The word”cairn” is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can invoke images of faith, purpose, and the spiritual journey. Cairn building is a very popular activity in the backcountry. It’s not difficult to see why people are drawn to these small piles of flat stones that are balanced like children’s blocks. With shoulders aching and flies that are black buzzing in ears, hikers will look over the stones in front of her and try to pick one with the right balance of tilt and flatness in depth, breadth and width. After a few near misses (one that’s too big or too small), the purist will pick the one that’s perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn becomes complete.

What many don’t realize is that cairn-making can have an adverse environmental impact, especially when done close to water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of in a lake, river, or pond, they disturb the ecosystem and destroy the microorganisms’ habitats that are the backbone of the food chain. The rocks could be swept away from the edge of a pond or lake by erosion and end up in places in which they could harm humans or wildlife.

Cairns should not be constructed in areas that are home to rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, flowers, or reptiles or where the water is buried beneath the rocks. If you build a rock cairn on private land it could be in violation of federal or state laws that protect the natural resources of the land and result in fines and even arrest.

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