By Curt Yeomans
Ranger Will Wagner, of the William H. Reynolds Memorial Nature Preserve, taught 22 local residents, many of them children, how to count paces, read a map and use a compass in the woods.
Wagner imparted the instructions during an "orienteering course" on Thursday at the preserve. The course is part of a series of classes the preserve's staff offers throughout the year.
"Our goal is to teach them two basics ... how to read a map, and how to use a compass," Wagner said. "Orienteering is a pretty difficult course to utilize in a wilderness setting. If you get off by one or two degrees, and you walk 10 miles like that, you're going to end up in a messy situation.
"A lot of kids these days are used to having [Global Positioning Systems] at their disposal, and we kind of like to take them back to doing skills on their own," he said.
Wagner teaches the orienteering class each spring, summer and fall. During the class Thursday, the participants walked along a line while counting their paces, and learned how to use a compass to figure out which way is north.
The size of the class that met on Thursday was twice the class' average size of 11 pupils. The super-sized class resulted from several participants showing up for a make-up of the spring orienteering class, which was canceled because of bad weather, Wagner said.
While the larger-than-average class size meant participants had to share compasses and maps, Wagner said it was a good problem.
"It's really exciting to have a lot of Clayton County residents taking an active role in the preserve," Wagner said.
A number of local Girl Scouts helped to increase the class' size.
Seven of the children in the class were from Jonesboro-based Troop 361. The young girls, Brownies and Juniors, were working on their "Finding Your Way" badge, said Co-Troop Leader Angela Hollander.
"It was something they needed to know - it's badge-work for them," Hollander said.
"It's very important for them to learn this stuff because in this age of electronics, they need to know how to use non-electronic things, like a compass," Co-Troop Leader Melissa Buck said.
Among the orienteering-related topics Wagner discussed was topography, and how every other step a person takes while walking constitutes a pace.
Addison Harrison, 8, a Girl Scout Brownie, and a Jonesboro resident, got to come up in front of her fellow classmates at one point, so Wagner could use her fist to draw a topographical map, using her knuckles as hills and mountains.
"I learned that the lines on a [topographical] map shows us how deep and how steep something is from that experience," Harrison said.
Wagner also taught the class participants the proper way to use a compass, including the importance of getting "Red Fred in the Shed." The phrase refers to getting the red portion of their compass' needle to line up with a red arrow on their compass, Wagner told the course participants.
"There is a multi-step process on reading a compass," Wagner said. "You have to keep the back plate flat, it has to be pointing away from you, and once you get 'Red Fred in the Shed,' you've got the right bearings, [and] you're good to go."
The class participants used that knowledge during an activity at the end of the class, where they went from one small flag to another, finding letters which spelled out words, like Azalea. The children were given coordinates to get them to each flag, and they had to use their compass to determine which direction to go. Then, they had to go the listed amount of paces to get to the flag.
Some participants in the class on Thursday said they had never used a compass before, and while they entered the class with some apprehension, they came out of it feeling more confident in their orienteering skills.
"It was fun learning how to use a compass and go to different destinations," said Megan Hollander, 9, a Jonesboro resident and Girl Scout Junior. "I thought it was going to be hard, but actually, it was a little easy."
"Now that I know how to use a compass, it's easier to tell how to get somewhere," said fellow Jonesboro resident, and Girl Scout Brownie, Maura Kopp, 8.