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Of Woods and Words: Leaving a Mark

Rock Cairns
Rock Cairns

OWW_Finalcut_08032011.mp37.94 MB

I don’t remember noticing them when I was younger. Now, on each visit to Artist’s Point and the Grand Marais Harbor, I’m amazed at the plethora of rock cairns I find. Those tippy rock towers dot Lake Superior’s shoreline. No doubt constructed by both tourists and residents alike who find a spare minute by the lake, the cairns are monuments to those stolen moments and are often simple engineering feats.

Used for centuries for ceremonial purposes and to mark paths and graves around the world, rock cairns, at least those placed by Lake Superior, have little purpose other than decoration these days. But farther from the shore and deeper into the woods, the cairns’ purpose expands. Especially on portages in areas affected by recent wildfires, rock cairns help keep wilderness travelers on the rarely straight, but always narrow paths.

But should the rock cairns be out there at all? While the cairns are certainly not hurting anything, the other day, I spoke with an area visitor who compared the construction of a rock cairn to slashing an “X” into a tree trunk. The rock cairn and slashed tree trunk comparison is obviously a little heavy handed: a simple nudge destroys most rock cairns found in these parts; the X in the tree may never completely disappear. Perhaps a more fitting comparison for rock cairns is the rather innocuous sand castle, but the majority of sand castles live only until the tide comes in, while rock cairns are usually around until they receive one of those aforementioned nudges.

My reaction to the cairns isn’t violently negative like some people, but when I paddled up to a Boundary Waters campsite a couple weeks back and discovered that the big blobs I’d been spying on the site’s shoreline were massive rock cairns, I couldn’t help but feel that they had to go. In this federally designated wilderness, it’s been drilled into our heads to leave no trace in order to create a small corner of a great big country that appears, relatively, untouched by humans. Maybe I’m too cynical for my own good, but I suspect that big old rock cairn I stumbled upon wasn’t placed there by prehistoric people. Methinks someone did some boulder rearrangement during their camp downtime.

As harmless as rock cairns are, as they’ve grown more ubiquitous, my attitude toward them has grown notably less tolerant and welcoming. I can’t put my finger on what bugs me about them. I fully acknowledge there’s a simple joy that comes from playing in the rocks. And if you want to do some rock stacking on the shoreline, go for it. I don’t think we should have to tiptoe through nature like it’s a sanctuary. We can’t truly value the natural world with a hands-off approach. People need the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature and experience it in a personal manner. But they don’t necessarily need to share their specific experience with others. By gently dismantling the rock cairn you construct during your time at the shore, you leave the shore in its natural state for the next person to experience.

Rock cairns seem bound up in that very human need to leave a mark wherever we go. While more anonymous than scratching initials into a rock or tree, the cairns have always been a subtle graffiti. When I see a landscape sprinkled liberally with rock cairns, I’m reminded of that wilderness etiquette mantra: Take only photographs, leave only footprints. Maybe we need to relearn the art of slipping through an area without leaving a mark of our own and letting the experience itself leave a mark on us.

Airdate: August 3, 2011