Cairn or No Cairn?

Have you ever built a rock cairn? I personally do not have the patience to build a rock cairn myself but many people do. On Artist Point in Grand Marais there are a bunch of rock cairns people have made. They aren’t marking a trail they are just there because people decided to make them there. There are also a ton of rock cairns near a river in Sedona, Arizona and many other places where some people don’t want to see them.  What do you think about rock cairns?

Cairns in Sedona
rock cairns

Cairns: Messengers in Stone

>David B. Williams

Cairns – seemingly random man made stacks of rocks – can be surprisingly rich in stories and meaning. For thousands of years, cairns have been used by people to connect to the landscape and communicate with others. But what are they communicating?

The word “cairn” dates back to 16th century Scotland and comes from the Gaelic carn, or “heap of stones.” It refers to stone piles ranging from a simple stack to elaborate mounds totalling hundreds of rocks marking Scottish burial sites – some more than 4,000 years old.

Many people today are most familiar with cairns that mark trails for travelers. These cairns may be only a few strategically placed rocks, while others may be massive piles of rocks high on a ridge that are visible for miles. No matter the size or shape, this is a simple way to mark the proper route at a trail fork (especially for those travelers without today’s cell phones and GPS units to guide them).

The purpose and meanings of cairns differ dramatically across cultures and history. Some cairns are built to guide travelers, mark grave sites or serve as an altar or shrine, others reveal property boundaries or sacred hunting grounds, and even predict astronomical activity.

The Navajo people repeatedly place stones on cairns to bring good luck (known as tsé ninájihí). The Inuit people in the high Arctic have more than 50 terms to describe various types of cairns, depending on location, season, and message. The ancient Inca Trail system in South America has countless trailside cairns for guidance known as apacheta. And in Iceland, cairns been given the persona of old women and it’s tradition for people to leave bawdy poems, known as beinakerlingar, or bone crones, inside them.
One of my favorite cairn stories is from 1845, when Sir John Franklin and more than 100 men set sail from England across the Atlantic Ocean to the Northwest Passage. Unfortunately, they never made it.

Two hard winters froze them into the ice, almost 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. In 1847, one ship broke free and sailed south to a small island where the men left a note in a rock cairn. The note read, “all were well.”

One year later, the men returned to the same cairn and updated their original message. Their leader Franklin and two dozen others were now dead and the survivors were trying to march south to find an escape. Their note, discovered in the cairn nearly a decade later, was the lone piece of written evidence ever recovered from the Franklin Expedition.

While their purpose and meaning differ dramatically between cultures, finding a cairn, a silent messenger in stone, is an enduring reminder of those who have crossed paths before us.

1 Comment on “Cairn or No Cairn?

  1. When the way is obvious I don’t cairn. When I’m hiking in, knowing I’ll be hiking out the same path I will build a cairn when I guess the way might not be obvious.

    I was climbing in Red Rocks Canyon (west of Las Vegas) in 2003. I got sick during the hike in and was a pitch up the route when it became obvious to everyone (because of the non-stop vomiting) that I wasn’t fit to climb. As soon as I stopped exerting myself I stopped vomiting. So, rappelled to the bottom of the route and was going to find a comfortable place to sleep for the night, but because I’d already killed my ration of water for the 2 days we were going to be there decided it’d be better to hike out to the car.

    Unfortunately, the sun had dipped behind the mountains and things were getting dark. Within 10 minutes I had lost the trail to the car and had only one recognizable landmark by which to guide myself, the Luxor light shining straight up. I knew the road was east of us and Luxor had to be roughly east, so I started hiking straight toward that Luxor beam. Occasionally I’d run into a drop off, some where higher than I could see the bottom, so I’d turn south, hike for a while and then turn east again. I zig-zagged my way across the desert for quite a while this way. Dragging my feet, dehydrated, somewhat delirious. I could see the headlamps of my friends on the cliff face.

    At some point I felt like I just couldn’t trudge through the sand and cacti any more. I decided to throw down my sleeping bag and sleep right there in the desert scrub. But. But there were these noises I couldn’t identify. I knew there were wild horses and burros in the area, but what else, I didn’t know. I imagined waking up in the morning with a scorpion planted on my forehead and a rattlesnake nestled up under my knees. Me, now unable to move without getting stabbed in the face or bitten in the legs or privates. I kept on trudging.

    About 2 hours into my hike I figured I was gone. I could still see the Luxor beam. Couldn’t see or hear my friends. Figured I was going to collapse soon. It was imminent. I was off the trail. My friends wouldn’t be coming down till the following evening. I was sure I was dead. Then I saw it. A rock cairn at least 5 feet tall. My delusions at the time told me it was 7 feet tall, but it really wasn’t as tall as me. There was hope. I looked at the ground and figured out the best possible “path” leading to/from the cairn and hiked on that. I kept looking back at the cairn, not wanting to lose it, but knowing I needed to move forward. Just as I lost the first cairn a second one appeared. This one was truly 7 feet tall. Big rocks, small rocks, a thing of beauty, like its friend. I came across at least 4 of these cairns and then found a definite trail.

    After about 10 more minutes of hiking I was a couple hundred yards from the road. I could see cars going by and was getting excited. I saw our car on the road, but needed to find the car keys, which we’d buried just off the path on which we hiked in. A few minutes of searching, car keys in hand, trunk popped and 2 liters of water gone in seconds. I drove back to the apartment, climbed into the tub and found I had hundreds of cactus tines stuck into my shins. It took me a day and a half to recover and I was able to climb the rest of the trip.

    After that, if a way seems like it might not be obvious, I stop to build a cairn big enough that someone staggering in the dark (with a headlamp) is likely to see.

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