What is Ski-O?
On Sunday 7 Jan 2018 the Western PA Orienteering Club is holding a ski-orienteering event at Laurel Ridge. If you're not familiar with orienteering, you are missing a treat. Orienteering is a kind of outdoor treasure hunt, using a map and compass (no electronics!) to find a series of flags, and is suitable for anyone who can walk through the woods. Ski-O is the winter version, using the ski trails only.
WPOC holds a series of events through the year, each with a range of courses. A beginner course is fairly short (under an hour at adult walking speed) and has the control flags placed right beside the trails, whereas the more advanced courses are longer and involve more off-trail travel, aka bush-whacking. Individuals start whenever convenient within a specified time window, and must return to the finish point before a set time - this allows the organizers to know that everyone has returned safely and to collect the control flags during daylight. The objective is to visit all the control flags in the correct order and then return to the finish. It's as competitive as you want to make it. Some people enjoy a gentle walk while others treat it as a race, returning hot, sweaty and sometimes covered in mud and plant seeds. The prizes are bragging rights, conquering the challenge, improvement of one's navigation skills and the fun of the event. There's considerable satisfaction in finding that you have navigated towards a control point so perfectly that when the flag comes into view it is exactly where you expected to see it, and it's fun to compare route choices, good or bad, with the other participants afterwards.
The participants carry either a control card, which they stamp with the punch hanging beneath each control to prove that they have visited it, or (not in winter) an electronic equivalent. The control flags are never actually hidden, but are often out of direct line of sight, and are always hanging on or next to some kind of landscape feature, eg in a pit, behind a bush, at a spring or a trail junction. In ski-O the skiers are not expected to travel off-trail, so there is no bush-whacking, hopefully no mud, no sticky plant seeds, most of the features will be trail junctions (definitely no pits!) and the orange flags are visible from some way off, so you can concentrate on your route choice and skiing.