I have some strong feelings about cairns and ducks along trails. Cairns are large piles of rocks, and ducks are small piles of rock (three or so), both meant to mark trails or routes that may be difficult to follow without them. The problem is, they are often put in place by people who are either partially or completely lost. I don’t understand the psychology of building rock piles just at the time when you are becoming unsure that you know where you are, but I have years of experience with rock piles to say that is exactly what happens.
When I used to work in the Superstition Wilderness as a Wilderness Information Specialist, we would take down every Monday the cairns that were put up over the weekend by day hikers along the Peralta loop. The trail crosses bedrock areas where it is difficult to follow the trail. These cairns were always along the wrong route, and would frequently lead out to impassible cliffs. The bigger the cairn, the more likely the route did not go anywhere. We finally had a flash of insight and decided that we would build cairns along the correct route. Hah! People took down our cairns and re-used the rocks to build their own cairns, again, along the wrong route. We finally gave up.
Closer to home (the Granite Chief Wilderness), the Hell Hole Trail is marked by cairn and ducks from where the trail starts west across the steep gully below Steamboat Mountain, after crossing Steamboat Creek. These continue all the way down to the “junction” with the trail along the shore of Hell Hole Reservoir. It is true that without the ducks it would be very difficult to follow the trail, as it was -sort of- constructed long ago and has not been maintained in many years. The problem is, there are multiple routes marked across the gully. There are places where you can stand, look down the gully, and see at least four different routes marked. Which of these is the best? I don’t know, and neither did the people who marked them. They all sucker you in by having frequent and large cairns, which decrease to ducks, then disappear just at the point you need them to get into the forest on the far side of the gully and find the trace of the old trail again. If you enter at the wrong point, you may overshoot the trail trace and never find it.
I admit that the trails and routes in this area are hard to follow, and without the ducks, perhaps no one could find their way. Though I won’t say too much about exactly where and what, they lead to some of the most amazing places in the entire Granite Chief Wilderness. It is certainly not the fault of the backpackers and explorers that the trails were never built to high standards to begin with, that parts of the trails were submerged beneath Hell Hole Reservoir (built in about 1970), and that they have not been maintained in at least 30 years and maybe much longer.
There is a real danger that just one cairn or duck getting knocked down, by nature or people, could leave users stranded with no clues about where to go next. I think that the cairns and ducks lead people into areas with a false sense of security. If a person does not have a high level of map reading skill, and a high level of trail and route finding ability, they should probably not be in an area like this at all. This may sound arrogant or exclusive, but so be it. One of the joys of my life is finding old trails and routes that have not been maintained in years and seeing if I can follow them by finding blazes and cut logs and traces of tread. I don’t want to deny that joy to anyone else, but at the same time, this is a skill that must be developed over years, and I don’t think the cairns and ducks help develop the skill.
So, what to do? My recommendation is that you never place a cairn or duck unless you have been back and forth over a route at least twice in each direction and that you feel confident that you have identified the best route. Fewer times – don’t. The least bit of doubt – don’t. And please don’t mark areas where the trail is obvious. These just encourage people to think that the whole trail or route will be similarly marked. Though I’m often tempted to just knock down the cairns and ducks when I see them in the wrong places, I restrain myself until I have the time to spend really looking for the best route, going back and forth over it until I feel confident that I know and can mark the route.