murray came by making better time than I.  He was the only one I ever saw out there during the entire day.

John Murray demonstrates experience in the woods.
John Murray demonstrates experience in the woods.

Finally, I gave up on the boulder idea and traversed the ridgeline south until I was pretty sure I found the right spur leading to the small lake east.  This was painful backtracking and a spot I hadn’t seen, but I was pretty sure I could find a pond.  Sure enough, there it was.  New bearing back up the ridge, then hop to the small hill, the next small depression, and finally the larger depression where the elusive control sat waiting patiently for this fooled orienteer.  A warp in space time with 31:08.  But better than some I’ve had…at this point I decided to make a blog entry out of this instead of getting my hopes up about finish time.

Back to some sort of rhythm.
Back to some sort of rhythm.

I thought it might be faster to cut through the marsh, since it was late summer and it might be dry enough, but no…too green, and definitely wet.  I tracked around the marsh instead and crossed at the north end, headed for the obvious hill rather than mucking about with my lousy bearings, and efficiently found the boulder at 10:08.

"Action" shot.
“Action” shot.

Given the very flattish rough terrain ahead, I stuck closer to the creek and touched the next hill with my still shaky confidence.  While there is much to occupy one’s mind and eyes, I still found myself looking around and in this case had a little surprise to see an obvious bird nest at my level:

Nope, no control flag in there!
Nope, no control flag in there!

I spotted the boulder on the adjacent hill as I climbed up and punched #7 in 9:28.

I descended then to Trap Creek below, which had a nice auditory advance notice even if I couldn’t see it.  The map gave me some hints on good crossing points which I was able to jump well enough.  Then back up the slope and something I felt like I hadn’t seen in an eternity:  a trail.  There was something solid about that feeling.  I crossed over that and descended to another big signpost, a massive clearing which I could take advantage of and run for a bit while still keeping track of my position accurately.

Huge clearing, a chance to make up a little time.
Huge clearing, a chance to make up a little time.

Then it was a pretty simple matter climbing up and finding the boulders to lead me to the desired control, although it required some deadfall step-ups to get there (14:07), and also to #9, a quick hop and skip through green (3:44).

Looking ahead and down showed a messy pile of green to wade through.  Although I sketched it above as mostly on the line, I think in reality I stayed higher and tracked the ridge downhill to the saddle with the obvious depression on my right.  I missed the boulder at first however and had to backtrack to catch it.  5:06.

I was not done messing up for the day.
I was not done messing up for the day.

Although I took a bearing at first, I realized this was of little benefit and instead I simply targeted for the obvious handrail of the trail, leaning a little more northeast on the flatter ground.  Then I got a moment of running in simply heading up for the obvious hill and boulder on it.  There I saw another control but had no doubt this was probably an intermediate control.  Nevertheless it was nice to have a sure point for a bearing.  I touched on the next boulder but did not descend between depressions as I first sketched above…I stayed higher and contoured around them making for the saddle.  7:24.  I took in a little water here with the available jugs realizing how little I had drank all day in the steady sun.

I took a bearing at first but found myself getting impatient with the slow pace and descended sooner to the road.  I ran up the road where the junction came into sight and spotted the nearby boulders.  From there I could see my target through the labyrinth of deadfall.  I got there in 7:55.

Visible, but deadfall running is not my strong suit.
Control #12 plainly visible, but deadfall running is not my strong suit.

Getting out of 12 led me a little too far north despite my effort to keep a bearing but I had a little trail to back me up.  As it started turning I veerd off, found a mapped boulder, descended through a small valley and clambered back up once again to find the next one.  5:04.  The end was feeling warm now…or so I thought.

I thought I took a really clear bearing and was tracking the little hills and depressions correctly.  No way.  As best I can estimate I was somewhere well south of the real control, one of those dicey half meter boulders.  I fell out onto the road again, and lined up my map and compass to make sense of it.  It didn’t quite make sense.  I convinced myself however I was somehow near the curve where 14 was, and went south and then back into the woods where I thought it was.  This was completely confidence busting.  Nothing looked right despite my brain’s attempt to make it so.  I swallowed my ego and went back to the road, which almost felt like cheating but it was time to use what I could.  This time I ran further south, and when I saw the familiar boulders and the same intersection on the way to #12, I knew what happened.  I turned around and ran all the way back to the real turn I wanted, at which point #14 appeared where it should.   A very long diversion in 17:24.  I felt like I lived an extra day, but it was Groundhog Day.

From the road I dropped down to the larger depresssion and went up the slope.  I managed to miss the double boulder entirely but this time realized my mistake a lot sooner and found it when I came back down for a 5:26.

Control #15, between two boulders.
Control #15, between two 1m boulders.

Then a very careful effort to make a clean bearing, the only good option to #16 in my book at this point.  It was all wooded with more deadfall than appeared to be mapped, slow going, and I became quite sure I passed it as it got thicker and thicker.  I sighed and turned around to go back to #15, but in doing so I kept my eyes open.  Lo and behold, I found myself walking by it.  12:38, apparently I wasn’t as far off as I first thought, but one had to be on it.

From here it was an easier matter hopping to the next small hill, then up to another along a subtle ridge, and dropping down for a perfectly clean bearing into #17.  I had stood at this spot a long time earlier when I found it first, but it wasn’t very familiar from this angle.  5:12.  I dropped down the hill, finally, barely making it in with any semblance of the cutoff.  There I ruefully observed both John and Ole passed me as I did my square dancing in the woods.  Finished, however, with a time of 2:50:57.

Curiosity still lurks in this cat, so I asked Sergey what a typical winning time would be on a course like this.  He estimated about 45 minutes, definitely under an hour.  If I had not made my major bungles I likely would have saved a good half hour or so in my time.  But that still leaves a huge gap in speed.  As I watched Sergey apply an entire roll of tape to his feet and ankles, to maximize confidence in running through the deadfall, he encouraged us to build up a strong core to help in the future.  He picked up the course in around an hour.  I think my first order of business will be continuing to read the map and navigate at a fast hike!  One thing at a time.

“Funny old world.”

“Funny old world?  Dog my cats!”

“Dog my cats indeed.” – from The Spanish Prisoner