Unstack Them: Building Endless Rock Cairns Isn’t Cool

words :: Leslie Anthony.

The oddly resurgent problem of people trashing the environment has been the subject of much consternation and talk of late in Canada—almost like we’ve gone back to the dirty ’60s. A widespread conclusion has been that we must collectively—citizens, business and government alike—find a way to instill respect for nature at a grassroots level, inculcating this into our own actions such that visitors to green spaces and wilderness areas are imbued with the same sense of reverence most of us grew up holding for these surroundings.

A Trend of Backcountry Silliness

But here’s the thing about the bottom-up approach: We can pick up garbage and dog poop, uproot invasive species, report illegal camping, scold folks who carelessly toss cigarette butts and warn them about fire danger, but if we leave or encourage other visual signposts of disrespect, entitlement and unconscious behaviour, no matter how innocent-seeming, we’ll get nowhere. One of the worst examples of this is a trend that has reached a fever pitch of silliness, enough to make the news almost every summer: the stacking/balancing of rocks in wilderness and natural areas.

From Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula to Algonquin, from Rouge National Urban Park to the Rockies, people seem to be literally falling over themselves to “outstack” each other in a dubious competition.

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I’ve increasingly noted this behaviour everywhere. From Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula to Algonquin and Muskoka, from Rouge National Urban Park in Toronto to backcountry areas in the Rockies, from B.C. roadsides and beaches to the top of Whistler Mountain, people seem to be literally falling over themselves to “outstack” each other in a dubious competition that is: dangerous, as it often involves precipices; aesthetically disturbing, and negatively impactful—especially on delicate alpine ecosystems.

Rock stacks
A good example of how rock stacks can disfigure an environment. Captain Cook Highway, Queensland, Australia. Photo: David Clode via Unsplash

A Semaphore For Our Disregard

You might say the jury is out as to whether the environs of many places people find their way to can be considered any form of natural. But what you see in terms of infrastructure, trails and humans is merely superficial. As with much of nature, the ground beneath your feet is a world unto itself, a microcosm of wilderness, home and habitat to countless creatures from lichens to bacteria, colonizing plants, insects (including pollinating butterflies and bees), spiders, small mammals and birds—all of which, whether on a cobble beach or a mountaintop, are linked in some way to a fragile web, centered on rocks.

Never mind the actual needs of those organisms that are truly saxicolous (the biological word for rock-dwelling and/or dependent), it serves no one and no thing in either the tourism or nature equations to have people swarming over such habitats piling up every rock within sight. Not only does this violate the experience for others (and, occasionally, present a liability), but it is, as suggested at the outset, a semaphore of our total and utter disregard for the environment at a time when we should be desperately flagging out messages to the contrary.

Every Rock Disturbed is a Loss

Let’s take any sparsely populated rocky environment as an example—whether shoreline, windswept Canadian Shield, tundra or high-altitude true alpine. Soil development in such places is a painstakingly slow process requiring thousands of years. The breakdown products of physical and chemical weathering, along with microbial and lichen activity, create the beginnings of soil between, under and around rocks. Moving even the smallest stone increases erosion by exposing the soil underneath, allowing it to wash away and leave nothing for native plants and mosses that colonize these harsh environments. And every rock disturbed is the loss of a potential or real home for numerous small organisms.

Even the large worldwide community of “stone-balancing artists” (Google that if you’re looking for an interesting rabbit hole to dive down) eschew such behaviour. As one wrote in response to an online debate on the issue: “I am very concerned about the practice of leaving stacks of stones littering natural areas… We build our balances, take some photos, and then dismantle. We strive especially to avoid disturbing natural and protected areas.”

No rock stack required.

Rock Cairns: The Opposite of ‘Leave No Trace’

Unfortunately, the act of stacking then unstacking stones already violates the Leave No Trace ethos universal to camping and backcountry travel, as noted in another post: “Leave No Trace principles aren’t just about trash. Leave No Trace means to leave no sign that you travelled through the area. That’s zero impact. When you move rocks to create decorative cairns you are altering nature for the next visitor and leaving a reminder that you were there.”

Is there ever a justification for rock cairns? Of course: for navigation and safety, as per tradition, and to carefully mark trails with minimal disruption to the natural environment, which avoids the need in wild areas for unnatural and expensive signage.

Educate, Discourage and Unstack

In any other context, stacking rocks is simply another arrogant “I was here” statement, equivalent to tagging a tree or a rock with spray-paint—something few rock-stackers even would condone, missing the connection. During the COVID-19 lockdown, people in my town seem to have found several annoying new equivalents: painting rocks (mostly with toxic paints) and leaving them along woodland trails, and stapling pictures to trees for the supposed enjoyment of passersby. While I can empathize with the intended spirit-lifting, we’re-all-in-this-together message during these cooped-up paranoiac times, such flagrant environmental alterations can send the opposite message of being inconsiderate of others, turning what, for some, would normally be a meditative commune with nature into another depressing gallery of unconscious human behaviour.

But back to rock-stacking. Given that this meme has spread globally and deeply into both front- and backcountry tourist culture (thank you, Instagram), what to do?

There’s only one solution: In cases of true peril or impact in natural areas, forbid it as many U.S. National Parks currently do, and shut it down wherever and whenever possible through outreach and legislation. At the personal level: educate, discourage and, of course… unstack those rocks. —ML


Mountain Life Annual 2020