The word”cairn” originates from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can conjure images of faith, purpose and the spiritual journey. In the backcountry, cairn building is a popular trend and it’s easy to understand why people feel attracted to these cute little piles of flat rocks which are positioned like child’s building blocks. With shoulders aching and black flies buzzing through ears, a hiker will look over the stones in front of her and try to choose one that has the right amount of flatness and tilt as well as breadth and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too wide, another that’s too small) the truest will choose the one that sets perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn will be complete.
Many people are unaware that cairns can have a negative environmental impact particularly near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge of an ocean, a lake or pond, they can disrupt the ecosystem and eliminate the microorganisms’ habitats that provide the food chain. Additionally the rocks could be carried away due to erosion and transported to places that could pose a threat to wildlife or humans.
To avoid this, the practice of making cairns is not recommended in areas that have rare or endangered reptiles, amphibians or mammals or plants and flowers that need moisture locked under the rocks. If you build an cairn on private property, it may violate the federal and state laws protecting the land’s natural resources and could result in fines, or even arrest.