Robert Bukaty’s recent slideshow of rock cairns along the shoreline of Acadia National Park (“Acadia’s balancing rocks”) was striking, but it hints at a larger, long-time problem that is epidemic throughout the park.
From time immemorial, humans have constructed cairns to mark travel routes, and that functionality is easily understood. But there is a creative, artistic side to all of us as well, and a desire to leave our mark on the landscape. In a national park with seven-digit visitation annually, an area created primarily for its natural beauty, is it OK to express that creative side through cairn construction if you are not a member of the trail crew?
After 30 years of observing, hiking, photographing and reveling in Acadia National Park, personally and professionally, I can say unequivocally and without hesitation: It is not.
We would not tolerate spray paint at Thunder Hole, nor someone scratching his or her name across Acadia’s beautiful pink granite. Constructing rock “art” is no different. While one can make the argument that it is relatively harmless along the shoreline where the next big storm may take it out, what is a photographer searching for the “natural beauty” of the park to think, or to do, when 50 or 100 cairns populate the view? What are other visitors to think when they see this? Did the cairn builders consider how their actions might affect other visitors?
Cairn building causes even more damage on the mountaintops of the park, where visitors remove rocks from the already thin mountain soil to build cairns or add rocks to the cairns that mark the trail, cairns built by park staff for the purpose of guiding hikers and minimizing their collective footprint by concentrating use. Plants growing around a rock removed from the soil die. Soil erodes. And a perhaps a frustrated hiker is led the wrong way by an errant extra cairn or two.
Outdoor enthusiasts in Acadia and elsewhere are asked to follow seven “Leave No Trace” principles to minimize their impacts on the environment and avoid disrupting the enjoyment of other visitors. The most challenging principle to embrace is to “Leave What You Find.”
While picking tasty blueberries is permitted (and maybe should be required), “Leave What You Find” asks all of us to exercise a little restraint to allow others to discover and enjoy the wildflowers, the beach cobbles, the cultural artifacts, the natural beauty and a lot more. If even one in 100 visitors picked a wildflower in the park, more than 20,000 of them would be gone. We have to share the magic of Acadia, all 2.25 million of us.
A single cairn may seem harmless, but it’s often like the broken window syndrome in a run-down urban neighborhood. Before you know it, they’re everywhere. If it were not for Friends of Acadia’s crew of ridgerunners and a group of dedicated volunteers on cleanup duty and teaching “Leave No Trace,” what would Acadia’s shorelines and mountaintops look like today? I can tell you. They would be blanketed by piles of rocks and holes in the soil.
So if you or your children can’t resist that creative impulse, construct your cairn only on the cobble beaches, take your picture, knock it down and leave all the rocks right there where you found them. Then others will discover the same natural beauty as you.
All who visit are stewards of Acadia National Park and the wondrous experiences it offers. Only through our care will it continue to be a source of wonder and inspiration for all visitors, for all time.
Our most conservation-minded president, Theodore Roosevelt, understood this restraint. Describing the Grand Canyon, he once said, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve upon it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”
Apt words for Acadia, too.
Charlie Jacobi is a natural resource specialist at Acadia National Park.