It is the weekend before rifle deer hunting season opens in Michigan. The mid-morning weather is bright, crisp, and clear. Leaves from the oak and maple trees completely cover the ground. Here and there you can spot a patch of snow clinging on, though it is unlikely to last as the temperature is creeping up to a high in the lower 50s. I am going for a day hike on the North Country Trail with several friends; we're walking a section of trail many of us have hiked before, though it has been a few years. We are all expecting to have a thoroughly enjoyable hike on trail that should pose no real problem during an autumn day that promises to be as close to perfect as one could wish.
Walking through the woods, we passed a charming little cabin that we knew was occupied, as a hint of wood smoke filled the air. We noticed that we were, unfortunately I thought, spending a fair bit of time walking into the sun. Then we came to the Big Sable River and the Vince Smith Memorial Bridge. This is a lovely clear river that has nice camping spots nearby. Our group slowly spread out as faster hikers took the lead and those of us who wanted to take photos or do other things, like gather detailed trail distance measurements, lagged behind. There was no need to rush, as the trail is fairly gentle the whole way, and we had well over five hours until sunset to hike the entire 13-mile section.
Time passed and I found myself hiking with one other person, also an experienced and knowledgeable backpacker. We were having a grand time and were not too concerned that the rest of the group was out of sight and earshot. Perhaps we were having too much fun, because not long after cresting a gentle hill, we made a mistake: we stepped off the trail and onto a two-track. The NCT uses two-tracks now and again, but that wasn't the case this time. We followed the two-track until it reached a Forest Service road, a good third of a mile, before realizing our error. We thought we may have made a mistake, since we had not seen any blazes in a while, but coming to the road was the clincher. Oh well, things like that happen to everyone. Turn around, walk back, find a blue blaze and continue on. No harm done.
We figured our little detour probably cost us 15 minutes, but we didn't feel we had to rush. We had plenty of time, had headlamps, warm clothing if it got cold, rain gear, snacks and lunch, fire-starter, emergency shelters, and of course a map and compasses. We also knew the others would stop at McCarthy Lake for lunch, and we could catch up there. We walked on, enjoying the early afternoon. We noticed that the sun wasn't in our faces anymore, but we put that down to the changing direction of the trail and the fact that it was later in the day. Then we came to a sturdy bridge that spanned a nice little river: the Vince Smith Memorial Bridge. We both had the same thought: Mr. Smith must have been quite the person to have more than one bridge named for him. We continued on and passed a little cabin with a hint of wood smoke issuing forth. We reached a road which we learned was 5-Mile Road. We wondered why there was a road walk where we knew one shouldn't be. Only then did it dawn on us that we had not made a small detour after all. We had made a miles-long detour. We had returned to our starting point at 5-Mile Road! We were shocked. After all, we were certain we had been going the right way all along. We had been positive. We were, of course, completely wrong.
The Big Sable, taken from the Vince Smith Memorial Bridge on our first of three passes...
At this point some of you are no doubt saying we should have checked our map sooner or taken a compass reading sooner. Maybe we should have. But even had we done those things, that is no guarantee we would not have made the mistake we did. The trail meanders, so a single compass reading is not adequate for being sure that you are going in the right or wrong direction. You have to look at the overall trend of direction travelled to get a more accurate reading, and that is something we did not do. Our real problem, however, had deeper roots than a mere failure to take a compass reading or carefully examine the map. After all, we had clues about our direction of travel as we walked. Remember the sun was shining in our eyes on the outbound trip. It wasn't as we continued. We noted the fact as something to remark on but that was all we did. Then we reached the Vince Smith Memorial Bridge. We honestly thought that Mr. Smith had received the honor of getting more than one bridge named for him. Never mind that we couldn't recall, though we did not check the map, another river requiring a bridge. We needed to have our faces really rubbed in the reality of things when we reached 5-Mile Road before we understood what had happened to us.
The lesson to learn here is that what really matters most, beyond having the right gear and knowledge of how to use it, is that that some decisions are based on assumptions. Some of these may be true and some you may merely believe to be true. Those assumptions, especially those that you are absolutely sure of, form the basis of your thought processes, and if they are flawed, then your actions are bound to be flawed too. That was our real problem. We ignored the facts that were presented to us because we were sure we knew what we were doing. Once we had our comeuppance on the return to 5-Mile Road we revised our plan and got the word to others in the group. Had worse come to worst, we both had the gear with us to get through the night.
When you next go out trail-walking remember, especially if it is an area you feel you know, that it is always good to question yourself. Don't ignore facts as they come to your attention. If you have an unusual event, as we clearly did when we both thought Vince Smith had two memorial bridges, pause, take a breath, and consider the likelihood of the occurrence and the possibility that something is wrong. Remember that the real enemy is the over-confidence that can give you a false sense of security.