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Cairns Are A Beautiful Rock Pile – Do You Know What They Are?

I came to cairns rather late in life! I am not talking about the breed of dog of Toto fame. I am talking about the man-made piles of stacked stones built along pathways throughout the world. Cairns are a beautiful rock pile. If you are new to cairns you should know they are most commonly used to mark a trail or route. Often placed where two paths join to indicate the correct direction to take, or are built in places to warn of danger. Cairns built along the sides of roads, are easily passed unnoticed. Traveler’s graffiti, if you will, I’ve come to contemplate and appreciate.

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My first conscious connection with cairns occurred when my husband Hans and I were traveling east on Trans-Canada Highway 17. Point of departure Minnesota, we passed north of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay headed for the Adirondack Mountains of Upstate New York. Somewhere in northern Ontario, Hans, an Austrian and mountain enthusiast by birth, pointed out to me my first cairn, then another, and another. I’ve been hooked ever since, a cairn junkie unabashed!

cairns a beatiful rock pile
Cairns are a beautiful rock pile used to mark a trail or a route.

Honestly, the ancient rock shield of the Canadian North has its own incredible charm and is interesting enough. Colorful granites glitter like drag queens. Red rocks bleed ore. Rich powerful black basalts having something to do with volcanoes hint of rugged ancient mountains erased by time. Highway 17 is lined by rock outcrops of fold upon fold of cooled lava, layered like wrinkles on a Shar Pei. You can see where the road was cut and blasted through the shield. It is a treat to drive through miles of pristine wilderness, cross fast flowing rivers, and skirt the shores of crystal clear lakes. Add to that, the spotting of cairns perched precariously on top of rugged crags and cliffs, some of the most treacherous roosts Ontario has to offer, and you have the makings of an inspired drive to delight any manner of adventurers!

I’ve been seeing cairns ever since that camping trip to Upstate New York several years ago. You will find they are everywhere once you know what to watch for. Rock monuments, cairns in my mind communicate to the observer the message “I passed this way, I was here!” Some cairns last only moments before weather or waves erase their existence. Some last lifetimes perched on high mountain peaks or in the depths of secluded caves few every see. Built by solitary architects or by the contributions of as many as the location can hold, cairns are lovely, lyrical, and mysterious like Chinese letters.
Minimalist take note! A couple of rocks does not a cairn make. One rock resting upon another could be the result of an accident or nature’s doing rather than intentional cairn raising. It fascinates me that people climb steep and rugged terrain in treacherous locations, dangerous to approach from either land or water, then take time to arrange stones. It has to be the heartiest, most agile and some might say, foolish individuals among us.

Cairns are created for artistic and creative expression. I’ve seen them stacked in the shape of animals. Built like temples or sanctuaries sacred and still. Or poised like people pointing off in the distance. They remind me in many ways of urban graffiti. Beautiful and frightening. If you think about it, cairns like graffiti range from simple to elaborate. Both have existed since ancient times. Used to mark territory then and now. Just as cairns warn of dangers, graffiti does too in away, expressing underlying social and political messages, cautioning through the artist’s design for the concerns of the day.

Part of the reason I love camping is it allows for contemplation. Lately, I’ve been watching my children, raising their children, instilling in them a love of nature, a reverence and respect for all things wild. Children I raised, along with their spouses, are building adventurous souls in my grandchildren, one outdoor memory at a time. Perhaps someday well into the future, a grandchild of mine will build a cairn for a child they adore, and maybe, just maybe pause for a moment and think of me. The person who points cairns out to those who shared her travels.
I’m off to build a cairn. Celtic inspired or so my inner druid seems to be conjuring. A remembrance that communicates I was here, on this day, in this season.

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