The cairns of Acadia: Objects of wonder, targets of vandals

One in a 2-part series on Acadia’s Bates cairns

The iconic Bates-style cairns of Acadia National Park, Zen-like in their simplicity and historic in nature, keep hikers from getting lost on the trails. But they also attract vandals and random rock-stacking visitors, making trail maintenance a nightmare.

bates cairn

Each Bates-style cairn is unique in coloring, size and shape, such as this one along the Dorr North Ridge Trail.

A couple of years ago, vandals knocked over nearly all the cairns on the Cadillac South Ridge Trail, even shattering some of the rocks. And every season, visitors pile rocks on ridgetops and cobblestone beaches, not knowing that violates park rules, or that it may offend others who come after.

For park resource specialist Charlie Jacobi, who’s been trying to educate the public for years about leaving Bates-style cairns and other rocks alone, it’s been so disheartening, he almost gave up the effort a couple of years ago. “I was ready to throw in the towel and say, ‘We can’t do it,’” Jacobi said in an interview. “It is a waste of our time when somebody is undoing the work that you do on a daily basis.”

cairn

Like a mini Stonehenge, this Bates-style cairn stands guard on the Pemetic South Ridge Trail.

It’s against park rules to randomly stack rocks, or to add to or dismantle Bates cairns.

The issue of people messing around with cairns or building stone heaps of their own isn’t just dogging Acadia. Last August, National Public Radio focused on the controversy in a piece entitled “Making Mountains Out of Trail Markers? Cairns Spark Debate in Southwest,” spurred by a column in the High Country News, “Stop the rock-stacking.”

Whether the issue is unofficial rock piles in the Southwest or in Acadia, vandalized Bates-style cairns or graffiti in national parks, said Jacobi: “There’s a larger issue here about stewardship of public lands and land trusts and places we love and go to.”

“Leave What You Find,” one of the seven principles developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, is the message people need to get, said Jacobi.

“Whether it is rocks or wildflowers or anything else, the little bit of restraint that is needed to share Acadia or any place with thousands and thousands of other people is tough to accept. But I think that is what we need to do,” said Jacobi.

Otherwise there could be rock stacks littering the landscape, or vandalized Bates-style cairns. “I’ve got photos ad nauseum. I’ve got pictures of different things that visitors have built. You could see holes in the soil where rocks have been removed,” said Jacobi. He’s also seen rock stacks piled on a boulder in the middle of Echo Lake, destruction of summit cairns and other random acts.

cairn

This photo of cairn vandalism and rock-stacking on the east face of Dorr Mountain along what is now known as Schiff Path was taken in the late 1990s. (NPS photo provided courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

History of Bates cairns of Acadia, and of humans stacking stones

The Bates cairns – two to four base stones, with a mantel rock across and a pointer stone up top – were first dreamed up by Bar Harbor pathmaker Waldron Bates, during the early 1900s, even before Acadia came into existence.

These unique trail markers had fallen out of favor somewhere along the way, with conical cairns replacing them over the years, according to Jacobi. But these, too, were a maintenance nightmare for the Acadia trail crew.

In the 1990s, the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, part of the National Park Service, highlighted the Bates cairns in a report it did on Acadia’s historic trails. That’s when Jacobi suggested to Acadia trails foreman Gary Stellpflug that they try Bates-style cairns, to see if they would be any easier to build and keep up than the conical cairns.

cairn

This circle of rocks defaced Sargent Mountain. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

“We started with a couple of years’ experimentation. We did them on a couple of south ridges and we found that, sure enough, they are easier to build and maintain, even though they get tampered with a lot,” said Jacobi.

“They are historic, so we are restoring part of that historic fabric of the park. They also use a lot less rocks. That is environmentally much better for the ridges if we are not using quite so many rocks. We avoid taking rocks from the soil as much as possible. If we do, we replace the rock we take with another rock so that we are still retaining the soil there. Even the rocks that are loose, lying around on the landscape and not embedded in the soil, they provide habitat for invertebrates and spiders,” said Jacobi.

In 2001, the park began converting from conical cairns to Bates-style cairns. It’s taken about 10 to 12 years for the process to be completed, primarily by a Friends of Acadia-funded and park-trained group of college-age youngsters known as Ridge Runners, as well as by park staff and others. “That is where we are at now,” Jacobi said, with annual maintenance of the Bates-style cairns, and trying to “make them bigger and better and more consistent in their appearance, so it is less tempting for visitors to add a rock or subtract a rock, or build another one.”

cairn

There’s nothing to smile about here with this arrangement of rocks. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

But there seems to be something deep in human nature that prompts people to move rocks around. There’s even a book entitled “Cairns: Messengers in Stone,” chronicling the history of humans making rock piles, and the geology, ecology and global nature of the stacks, whether they’re used to mark trails or a grave site, or to otherwise communicate to the next person to come along.

Jacobi was even featured in the book by author David B. Williams, for his attempts to try to change the rock-moving aspect of human behavior in Acadia, through signs and other forms of education. He’s written op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and research studies, and been interviewed by a variety of publications, including the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Outdoors magazine.

But so far, Jacobi said, “When you ask about my faith in changing human behavior, from my perspective, the jury is very much still out.”

Efforts to educate visitors about cairns of Acadia make slow progress

Just as Jacobi was ready to give up fighting for the cairns of Acadia, he decided to approach the sign committee to try one more time to come up with a message that would stop some of the rock moving. “I went to our park sign committee and said, ‘The only thing I can think to do here is to put up a whole bunch of signs. I don’t like doing it but as far as I am concerned, the choice here is between signs and Bates cairns’,” Jacobi said.

Sargent Northwest Trail in Acadia National Park

Bates cairn on the Sargent Northwest Trail, overlooking Somes Sound and beyond.

Working with researchers from the University of Vermont, the park tested six different signs on Gorham Mountain Trail “based on what is called the theories of moral development,” Jacobi said.

“None of the signs was a smoking gun in terms of working that much better than any other, none was statistically more significant than another,” said Jacobi, although any of the signs was better than no sign. However, “there was one that percentage-wise had done a little bit better and I preferred that message over the other. That is the one we selected to go on the signs.”

So at the end of the summer of 2014, Jacobi had his crew put the new signs up on tripods, on the popular ridge trails near the first, second or third cairn.

Theories of moral development aside, Jacobi knows “we are probably never going to be able to stop the occasional vandalism. There are just some folks who cannot be educated. We are not going to reach them. We need to reach the people who are maybe on the fence, whether they are children or young adults, and help them understand that the park will be a better place if they leave the cairns just as they are.”

cairns

Hopefully new signs, such as this one on Norumbega Mountain’s Goat Trail, will keep people from adding to or taking away from Bates-style cairns.

That goes for not randomly stacking rocks in Acadia, either, whether simple piles or elaborate structures, Jacobi said.

“Some of it is actually pretty neat, but if you are going to do that sort of thing – and I don’t recommend it for the most part – but if you are going to do it, you should make sure that when you get your rocks, you are not doing any damage where you get the rocks from, and that you take a picture of whatever it is that you do, and then put the rocks back where you got them from. I think very few people would be willing to do that.

“I would not recommend doing it on top of a mountain. The only appropriate place in Acadia to do anything like that is probably along the seashore where we have the cobble beaches. If you want to construct something, go ahead and do it, take your picture, and then knock it right back down again.” That’s the message about the stones that Jacobi wishes people would get.

rock stack

Random rock stacks getting in the way of the view at Blue Hill Overlook on the shoulder of Cadillac. (NPS photo courtesy of Charlie Jacobi)

One other message Jacobi wants to relay: Civic-minded hikers who want to do something about the vandalism and haphazard stone heaps shouldn’t just start moving rocks they think are out of place on their own. Instead, they should become a trained volunteer to help with cairn maintenance, and maybe adopt a trail, he said.  The park’s volunteer coordinator can be reached at (207) 288-8716 or via an an online contact form.

As the park readies to celebrate its Centennial, wouldn’t it be a fitting memorial to Waldron Bates and others who have blazed the trails before us, to see the cairns of Acadia unmarred, and the landscape free of random rock piles?

(NOTES: Original post published in acadiaonmyind.com. Amazon.com is an affiliated partner of this blog. Any purchases made through links on this blog are same price as if you bought directly via partner’s Web site. Small affiliate partner fee helps cover cost of blog.)

Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

About Dolores Kong & Dan Ring

Dolores Kong and Dan Ring are co-authors of the Falcon guides Hiking Acadia National Park and Best Easy Day Hikes Acadia National Park, and also blog at acadiaonmymind.com. They’ve backpacked the 270-plus miles of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, and are members of the Northeast 111 Club, having hiked all major peaks of the Northeast. Dolores, a former staff reporter at The Boston Globe, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ Professional and senior vice president with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC) in Boston. Dan, a journalist and former Statehouse bureau chief in Boston for the old Ottaway News Service and for The Republican, the daily newspaper for Springfield, Mass, is also an operations professional with Winslow, Evans & Crocker, Inc. (member of FINRA/SIPC), in Boston. They are married and live outside Boston.