EAST COUNTY — Like most people, Gord Hunter gets lost occasionally.
As a child always driven to explore alone, he lost his way among the maple trees of his grandparents’ farm in Montreal, Canada.
But, for the last 44 years, he’s been getting around by compass and map, navigating forests and hills as he would a mall.
For two consecutive winters, Hunter, a 67-year-old Canadian snowbird and retired gym teacher, has tried to get orienteering — a competitive international navigation sport involving detailed, colored maps and timed races through unfamiliar terrain — on the map in the East County.
So far, Hunter has created maps and events first in Punta Gorda (October), then at Oscar Scherer Park (January), Mabry Carlton Reserve (February) and, now, the Suncoast Orienteering Championships March 16, at Lake Manatee State Park.
He’s helping the University of Central Florida update its map, and he even mapped the Lakewood Ranch High School and Braden River High School campuses in hopes of connecting with the schools’ JROTC programs.
So far at the events, Hunter has seen good turnouts with JROTC units affiliated with the U.S. Navy, but the general public has been slower to embrace the sport.
Hunter doesn’t fear getting lost, and he wants the public to feel that way, too.
“One of the frustrating things for me is I get people who say, ‘Orienteering sounds interesting, but I can’t do it because I get lost wherever I go,’” Hunter said. “I think to myself, ‘That’s really the reason to do the sport. Don’t avoid something because you can’t do it.’”
The orienteering world is tight-knit, so when Hunter first came to Florida, the technical director for Florida Orienteering, a former rival in the same age class, nudged him to look for orienteering venues in the area.
Navigators from Fort Myers to Tampa had been asking state orienteering officials in Orlando to find new venues and, in Bradenton, Hunter saw few hills and contour lines and thick and grassy trails ripe for the sport.
Last winter, he spent much of his time making maps, with the goal to establish Suncoast Orienteering, which he created as a certified entity with a board and president.
Hunter, a member of the Canadian Orienteering National Team in the 1970s and a former five-year board member on the International Orienteering Federation, came to Florida for the golf. He spent last winter in Lakewood Ranch and this one in the Tara community.
Hunter found orienteering by luck, when he took graduate-level outdoor education teacher training in 1967 in Ontario. Orienteering was one his electives.
The next year, one of his student’s fathers was organizing the first orienteering competition in Ottawa.
“It kind of fit me,” Hunter said. “The challenge of interpreting a map, making sense of it, taking what you see and turning it into a route into the terrain, coming to the circle on map, seeing the flag … it’s always a discovery. It’s great to say, ‘I did it right. I did it right.’”
Hunter soon began carrying a map when he went running.
“Reading a map is like learning to read,” Hunter said. “It takes time. I didn’t have a particularly good directional sense. I think I have one now.”
As a physical education teacher, Hunter always related to the child, who might not dominate physical sports, but could use intuitiveness and deduction skills well.
“Orienteering allows a different kid to come to the front of the class,” Hunter said.
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
To create an orienteering map, Gord Hunter first maps an area using the U.S. Geological Survey and county air photos for reference. He then walks the course and looks for certain tough-to-navigate markers to place control flags.
The maps offer different routes: Do you go through a bush or between trees?
Competitors don’t know the locations of control flags ahead of time and cannot see the maps until they compete. The winner is the one who reaches all of the targets the fastest.
World Championships — of which Hunter has competed in four, including races in Czechoslovakia (1972), Denmark (’74) and Britain (’76) — are held at different venues every year.
IF YOU GO
The Suncoast Orienteering State Championships
When: 10 a.m. March 16
Where: Lake Manatee State Park, 20007 State Road 64
What: The event features four courses. It is open to any age group, but children under 12 require adult supervision. Cost is $10 to enter.
To register: Email [email protected] before the event to confirm attendance.