LIVERMORE -- This wasn't the orienteering I remembered from Boy Scout camp.
On April 7, photographer Aric Crabb and I -- both Eagle Scouts -- took on the Del Valle Wilderness Scramble, hustling in vain to keep up with the Bay Area Orienteering Club at rugged Del Valle Regional Park.
Competitive we weren't, but it still beat a day at the office.
For the uninitiated, orienteering involves compass navigation, using highly detailed maps to find "control points" -- electronic markers tucked away in the terrain. In a scramble, most of the controls, worth varying points, are off-trail, and competitors have a set amount of time to find as many as possible, collecting points for each one they find and mark with an electronic key.
"You want to be a little sneaky," advised event director and course setter Damian Swift. "You want to pretend you're lost while you're putting the key in the control."
Crabb and I were handed a map and given 15 minutes to plot our route.
Club member Bud Laird, 66, had an elaborate game plan, setting his path with pins and string marked off at hour-long intervals, corresponding to the ground he could cover. Laird takes part in 20-30 events a year, including 24-hour cross-country "rogaines."
"I call it a treasure hunt for adults," he said. "It's taking a marathon off the streets and putting it into the mountains."
Being far from marathon-shape, I drew a small loop and aligned my compass, desperately trying to recall merit badge class.
After a mass start, with orienteers bursting from the gates like starving dogs after a steak, I made a beeline for a steep hill.
When I finally logged the first control, I was out of breath, and the station was only worth 10 points. It didn't help that Crabb had spent the previous day getting beaten by waves on his surfboard and was lugging his heavy photo gear.
Our map skills rusty, we trailed a group with small children to the second control. Some orienteers were all business; we spotted them sprinting up faraway ridges like herds of antelope in sheer running pants.
"We have some annoyingly good athletes," Swift had warned me.
Clad in a skintight jersey and wearing a CamelBak hydration pack, Mikkel Conradi certainly qualified. Conradi, 36, from San Francisco, is one of the country's top orienteers in his division. He grew up in Norway, where kids learn the sport in P.E.
"It's called 'the thinking sport,'" Conradi said before the start. "I was never the fastest runner, so it was a way to participate in a sport, because there's a cognitive development aspect to it."
Orienteering began as a military exercise in Scandinavia in the late 1800s.
Peter Goodwin, president of the sport's American governing body, Orienteering USA, said Scandinavians brought it to New York, where it spread. Today there are about 60 recognized clubs nationwide.
Orienteering USA claims 5,000 members, but Goodwin estimates triple that number take part in local clubs. The group ranks competitors in age and skill divisions, and gives awards to top orienteers, rising stars and teams. No money is involved.
"All you get is bragging rights," Goodwin said.
He said the Bay Area has one of the nation's four most active orienteering groups, along with Seattle, Delaware and Washington, D.C. The Bay Area club has hundreds of members and has events year-round, including national meets and a week-long ski event.
Hiking behind beginners to the first station, Crabb and I -- perhaps a little too confident in our scouting knowledge -- decided to strike out on our own.
This was a mistake.
Thinking we'd blaze a shortcut to a 20-pointer, we were soon lost, searching for a dead tree to gauge our location.
"We're never getting out of here alive," I told Crabb.
Crabb spotted some orienteers at a fence near the highway. We headed that direction, but found no station, only a herd of suspicious cattle. The more weary we got, the more the map seemed incomprehensible.
We decided to cling to a dirt road winding to the finish line. Along the way, we ran into the orienteers we had followed first. Their luck hadn't been much better.
"It's really tough," said San Jose resident Adrienne Yeung, who was trying the sport for the first time with her kids. "I expected some hills, but not like that."
Our 90-minute time nearly up, we started back, hitting a 10-point control on the way. If you don't return before the clock expires, you lose points and risk a call to search-and-rescue.
At the finish, we met FranÃ§ois Léonard, an orienteering veteran from Montreal currently living in Brentwood. His jersey soaked with sweat, he'd hit 20 stations; we'd managed four. We turned in our key for 50 points, at the bottom of the day's team standings.
"Perhaps you'd like to use a fake name for the record," Swift suggested.
"Sure," I said. "Put us down as the San Francisco Chronicle."
Contact Jeremy Thomas at 925-847-2184. Follow him at Twitter.com/jet_bang.
The Bay Area Orienteering Club's 2013 Wilderness Scramble Series continues through summer. You don't have to be a member to participate. Fees vary. Events are also offered all year for all skill levels at Bay Area parks.
For a full schedule and more details, go to www.baoc.org.
June 30 -- Camp Tamarancho, Fairfax
July 25 -- Spooner Lake State Park, NV
Sept. 22 -- Boggs Mountain State Demonstration Forest; Cobb, CA
Sept. 29 -- Presidio National Park, San Francisco