Message in the rocks: Acadia’s Bates cairns get new focus

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

Long the target of vandals and errant hikers, the historic cairns of Acadia National Park are the focus of new efforts to recognize and preserve them.

A Bates-style cairn, located off the Champlain North Ridge Trail, overlooks tiny Egg Rock and the Schoodic Peninsula.

A Bates cairn, located on the Champlain North Ridge Trail, overlooks tiny Egg Rock and the Schoodic Peninsula.

Moira O’Neill of Surry and Ranger Judy Hazen Connery have worked together to design an “Anatomy of a Bates Cairn” T-shirt. O’Neill, a registered nurse and a volunteer who helps maintain the cairns, sells the T-shirts on Etsy  to help raise money for trail maintenance.

“If we educate people about the meaning or purpose of the Bates cairn … their attitude then will be to respect them and their purpose,” O’Neill said.

bates cairn

Isaac “Breaux” Higgins, center, explains the importance of protecting the Bates cairn at a recent community dinner at the Bar Harbor Congregational Church, as part of his project to become an Eagle Scout. Accompanying him are fellow Boy Scouts Liam Higgins, his brother, and Jack Beckerley. (Photo courtesy of Bar Harbor Troop 89)

As part of his project to become an Eagle Scout, Isaac “Breaux” Higgins, a senior at Mount Desert Island High School, is raising awareness by collecting signatures on a pledge to respect the cairns.

Higgins and other scouts are also selling the T-shirts for O’Neill’s fundraising for trail work.

The Bates-style cairns are special in the National Park Service and a key part of the history of the trails on Mount Desert Island. They are named for Waldron Bates, chair of the Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association Path Committee from 1900-1909, who first designed them.

Anatomy of Bates cairns helps educate visitors and hikers

The cairns are built on two base columns of between 2 and 4 rocks, with a lintel stone, or platform, across the two columns and a pointer rock on top. The cairns help orient hikers and steer them in the right direction, while protecting the environment by keeping people on the trail.

bates cairns

The Bates cairn T-shirt design, by artist and Ranger Judy Hazen Connery, points out the purpose of each stone and includes the Acadia Centennial logo on the sleeve.

Over the decades, the cairns fell into disuse. Starting in 2001, Charlie Jacobi, park natural resource specialist, Gary Stellpflug, trails foreman, and others began restoring them.

Despite the hard work, their efforts are often stymied by tourists and hikers who knock over or move the cairns. People also frequently mar the cairns by placing numerous stones all over them.

With 2016 marking Acadia’s Centennial, supporters say it is only fitting that the cairns receive new attention.

O’Neill is an Acadia Centennial Partner, or a member of an organization that is planning events, selling fundraising products and otherwise leading a celebration of the park’s 100th birthday. Acadia was first founded as a national monument on July 8, 1916 and became a national park in 1919.

bates cairns

These T-shirts, available for purchase online or at one of Boy Scout Isaac “Breaux” Higgins’s local informational sessions, come in three colors. (Photo courtesy of Moira O’Neill)

To help educate hikers, O’Neill hopes people will buy and wear the “Anatomy of a Bates Cairn” T-shirt, a licensed Acadia Centennial product. Proceeds are donated to the Friends of Acadia for trail maintenance.

O’Neill – a “Waldron’s Warrior,” as volunteer cairn caretakers call themselves, as well as a candidate for state Senate – said the cairns are a brilliant design because they help keep hikers on the trail and headed in the right direction to minimize impact.

“Preserve the message,” the T-shirt says. “Preserve Acadia.”

Higgins and fellow Scouts of Bar Harbor Troop 89 are holding informational sessions about Bates cairns in the community. At the sessions, they sell the T-shirts and hand out bookmarks with information about the cairns. They also ask people to sign the pledge to protect the cairns. So far, they’ve collected 150 signatures.

Higgins said he plans to host a session from 10 am to 3 pm on Jan. 30  at Jesup Memorial Library in Bar Harbor.

Higgins said the cairns are iconic and have helped visitors to the park throughout the years.

Higgins chose the cairn preservation campaign as a service project required to become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts. A project must benefit a public or nonprofit organization and demonstrate leadership.

bates cairns

This tag accompanies each Bates cairn T-shirt, giving a little history about Waldron Bates and the stone structure that still graces Acadia’s trails today.

In November, he saw firsthand the damage to some of the cairns during a visit to the top of Cadillac Mountain with O’Neill, his father Ted, and park natural resource specialist Jacobi. “People stack rocks on top of them or dismantle them and move them around or build their own,” Higgins said.

That can lead to hikers off the established trail, damaging the environment and endangering wildlife, he said.  “We saw that a lot on the top of Cadillac Mountain,” he said.

He said he thinks tourists are responsible for most of the cairn damage. Although his project is mostly reaching local residents, he said he is hoping people will spread the word when they go hiking and maybe teach some people on the trails and friends about the benefits of protecting the Bates cairns.

That would be a message in the rocks worth preserving, and a fitting memorial to pathmaker Waldron Bates in Acadia’s Centennial year.

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 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.