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The Perils of Certainty

Making decisions based on incorrect information negates stellar gear and knowledge, leading to trouble. It can happen far more easily than many of us would care to admit.

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by Ken Knight | 2012-04-24 00:00:00-06

The Perils of Certainty

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 Perils of Certainty - 2
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.


"The Perils of Certainty," by Ken Knight. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2012-04-24 00:00:00-06.


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The Perils of Certainty
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
The Perils of Certainty on 04/24/2012 14:51:14 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

The Perils of Certainty

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
I'd laugh but... on 04/24/2012 16:12:30 MDT Print View

Funny Ken. I can't laugh at you because I've don the same thing myself and I've seen other people do it. We got ourselves good and lost in Alaska once and spent a lovely day bushwacking through alders.
Good lesson to use your head and check the map any time things don't make sense.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
The Perils of Certainty on 04/24/2012 19:01:24 MDT Print View

Excellent article! Yes, it's funny, but I'm sure most of us have done something similar at one time or another! Your descriptions are so vivid--as I read, I myself was enjoying the stroll down the trail, the good company and the perfect autumn day!

On a local hiking forum earlier today, a poster asked about learning orienteering skills. I mentioned a number of non-map-and-compass navigation skills, such as paying attention to landmarks and looking at the back trail at every intersection. Since this is a free article, I just posted a link to your article on the thread in the local forum, since it's so appropriate to that topic. (Who knows, it might bring in a few members!)

Over the years I also have made a few interesting "detours," including at one point traveling a trail in the wrong direction!

Thank you for overcoming what must have been considerable embarrassment to provide us all with a great reminder!

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
certainty on 04/25/2012 08:09:49 MDT Print View

more than once ive went up the way i "knew" was right on a climb and ended up having to come back down

the human mind is very narrow ... once its decided on something, its hard to admit error ...

you have to be honest with yourself ... the mountain doesnt care how "right" you think you are ... itll still kill you all the same

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/25/2012 11:51:27 MDT Print View

Is this essentially how you became "misplaced" on the AT 3 years ago? I never did see your side of the story of what occurred. You can PM if you wish. Thanks.

Bradley Danyluk
(dasbin) - MLife
Re: certainty on 04/25/2012 11:52:42 MDT Print View

An excellent argument for trying to apply evidence-based reasoning to all actions and beliefs we hold.

"The mountain doesn't care how "right" you think you are"

Great point. Just like everything in the universe, it doesn't matter how strong your beliefs are. They have no bearing on anything at all except inside your own head. If we could only learn from "the mountain's" hard lessons and apply it wherever possible. Absolute certainty is never possible, but we have developed great systems of thinking for observation and verification that we can utilize (when we decide to apply the effort) to determine what is more likely and what is less likely to be true.

Edited by dasbin on 04/25/2012 11:56:43 MDT.

Gregory Topf
(notoriousGRT) - MLife

Locale: PNW / Switzerland
never ever... on 04/25/2012 11:56:21 MDT Print View

Never stop thinking when you're out there. In the best case scenario you will lose only time.

Kenneth Carter
(docbackpacker) - MLife

Locale: Midwestern United States
Thank you on 04/25/2012 12:00:10 MDT Print View


Thank you for an enjoyable and beneficial article! Though I'm a new BPL life member, I'm really glad you made this article available for all. Yes, it might bring in new members, and even more importantly it has the potential to avert suffering, some mild, some serious. In some circumstances, the perspective you've promoted could save a life. I expect your funny real life example will do more good than any number of stern, alarmist warnings. True stories have power.

By the way, I, too, have found myself unexpectedly "revisiting" a place where the unexpected familiarity turned out to be no coincidence. I don't cut switchbacks, but other "shortcuts" have sometimes cost me buckets of time.

Particularly because I'm currently preparing for an upcoming multi-day solo backpacking trip, I needed to hear what you had to say. I'm grateful for the reminder--a gentle, humorous, clear, and memorable one. Thanks!

Ken Carter

Patricia Combee
(Trailfrog) - F

Locale: Northeast/Southeast your call
RE: The perils of certainty on 04/25/2012 16:59:39 MDT Print View

I ain't laughing. I was hunting a squirrels several years ago in my "home woods". I came to the road I was expecting, but I knew I had meandered a bit, so I took a look at my compass for North, since that was the way I wanted to go. But the compass said north was in a direction I was pretty sure was not right. "Darn compass, must be broken!" So I went the opposite direction; Yep, I should have went the direction the darn broken compass said was north. I walked a few extra miles, but no harm done. I was lucky, the weather could have turned bad, but I did have 3 nice squirrels and an apple to eat and water was close by. It would have been an uncomfortable night, but I probably would have been okay.

So, I can easily see how you got turned around. I expect it has happened to most folks that play in the outdoors.

Bill Fornshell
(bfornshell) - MLife

Locale: Southern Texas
Mr Magoo in the Backwoods on 04/25/2012 17:04:33 MDT Print View

I think Ken needs to write under the Pen Name of Mr Magoo.

Then put all his "mis-adventures" in a book called "Mr Magoo in the Backwoods" Earn some money and hire a guide when he goes out his front door.

As someone named Bilboo once said "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, ..."

Edited by bfornshell on 04/25/2012 22:24:09 MDT.

Steven McAllister
(brooklynkayak) - MLife

Locale: Atlantic North East
Been There, Done That on 04/26/2012 03:51:37 MDT Print View

My problem was that I assumed my compass was broken. I only confirmed that I was going the wrong direction was when I ran into another hiker.

It shocked me to the point that I just sat down and had think about it for a while.

scott Nelson
(nlsscott) - MLife

Locale: So. Calif.
All who wander are not lost, but they could be... on 04/26/2012 09:11:30 MDT Print View

I got good and lost using an old map where the road had been extended since publication. The trailhead I started at was several miles west of my assumed start. I didn't realize it until I came to a big river "going the wrong direction" around noon. That's when I pulled out the map and vowed to learn how to use that compas thing I had buried in my pack.- Scott

Cameron Phillips
(Jean-Guille) - F

Locale: Southern California
Re: Mr Magoo in the Backwoods on 04/26/2012 12:56:08 MDT Print View

“Short cuts make for long delays.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Kenneth Knight
(kenknight) - MLife

Locale: SE Michigan
Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/26/2012 13:56:40 MDT Print View

Michael, no this is a completely different situation than what you are referring too. I'm not going to get into the details of what happened back then. It's not really relevant to the reasons I wrote this article.

As many have already commented this kind o thing can, and does, happen to lots of people.

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/26/2012 16:59:09 MDT Print View

While most everyone will get turned around on trips, especially when we have not hiked the area before, to completely end back at the starting point and missing two huge landmarks (bridge and a cabin) is being totally oblivious to ones surroundings. It is a reminder to learn about awareness of ones surroundings (maps, landmarks passed) and not follow a path just because it is in front of you.

Inaki Diaz de Etura
(inaki) - MLife

Locale: Iberia highlands
Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/27/2012 01:46:50 MDT Print View

> to completely end back at the starting point and missing two huge landmarks (bridge and a cabin) is being totally oblivious to ones surroundings

Hiking in company is a huge factor here, particularly if the hikers are keeping some kind of conversation, as it seems to be the case for Ken as per the description in the article. Attention naturally drifts away from the surroundings and it gets surprisingly easy to get to a place (be it the intended destination or not) without knowing how you got there.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: RE: The perils of certainty on 04/27/2012 13:06:46 MDT Print View

"But the compass said north was in a direction I was pretty sure was not right. "Darn compass, must be broken!""

It's amazing how common that is. It's sometimes difficult to overcome one's convictions, even when the real world slaps you in the face with facts counter-indicating them.

Rakesh Malik

Locale: Cascadia
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/27/2012 13:12:26 MDT Print View

"Hiking in company is a huge factor here, particularly if the hikers are keeping some kind of conversation, as it seems to be the case for Ken as per the description in the article."

Being a photographer has turned out to be a huge asset in this regard. Research "songlines" or "dreaming tracks" for why, if you're curious... it's a technique for building an internal map by using stories about your environment. When I learned about this, I started using it, but I found that because I pay a lot of attention to the composition, angle of light, shapes and textures of objects when I set up a shot, it serves the same purpose for me as a story. I end up remembering routes a lot better than most people I hike with as a result.

This is partly a response to nearly getting lost in Shenandoah National Park once when I was a newbie hiker, though that was due to missing a turn (I saw the marker, but didn't recognize the name of the trail).

And watching a pair of fools I was hiking with once get lost in conversation, start out pretty far ahead of me, and just start walking... I was tempted to let them wander and see how long it took for them to realize that the only person in the group who knew the route wasn't behind them anymore, but instead I gave them a shout.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/29/2012 08:35:01 MDT Print View

Good reminders!

Brett Tucker
(blister-free) - F

Locale: Puertecito ruins
The Perils of Certainty on 04/29/2012 20:15:01 MDT Print View

Many moons ago, at the age of 13, I went on a long day hike with a church group to a local woodland here in New England. The trail network winds around a large pond, generally near its perimeter, while a network of dirt roads threads the territory further beyond. I'd visited the area before, though I'd never before hiked the full loop that was on the day's agenda. Before long, another hiker about my age and I got out ahead of the main group, by our own choosing and without any resistance from the adult members of the party. It shouldn't have mattered, given that the trails were all well marked and we meant no mayhem. However, two factors came into play that proved to be game-changing that autumn day. The first was a category 1 hurricane which had hit the area several weeks prior. The second was my blinding sense of certainty that I knew an area of such size and scope that, in reality, no 13 year old kid could possibly grasp.

When we came to an area of heavy blowdown along the trail, conveniently there was a good dirt road running parallel to it. And so I quickly convinced myself and my hiking partner, out of sight or communication with the rest of the group, that we would leave the trail and instead hike the road. After all, the road would do much as the trail, I was certain, and both would end up back at the trailhead after circumnavigating the pond.

The road eventually reached a fork, and we went left, certain as I was - despite the pond no longer being in view - that a "series of lefts" would equate with a counter-clockwise loop around it. On and on we followed this road, hour upon hour, mile after mile, until the kid at my side no longer trusted my judgment that we were in fact bound for home base. "Not to worry" I assured him, as the road, however weary we were, was surely quicker than following the thicketed trail. Although by now pangs of self-doubt had begun welling up within me as well, dismissible mainly by an understanding that "we had come too far now to turn around." When at last we saw a sign welcoming us... to a different pond!, I realized the gravity of the circumstances. I knew at once just how far off track I'd taken us. My cavalier sense of ease over matters of navigation had now swung 180 degrees to notions of an unbridgeable, unresolvable impasse between our current location and our intended destination. And while reality was squarely in the middle of these two extremes, I panicked. I cried. And I worried the heck out of my hiking partner, who had been going along for the proverbial ride from the start and was now left merely to read my emotional cues and to fear whatever I feared.

Somehow though, from the throes of panic, a moment of extreme clarity emerged, a sense of being on auto-pilot and of knowing exactly what we had to do to ensure our safety. For this would be the day a young boy would learn of his survival instinct, what it felt like to have fear drive fear away in order to find a way out of harm's way. Against all odds, and without a hint of reservation from a naturally shy child, I flagged down a passing vehicle - improbably, a truck hauling a large horse trailer - and asked for a ride. Within an instant I was poised atop the truck bed trying to persuade my partner to join me, but he refused to do it. "My mom told me never to hitchhike," he explained resolutely. Mine most likely had as well, but running on adrenaline I was now blind to anything other than The Plan of Escape, and this, my survival auto-pilot had convinced me, was that plan unfolding. Ultimately the driver agreed to call park headquarters and we managed a more sobering trip back to our proper trailhead. By now I felt guilty and ashamed of the situation I had created, and to his credit the park ranger did his best to ensure those emotions would stick with me for a good while.

To our surprise, we arrived back at the vehicles before the rest of the party, and for a time we made like we'd keep our misadventure to ourselves. But of course with such a great story to share and the endorphins flying, that oath didn't last long and we were duly chastised later that evening. The group leaders were naturally concerned for our safety, and now angry with us, and responded with a toughened policy of staying together on future outings (we two were banned from any other hikes that fall). I learned, much like Ken on the North Country Trail, about the perils of certainty, the consequences of poor decision-making, and of the need to be situationally aware at all times, most especially when you lack a solid skill set as was the case for me back then. I also discovered something pretty incredible lurking inside of me, inside each of us, that rushes to our defense in a time of need, if only we can find a way to use it to our best advantage.

Edited by blister-free on 04/29/2012 21:52:24 MDT.