Orienteering in the U.S.: A History

Past Presidents of Orienteering USA (United States Orienteering Federation)

2018 –Clare Durand
2016 – 2018Kris Beecroft
2011 – 2016Peter Goodwin
2007 – 2011Clare Durand
1999 – 2007Chuck Ferguson
1996 – 1999Gary Kraght
1995 – 1996Rick Worner
1991 – 1995Larry Pedersen
1989 – 1991Sam Burd, Jr.
1985 – 1989Per Stensby
1983 – 1985Al Smith
1979 – 1983Cindy Fuller
1977 – 1979Aloysius "Louie" van Staveren
1975 – 1977Dick Adams
1973 – 1975Jack Dyess
1971 – 1973Philip Schloss, Jr.

Board Presidents and Board Members (Excel spreadsheet)

Silva Award recipients

The Orienteering USA Silva Service Award is given annually to an orienteer who, along with being a member of Orienteering USA, has demonstrated outstanding service to orienteering in the United States over the previous five years.

President's Award recipients

The President of Orienteering USA bestows the President's Award to those members s/he feels deserve recognition in a given year.

Golden Service Award recipients

The purpose of the Orienteering USA Golden Service Award is to recognize those individuals who have provided exceptional service to the sport of orienteering that extends beyond the local club level.

A History of Orienteering in the United States

The first orienteering events in North America were held on November 10, 1941, at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Organized originally by Finnish army officer Piltti Heiskanen, they continued until 1943 but quickly disappeared.

Björn Kjellström, Swedish co-inventor in the 1930's of the protractor type, liquid-damped magnetic compass, moved to the U.S. in 1946. That same year he arranged orienteering events for the Boy Scouts, organizing some in Canada as well. A greater awareness of topographical map and compass use was developed, however, there were no known cases of orienteering catching on with any permanence.

Kjellström supported and organized compass and orienteering events throughout the 1950's and 60's, remaining an ever-present supporter and sponsor of orienteering well into the 1990's.

It wasn't until the 1960's that orienteering really began to take off in this continent. On November 5, 1967, Harald Wibye held a public orienteering in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and the club that took root there — the Delaware Valley Orienteering Association — has held events regularly ever since. In 1992, they became the largest club in the U.S. with over 600 members, including Caroline and Kent Ringo who have provided leadership to DVOA since 1968.

During his two-year stay in North America, Wibye also founded the first Canadian orienteering club in Montreal, produced the first two modern-color orienteering maps on the continent and helped orienteers in a dozen states. Today, he is a computer consultant in Moss, Norway, where he regularly maneuvers his six-and-a-half-foot frame gracefully through the Norwegian woodlands, map in hand.

In the summer of 1967, the U.S. Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy at Quantico, Virginia, began orienteering activities under assistant-director Jim "Yogi" Hardin. Within two months of Quantico's first known public orienteering event on July 12, 1968 (organized largely by Wibye), the second assistant-director, Bob Shoptaw, arrived and began carrying out the goal of starting orienteering throughout the Marine Crops nationwide. He also became the primary founder of the U.S. Orienteering Federation on August 1, 1971.

The motive, according to Don Davis, a Quantico orienteer since 1970 and editor of the USOF pages in the national magazine from 1986 to 1997, was to have the most sensible land navigation training strategy. At the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, cadets began intramural score orienteering in pairs in the spring of 1966. West Point's first known events open to the public did not occur until 1975-1976.

Between 1965 and 1968, Kjellström organized compass and map game activities at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, just North of the New York City area, while Wibye added a competitive orienteering course upon his arrival there in 1968. Apparently though, orienteering activity at Pound Ridge did not resume until the 1972 U.S. Championships, held then by Hans Bengtsson of Massachusetts and his fledgling New England Orienteering Club.

Beginning in March 1970, Alex "Sass" Peepre, a physical education professor orienteering since 1965 in Guelph, Ontario, Hank Schafermeyer, cartographer Lowell Solterman, Paul Yambert, and Andy Marcec succeeded in starting orienteering at Southern Illinois University. The first U.S. Orienteering Championships was held there on October 17, 1970.

The Sport Evolves

After fading away sometime around 1971-72, West Point orienteering was rejuvenated in 1975 by U.S. Army orienteering founder Bud Fish. The cadets have dominated U.S. intercollegiate competition from 1978 to the present, except for 1983-85 when Gene Wee's University of Kansas orienteers won. Bill Gookin has been an orienteering organizer in the San Diego area since 1969. The San Francisco Bay area club under the leadership of Joe Scarborough and the clubs around Seattle, Washington grew rapidly as the top western orienteering areas in the 1980's.

By March 1973, over 300 competitors attended the annual meet, nationally sanctioned by the Ohio University club in Athens, Ohio, where the USOF office was operated by Eric Wagner. Joannie Gunther and Cindy Fuller, USOF leaders into the mid-1980's, began orienteering here. The growing St. Louis Orienteering Club's Bob Defer handled the USOF office from 1978-85. USOF membership rose to 1,150 by 1975, 80 clubs and 1,900 members by 1978, but declined as ROTC withdrew military support in colleges and college clubs. Both ROTC and others began disappearing, especially in the South and Midwest.

As the 1980's progressed, the New England club remained the largest with over 700 members. Hudson Valley Orienteering, led first by Linda and Larry Crane and later by tireless orienteering promoter Jon Nash, began hosting the lion's share of major international events; including the first World Cup event in the United States in 1986. An equally effective leader and promoter, Mark Frank of Pennsylvania, coordinated the 1982 and 1992 U.S. Championships at French Creek State Park; 705 orienteers attended the 1982 event.

Other than scout events, the 1982 Championships at French Creek SP in Pennsylvania still holds the record for the most U.S. orienteers participating (705 total competitors). There have been only five different larger events in the U.S. The September-October 1997 Veterans World Cup in Minnesota had over 2,200 orienteers on a single day. Mappers and scout leaders Dave Linthicum in Maryland and Ed Scott in Pennsylvania have both had over 1,000 orienteers on a single day at their annual scout events. The October 1993 World and U.S. Orienteering Championships in New York also cleared 1,000 orienteers. The August 1990 Asia-Pacific Orienteering Carnival had almost 900 orienteers.

Despite such efforts as the Seattle area successful interscholastic league starting in 1983 and the work with educators by Hicks of New York, youth participation dropped considerably in the late 1980's and 90's. These programs are good examples of the slow trend, even with schools, scouts and park services, away from the peculiar American orientation toward compass games that are unfortunately sometimes labeled as "orienteering."

Championship Competitors

Marines won the first six U.S. men's orienteering titles. In the early and mid-1980's, five-time U.S. elite champion Peter Gagarin of Massachusetts founded and coached the U.S. Team, which has represented the United States at every World Orienteering championship since 1974. Gagarin's personal results in masters categories in the 1980's and 1990's place him at the very top of all-time non-European orienteering results, regardless of category.

Amongst the women, none have achieved the success of Sharon Crawford of Massachusetts, who was the top U.S. woman at seven straight World Championships and, in 1989 at the age of 45, won her eleventh U.S. Championship in the elite category. In the late 1980's into the 1990's, Peggy Dickison, of Kansas and then Maryland, won numerous titles and coordinated the U.S. Team.

Eric Weyman of Pennsylvania, the top U.S. ranked orienteer for eight straight years in the 1980's, and Pat Dunlavey of Massachusetts, were the pre-eminent national orienteering mappers of the decade, raising the quality of U.S. maps to world standard. Mikell Platt, a 1980 West Point graduate and many-time U.S. Champion, moved his orienteering mapping efforts to the central Rockies and began holding summer orienteering festivals there in 1992.

Later Developments

In 1988, after several years of delays, orienteering was accepted as a U.S. Olympic Committee Class C sport, later known as an affiliated sport. USOF membership finally surpassed the 1978 level and approached the 2,000 mark. There were more than 30,000 starts by over 5,000 club members and non-members at 550 events in 45 clubs. By 1998, there were over 55,000 starts at almost 700 events and over 7,000 club members in 65 clubs.

Larry and Sara Mae Berman of Massachusetts "completed the evolution toward an independent press" when they took over publication of the national orienteering magazine, Orienteering North America, in 1986. Robin Shannonhouse of Georgia took over as USOF Executive Director in 1985. From 1985 to 1989 Per Stensby of North Carolina, a compatriot of Wibye's in 1968, served as USOF President and, with Linda Taylor of Massachusetts, carried through the awarding of the 1993 World Orienteering Championships to the United States. Course setting for this October 1993 event was coordinated by Steve Tarry of New Hampshire. These nine days of orienteering attracted over 1,000 orienteers from nearly 35 countries to New York's Harriman State Park. The Veterans World Cup (now called the World Masters Orienteering Championship) was held in Minnesota in 1997.

The Bermans filed their last issue of the national magazine in July 1999, turning over the publishing operation to Donna Fluegel of Connecticut. Donna published ONA from 1999 through late 2019.

For further information on pre-1972 U.S. orienteering history or pre-1990 English-language orienteering literature (the most complete collection, excluding most club newsletters), contact Dave Linthicum at [DaveLinthicum [at] earthlink [dot] net] or 6020 Pindell Rd., Bristol, MD 20711.

Nov. 5, 1967 – The Beginning (source: Orienteering USA, November 1982)

The landmark Nov. 5 meet at Valley Forge attracted 42 orienteers (26 men, 16 women), 30 of whom were pre-registered (by Nov. 3), plus apparently 9 people who acted solely as officials (a total of 51 altogether). A goodly number came from Westinghouse where Harald [Wibye] worked. Som eof the participants were staff from the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Academy in Quantico, Virginia, orienteering for the first time ever. Jim Hardin, an organizer of the first Quantico meet in July 1968 had been invited up by Harald when they had met two weeks earlier at Guelph. Harald told OUSA in 1982, "Funny! Jim Hardin and two other super-fit athletes from the U.S. Marine Corps started first and came in last — and had been running all the way." The marines orienteered in uniform.
Ironically, at this, the first known public O' meet in the U.S. (put on by what would become DVOA, the oldest club in the U.S.), the first pair of starters would include a marine from Quantico (second-oldest club). The first starters were off at 1:45 p.m., Sunday, November 5, 1967. At this meet pre-registrants were given their control cards (printed by QOA) and start times in advance. Master maps were used, and competitors also copied their control descriptions. Fifty compasses were lent by Silva to Harald. A short briefing was held, then competitors, one on the long course and one on the short course, started out at intervals. Starts ran until 2:15 as the starter called out the time every minute. Controls were "flags of cardboard printed red on one half, identified with a letter painted on it" that orienteers had to mark on their control card. The last marine came in at 4:30 p.m., and U.S. O' was on its way.