Considering Cairns (Or Stop that Rock-stacking)

[This is another post in the Summer in Wisconsin series. What began as one of several items for a “roundup” of summer notes, has grown into five separate blogposts, published one at a time in this first and second week of August. You can access all the Summer in Wisconsin series by clicking on those words; they are listed among the categories at the end of each post.]


How do you feel about cairns?

I’m asking about those piles of rocks that seem to be intentionally arranged and left as some kind of message, by someone who preceded you down a path on a beach or marking a fork in the road. Would it surprise you to learn that they are the cause of strong feelings and differences of opinion among those who love the natural world?

I have not considered cairns much past a mild curiosity about a particular cairn whenever I’ve encountered one. But then I haven’t encountered that many, while apparently others have, and they see them as a problem that is multiplying. Here is a link to “Stop the rock-stacking”  [ ]     published at the High Country News early in July. In this opinion piece the writer, Robyn Martin, distinguishes between people arranging them for some sort of personal intention, and “true cairns, the official term for deliberately stacked rocks.”

Two rock cairns on a Lake Michigan beach near Jacksonport, WI, in a photo taken August 25, 2013.

Two rock cairns on a Lake Michigan beach near Jacksonport, WI, in a photo taken August 25, 2013. (From the photo stream of @wewon31 at Flickr)

“Those of us who like to hike through wilderness areas are glad to see the occasional cairn, as long as it’s indicating the right way to go at critical junctions in the backcountry,” she writes. But she calls many of “problematic,” because they can lead “an unsuspecting hiker into trouble, away from the trail and into a potentially dangerous place,” if they are just set in a random place. She is seeing a growing number of them on public lands, and believes they often serve only as “mementoes from other people’s’ lives.” Kind of like leaving graffiti, she says.

“Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego,” she concludes.

Her words seemed a bit harsh, I thought, but quickly found out she’s not the only one with harsh words for cairns. When her article was shared on the Door County Land Trust’s Facebook page, it quickly garnered 29 comments and the majority – 18 of them – were clearly opposed to the practice of building and leaving cairns.

Here are a representative few:

“Not a fan.”

“Intrusive, narcissistic, thoughtless destruction of natural places.”

“Do we as humans need to leave a mark everywhere we go? What about ‘Leave No Trace’? Several said “Leave only footsteps.”

Though a clear majority of commenters were opposed to cairn building, it was not unanimous. In addition to the 18 commenters opposed, I counted 6 neutral comments (“they don’t phase me”), and 5 that were positive about this phenomenon. Like this one:

“Interesting conversation, actually!” I have loved the stone cairns out at the back-pack sites for 20 years.”

It certainly is interesting to see the wide variety of expressions that individuals can hold about things that affect the natural world, and our place in it. What do YOU think? I would love some more feedback on the subject of cairns from readers here.

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