Great Lakes Challenge

Polar-bear clouds float in the sky; sunlight keeps my frozen fingers warm; golden leaves whisper under my feet; the weather is cold, but the sky clear - such is a typical Indian-summer day in the Midwest. I tread gently, counting my steps. I am interested in every detail of the surroundings - every boulder (well, boulders are scarce here), knoll, clearing, or pit. We are hiking in the surroundings of Ann Arbor, Michigan, but also making maps and orienteering.

Most of the Great Lakes - Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie - wash the ground of the American state of Michigan. The population of the Upper Peninsula is very low, and those who live there tend to mark their homes with long, sky-scraping poles, which serve to mark the locations of their dwellings during the long winter ... when the snow level often reaches as high as their roof tops. The climate of the Lower Peninsula (the shape of which resembles a mitten) is warmer. Even vines grow there, as Pat Murad confirms only too well: "Wine growing - that's what I want to do in my life." Murad is a member of the only Michigan orienteering club, a club which we met at the Club Championships.


The Southern Michigan Orienteering Club (SMOC) - which should not be mistaken for the Southern Midlands Orienteering Club of Great Britain - was established in 1984 by the fusion of three smaller clubs. The club has 150 members who live in the surroundings of the university town of Ann Arbor, situated in the south-eastern part of Michigan. You can find there one of the most famous American universities - The University of Michigan. Well-know companies such as Pfizer or Ford also have their headquarters there. No wonder many people from all over the world are drawn to the area. As a result, Michigan runners can often speak Finnish, Swedish, or German.
The oldest Michigan orienteering maps were made at the end of 1970's and beginning of the 1980's. One of the maps is situated in sand-dunes along the shore of Lake Michigan - but these were too far away for us to get there. There are approximately ten areas available for orienteering in the surroundings of SMOC, and the club tries to make a new map each year. This was the reason that we - Aleš Hejna and Vendula Svobodová (Olles) - were invited for the autumn of 2002.
The local summer is hot and wet, the winter bitterly cold. The orienteering season is, therefore, scheduled for spring and autumn; and there are about 15 competitions organized each year, some attended by runners from all over the States. SMOC was three times in charge of the organization of the USA Intercollegiate Champs, and twice organized the USA National Championships (the last time in 1995). The club has also organized five rogaining competitions for Domino's Pizza, a company with large network of restaurants spreading all over the United States, and headquartered in Ann Arbor. Team building was the reason Domino's employees took part in a 24-hour rogaining race organized in the wild desert on Drummond Island, in the northern part of Michigan.
The staff got carried away for the event by a former heavy-weight wrestler and Olympic champion, Steve Frasier, who formerly worked for Domino's. Bill Luitje, the SMOC president, was also amused by the idea. He told us about Frasier's legendary rogaining performances: "Steve was not a very good orienteer. He came in at the low end of the few orienteering races he attended, but he won almost all of the rogaining events. How? Stamina and an incredibly fierce will to win." Frasier finished most rogaining races covered in blood, because he was making nearly no route-choice decisions: "He always went for a straight one." This was also the reason why "Steve was never able to use the same partner twice. He burned them all out. It was very interesting to get a first-hand look at what is required to win an Olympic medal."

Dragon trees in glacial terrain

Michigan's landscape was formed by the glaciers which also deepened the Great Lakes. But, they did not affect the lower rocky layer; so there are very few rocky features in the countryside. Blue coloring prevails on most Michigan orienteering maps - a course-setter often has to deal with setting courses among plenty of lakes and marshes (there are no water-courses). Vegetation is another obstacle - various kinds of berries, vines, and thorny bushes abound. The countryside is flat, so contour lines are usually set by 2.5 or 3 meters.
Michigan colonization reached its peak in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, during which most of the forests were cleared. Dragon trees, with their multiple trunks, are a reminder of the period. These trees grew from the stumps of the trees that had been chopped down previously, throughout colonization. Another reminder of the westward expansion of the immigrant population is the stony knolls scattered in forests, the stones of which were probably collected by farmers from their fields.

There are no peaches on Peach Mountain

We started making maps in the forests within a 30-minute ride north-west of Ann Arbor. These areas were surrounded by signs saying "Research Property of the University of Michigan." Photogrammetry was made from evaluated aerial photographs taken in 1964. Terrain features, apart from several areas where a high density of pines or uprooted tress made any higher-quality analysis impossible, corresponded with the map bases we were given.
The terrain of Peach Mountain was, in comparison with other maps, atypical (the mountain's peak reaches about 325 meters above sea level). The landscape was formed by long valleys and rather steep slopes (contour lines were set by 5 meters). Deciduous forests with sporadic thorny vegetation and pine plantations were also the home of scores of squirrels, cranes, and giant radio-telescopes - these were the main features of the countryside. White, desolate, and screeching discs were slowly turning, following wired commands from out of nowhere.

Positively no hunting for frisking orienteers

In mid-October, SMOC organized an all-American, USOF-sanctioned orienteering meet also known as the Great Lakes Challenge. The competition was held in the Waterloo Recreation Area. Runners were given laser-printed copies of the map. On my way to the start, I met several green-clad men with crossbows, and remembered some words from the bulletin: "The recreation area will be open to small-game hunters during the meet; you may wish to consider wearing blazing orange colors for safety."
The more time I spent on my course (and the less power I had in my legs), the more I was covered with thistles. The finishing arena was placed among various vehicles, mobile stables, and paddocks, which were scattered all over the place.
I also managed to offend one of the "weekend cowboys" who saw me changing my clothes after the race. He happened to pass through my "cloakroom" hidden between two cars, and immediately said to the organizers, "I feel offended!" Well, to me that was just another newly-discovered American phenomenon. I could hardly imagine this guy seeing any European orienteering competition, where the showers are often common for both men and women.

Belly crawl

We returned to the area at the beginning of November in order to map new areas adjacent to the existing map (Prospect Hill) to the east. The trees meanwhile had changed their color to red; there were egrets floating in the swamps; the grass had turned yellow; and a cold breeze had started to blow in from the Lakes. The map area was a former golf course, but we could not find any holes. Nature had quickly taken hold of what had once belonged to it. Some green parts matched well this description by a devoted botanist, Bill Luitje: "It is so thick that the only ways to get through would be to cut your way with a chain saw or to crawl on your belly under the shrubs."
The bushes and shrubs were crowded with crossbow hunters whose bow-and-arrow season was reaching its peak. The situation would get even worse in several weeks, when the forests were due to be invaded by rifle and shotgun hunters - but the O-season for the year would be over by then. "Did you see a rabbit?" was the most frequent question asked by the piebald hunters. "None, " was my evergreen reply (I used to chase those away with my loud singing, singing which was in tune with the rumble coming from a near-by penitentiary).

After a month spent in Michigan, a month in which we traveled along roads among orange Halloween pumpkins, a month living in the Siamese house of Mary Joscelyn, we left these colored autumn forests and headed home.

Ales Hejna 2002-29-11 (published in O-sport 1/2003)