Cairns: To Build or Not To Build

Walking along any beach or shoreline in Duluth and the surrounding areas it is hard to not see a cairn, or stacked rock tower. 

Cairns on the beach near Split Rock Lighthouse. Photo by Heidi Stang

Cairns on the beach near Split Rock Lighthouse. Photo by Heidi Stang

A cairn in Scottish Gaelic means heap of stones. These stone heaps were used as burial markers or trail markers. Even today national parks maintain original cairns for trail markers.

In recent years across the country and globe, people have began making these towers for relaxation and as a form of art. 

With the rise in the popularity of the towers has come the divide in opinions surrounding them.

Despite several underlying causes, there are really two main stances to take on the issue of cairns, either for the recreational building of them or against it.

Those in favor of the cairns say they are meant purely for fun and relaxation. 

The dozens of towers that line the shores of Lake Superior were built most likely by people trying to relax or get the perfectly Instagrammable photo. Some people may try to be building towers higher than the ones around or are going for the most gravity defying stack. 

Another cairn along the North Shore. Photo by Heidi Stang

Another cairn along the North Shore. Photo by Heidi Stang

Those opposed feel that the towers can be disruptive to ecosystems, misleading to path followers and a sign of arrogant human beings. 

Taking rocks out of river beds can disturb aquatic life built around it. At some parks around the country, original cairns are used as trail markers and when people build new ones it can cause confusion among new hikers. 

Finally some complain that when you walk onto a quiet beach free of people it is impossible to escape reality with the stacked reminders of past visitors.

Initially looking into the issue of rock towers, I thought those bothered by the towers were overreacting. They’ll blow over in the waves or wind one day anyway. However, the outdoor ethics code of “leave no trace” started to shift my mind.

The National Park Service has Wilderness Ethics they encourage all park goers to uphold and part of this code of ethics is the seven principles of “Leave No Trace.”  

Their message is that the best part of nature is that it is natural. It is not man made. 

Number four on the principles list is to “leave what you find.” If we leave what we find why are we moving rocks and clearly saying “I, a human, was here”?

I myself love building a good cairn but can see the negative effects of the structures. I think the best approach is one that most stone balancers use and that is the build and dismantle.

Choose stones not in water to build with, take fun pictures and then knock it down. Leave no trace. Enjoy nature for what it is, natural.

VoicesHeidi Stang