Darius Reaves, 13, peers over the top of his compass to choose a landmark at the angle of his next destination during an orienteering course at the YMCA Outdoor Learning Center in Auburn on Thursday, June 11. Don Malpass, assistant Scout master for Troop 121, looks on from behind him. The troop members are working on their orienteering merit badges. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Wil Libby, left, outlines some of the steps involved in using a map and compass. Assistant Scout Master Cody Malpass, center, and Scout Master Chris Seddon listen in. The group has been learning about orienteering at the YMCA Outdoor Learning Center in Auburn. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

When Wil Libby gets to teaching old-school land navigation, he really knows how to work the imagination. 

For the final week of an orienteering course last summer, he gave his students a scenario before sending them off to navigate. 

“Your bush plane has crashed in northern Canada,” Libby told the kids in that group, “and your radio parts are scattered across the forest. You’ve got a beacon and you’ve identified where these (parts) are, so now you’re going to navigate and go find them.” 

In that scenario, the kids needed seven out of 10 finds in order to fix the fictional radio and call for the hypothetical medivac. Off they went, using low-tech things like maps, compasses and pace counts to recover the strewn parts.  

“It turns into a kind of scavenger hunt,” Libby says. 

In other classes, Libby describes being lost at Baxter State Park and trying to navigate around ponds and streams to get back to the campsite.  


There is no end of real-world scenarios to aid in the teaching of navigation and Libby does it well. 

An Army veteran, guide and former Boy Scout himself, has been teaching navigational skills to a variety of groups. Scouts, Maine Guides preparing for their tests, veterans, trail builders, you name it. 

The art of personal navigation is a critical life skill, Libby is pretty clear on that front. But it can also be a sport. 

They call it orienteering and Libby supplies the explanation. 

“Orienteering, by definition, is using a compass along with terrain association — what you see on the terrain — to find your way through the countryside, whether it’s forest or field,” he says. “And now there’s another level of that: the sport of orienteering, where it builds a competition on those principals. 

“It’s very similar to geocaching, although that uses GPS,” Libby explains. “It’s a sport where you can start off really basic. You can learn the fundamentals of it right in your backyard, or in any small, familiar area. And then you can build it up to the competitive level.” 


Pineland Farms in New Gloucester offers an orienteering course and there are a few clubs scattered across Maine. Libby and some others are hoping to start an orienteering club right here in Lewiston-Auburn. 

For now, he’s partnered with the local YMCA and uses its 100-acre Outdoor Learning Center on Stetson Road in Auburn to teach navigation skills to basically anyone who’s interested. 

Wil Libby, left, helps Darius Reaves pace out a 100 feet. Each participant in the orienteering course learns the length of their own pace, to use as a navigational measurement. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

And as far as Libby is concerned, everybody should know at least the fundamentals of navigation, and you’re really never too young to start. Over recent years, he’s taught children as young as 5, starting them off by having them navigate a small area using pace counts, maps and sheets of paper to represent blocks as they rove their way from table to swing set and then back again. 

“With that they can go home and map their yards to scale using pace count and a compass,” Libby says. “It’s a life skill, but we teach it in a fun and interesting way, and the kids really like it. It’s a novelty from them. They’re like, wow, a compass. This is cool. We’re so advanced now, they’re like, what’s this archaic little tool?” 

Last year, with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on just about everyone’s schedules and plans, Libby and a teacher friend began working with kids who would have been in summer school in an ordinary year. 

More recently, he’s been working every Thursday night with kids from Boy Scout Troop 121, which serves children ages 11 to 18 who are on the autism spectrum. 


Like everyone else, Libby started them off with the basics.  

“We start out by teaching them pace count — to measure their steps for a 100-yard distance. And then they’re learning how to measure distance just based on steps and counting. And then from there we start to teach them some of the terrain association and terrain features — a hilltop, a valley, things like that. And then we’ll introduce the topographic map. And they take those basic skills, and we’ll put like a couple little targets out in an unknown area.” 


Darius Reaves, 13, laughs with Scout leader Don Malpass during an orienteering exercise at the YMCA Outdoor Learning Center in Auburn on Thursday, June 11. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

One one recent sunny late afternoon, Libby had the troops from 121 out in a sprawling field on the YMCA property. The field had been set up as a compass course — a navigation playground, if you will — and a handful of teenagers were preparing to chart their courses in order to, hopefully, earn points for accuracy. 

Darius Reaves, a 13-year-old Boy Scout, had grown nearly six inches over a recent winter. So come spring, Libby had to help him adjust his pace count — his longer legs meant a longer stride, so his personal pace count had to be recalculated. 

On this day, Darius was moving slowly across the field with compass in hand. The ultimate aim was to follow his given coordinates so specifically he’d end up at a specific flag marked by a number. 


“He’ll go 17 degrees for 104 feet,” Libby explained, consulting an orienteering score card. “That’ll bring him out somewhere and he’ll get a second coordinate. Step two will bring him somewhere else and step three will bring him back on the line he started on (step) one. If he does everything correctly, he should land on (flag number) seven. If he lands on eight, he’ll get 95 points. If he lands on nine, he’ll get 90 points and so on. Accuracy is rewarded.” 

Darius came back to a flag that was a few numbers off and received a score of 75. Libby gave him a chance to do another course and to tweak his approach. 

“You can struggle and be off by 20 and say, OK. I’m gonna do that again. I see what I did wrong. So it gives them the chance to adjust and make corrections,” Libby says. 

A few others, including Libby’s 13-year-old son Elias, scored a little higher on the course. But of course, Elias had advantage. He serves as Libby’s assistant and has been working on the art of orienteering since he was a toddler. 

“I threw a compass in his hands and told him to go have fun,” Libby says. “He’s very comfortable with it now.” 

Cody Malpass, a 22-year-old who has been in the Scouts since second grade, also serves as an assistant for these excursions. He’s also done trail building with Libby, which Cody says has helped him to dial in concepts like the pace count. 


“It’s really become second nature,” he says. 

Learning is one thing. The trick, according to Libby, is to not let those navigational skills deteriorate by taking them for granted. 

“It’s like anything else,” Libby says. “You’ve got to continue doing it. You’ve got to find unique ways to practice so you don’t get bored. You’ve got to keep your pace count dialed in.  

“At the end of the day,” he says, “if you know how to turn that bezel on your compass and dial in your azimuth (a bearing or direction of travel), and if you practice your pace count enough, you can you can navigate your way pretty successfully.” 


Anthony Seddon, 17, points in the next direction on his orienteering journey. Seddon’s father, Chris, is the Scout master of Troop 121. Anthony is working on his orienteering merit badge with the Boy Scouts. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

Originally a land navigation training exercise for Swedish military officers, the sport of orienteering has taken off to the point where it now has organized teams all over the world, and international, national and regional governing bodies. 


The basic structure of the competition is pretty much standard no matter where you compete. 

“Orienteering is a timed event across a natural landscape, where participants navigate through a series of checkpoints along the way,” according to the outdoor company REI. “The route from one checkpoint to the next isn’t marked: Each participant decides the best route on the run (or walk). Meets have courses of varying lengths and difficulty, from beginner to expert.” 

The group Orienteering USA describes the orienteering course this way: 

“On orienteering maps, a course consists of a triangle, circles, a double circle and sometimes connecting lines all in purple. The triangle is the start. The double circle is the finish. All the circles in between are checkpoints. Numbered orange and white flags are placed in the terrain to show you that you have reached the correct location.”

Participants may use any route they desire between checkpoints. 

It’s not clear exactly how many orienteering clubs there are in Maine, although Libby knows of a small handful. At any rate, he appreciates the competitive nature of orienteering as a sport, although he stresses that the ultimate goal for participates should be to become as efficient at land navigation as possible. 


It could one day save your life, Libby says. He refers to the number of stories heard year after year of hikers getting lost and sometimes perishing in the wilderness. He’s also heard horror stories about people who have been led dangerously astray by GPS on their smartphones. By and large, he says, most people have become overly dependent on technology to help them find their way. 

“It’s one of those things like, what are you going to do when your phone dies or your GPS goes out on you?” Libby says. “You should have a basic idea of what to do if you don’t have power, don’t have a satellite device. Because if you don’t have cell service, you’re not going to be able to get the information you need. This is a basic life skill, it really is. And we kind of get away from that with technology, but the two can coexist. You just have to have this in your back pocket.” 

During the difficult year and a half of COVID, Scout leaders and other parents appreciate what Libby does to get the kids engaged in a time when it would be easier to stay at home. 

“It’s been tremendous,” said Troop 121 Scout Master Chris Seddon, out with his 17-year-old son Anthony. “He’s gotten us back out here.” 

Don Malpass, Cody’s father and a Scout leader, isn’t above boning up on his own skills, many of them learned in childhood. Malpass worked the compass course along with the kids, and when all was said and done, he scored a perfect 100. 

Wil Libby uses a map of Baxter State Park as he describes circumstances when a person might use a map and compass in the Maine woods. Libby has been teaching orienteering to Boy Scout Troop 121. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

He seemed surprised. 


“I haven’t done any of this stuff since before COVID,” he said. 

Libby said he’d ultimately like to start an orienteering club through the YMCA’s Outdoor Learning Center. It would be offered as an addition to summer camp and to other outdoor family programs that are still getting off the ground. 

Chances are good, as he’s been doing all his life, Libby will find a way.

Considering his work with the kids, the veteran groups and the clubs, you start to get a sense that the man spends his every waking hour with a compass in his hand. It’s been that way as long as he can remember.

“I was a Boy Scout when I was a kid, and then going into the Army I was pretty strong with my map and compass skills, and that served me well,” Libby said. “Then when I got out, I kind of stuck with it because I’m an avid outdoorsman and I enjoy navigating the old-school way with map and compass, and I just built it from there when I became a Maine guide. I enjoy working with kids, so I figured I’ll start teaching land navigation to the younger crowd and get their skills built up.”

The result — in the Lewiston-Auburn area, anyway — may be an entire generation of kids who can help guide you back to safety when you get lost between your tent site and the restrooms at the campground.

It happens to the best of us.

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