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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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Ken T.
(kthompson) - MLife

Locale: All up in there
Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/29/2012 20:38:35 MDT Print View

Has anyone ever had a compass that was wrong? I did once while doing some map work. Later discovered that the rocks in the area I was exploring had a high iron content. Picked the compass up off the rock and it swung around quite a bit. Other than that instance of user error I have never had an issue. I do keep a little button compass as a backup. Just in case.

Agree that this is a post trip report. Always tomorrow to see what surprises are in store.

Edited by kthompson on 04/30/2012 06:57:44 MDT.

Kevin Babione
(KBabione) - MLife

Locale: Pennsylvania
The Perils of Certainty - Social Inattention on 04/30/2012 06:44:51 MDT Print View

I enjoyed reading this article but can't shake the feeling that this would have made a good "Post-Trip" thread instead of eating up 50% of the quite valuable weekly article space.

With that said, I've found that each time I wander off the trail or miss a turn-off I can trace it back to where the trail was wide enough for us to hike side-by-side for a change instead of the more common single-file. I'm usually on trails in Pennsylvania and they are generally well marked. If we're on a forest road for a stretch and we can walk next to each other we start talking about the weather, the hike, the fauna...All the things you think about while hiking but can't share because you're more or less by yourself.

My most frustrating example of this was on the Allegheny Front Trail - we had just crossed over a road and were on a very steep downhill jeep track chatting away. We had gone almost 1/2 mile before we realized that we didn't see any trail markers anymore. It was a pretty brutal climb back up to where the trail turned off the jeep track and back up the mountain - all unnecessary and caused by simple "social inattention."

Normally while hiking I'm in my own zone...I find that I most often lead our group and it seems second nature to keep track of the trail markers and when I saw the last one. Some PA trails are so well marked that you can usually see multiple markers while standing in one spot (like the AT). On other trails (the Mid State Trail comes to mind) the markers are fewer and further apart.

Kathleen B
(rosierabbit) - M

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Perils of Iron in the Rock on 04/30/2012 19:12:00 MDT Print View

Ken - I was on an unnamed peak with a group years ago in the Teanaway area in Washington. We were all getting wildly different readings as we were trying to identify different peaks. Several of us held our compasses out in front of us and swung them back and forth. The needle persisted in pointing to the peak we were on. Since we were near a peak named Iron Mountain, we realized we were in an area of iron-rich rock. It was like being on our own personal north pole. The same thing happened to me this summer in the same area, but on another peak.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:16:51 MDT Print View

"Has anyone ever had a compass that was wrong?"

I have one tiny compass that is consistently 120 degrees off from north. It was a cheapie, so that explains a few things. I haven't figured out a good way to use it as a joke on a friend. All of my good compasses are fairly accurate, even when they get an air bubble inside the liquid capsule.


Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:23:22 MDT Print View

"Good" compasses get air bubbles?

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:43:22 MDT Print View

" "Good" compasses get air bubbles?"

Not normally. However, I have had some really expensive compasses that got flexed or stepped on or otherwise abused, and the liquid capsule got torqued enough that an air bubble grew in there.

Currently, I don't use any compasses much while backpacking, but I carry one small one just to avoid the embarrassment of getting lost someday.

Remember, thirty years ago that compass skill was a big deal.


John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:45:29 MDT Print View

I've encountered this on Ebay. Some sellers relate that compasses that get shipped via Airmail develop bubbles.All I can say is that stuff I bought on the ground in China eventually developed bubbles.I can't say for sure if it was after I flew home? There is also a tendency of wrist compasses on watchbands to tend to orient towards your watch. Very unnerving if you haven't tested things out in a known environment. Also look at Suunto totally dropping the Clipper which has at least 3 generic versions vs . their M-9 at a much higher price point. When in doubt maybe 2 compasses and isolate at least 1 away from your watch or anything metal camera etc? My current plan.

Edited by Meander on 04/30/2012 19:48:14 MDT.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:50:12 MDT Print View

My "good" compass doesn't have liquid in it. Maybe liquid compasses are "not so good?"


John Nausieda
(Meander) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: The Perils of Certainty on 04/30/2012 19:52:52 MDT Print View

Probably , but then those who dive are in a much bigger fix? That being darkness and dwindling time?

Edited by Meander on 04/30/2012 20:07:15 MDT.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Compasses on 04/30/2012 19:57:00 MDT Print View

Once in Colorado we found a compass that was perfectly backwards. The red end of the needle pointed south when it was supposed to point north. I kept it hidden when I was doing compass courses with kids. I was going to give it to some poor kid but I never felt mean enough. I think it was an error in the painting because it was always 180 degrees off.

Tjaard Breeuwer
(Tjaard) - MLife

Locale: Minnesota, USA
Broken GPS on 05/01/2012 07:51:09 MDT Print View

I once had one of those 'broken' gps's showing me to be moving in the opposite direction of what I knew to be true.... As well as a fair share of maps with 'misprints'....

Kendall Clement
(socalpacker) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
RE: "The Perils of Certainty" on 05/09/2012 11:48:04 MDT Print View


Thank you for sharing your experience. Like some the of the others, I've also had this happen to me. :)

Dena Kelley

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Re The Perils of Certainty on 08/06/2012 17:44:52 MDT Print View

I've witnessed this happen before where people ignore their GPS, or the location of the sun, because they are certain they know which direction they're going. My husband was so sure on a trip last winter that he ignored me telling him we were headed North instead of South for a half hour, until he finally said to me, "We're going the wrong way, aren't we?". Haha. Myself, I have one of the worst senses of direction ever, so I use a GPS or compass always.

chris Nelson

Locale: San Francisco
Re: Re The Perils of Certainty on 08/06/2012 18:02:42 MDT Print View

Thanks for sharing the story.

Just a month a go in Emigrant I tried to take a "Short cut" it was only a 1/4 mile or so off trail but took me over an hour to realize I was off course and find my way back to the trail.

So I totaly agree with Cameron
“Short cuts make for long delays.”

Edited by Nel250 on 08/06/2012 18:04:09 MDT.