Cairns are piles or stacks of stones constructed by humans. We’ve done this over millennia and across continents for a variety of purposes: burial monuments; spiritual ceremonies; marking the location of buried food or objects; way finders; astronomy aids; solstice celebration markers; land boundaries; battle memorials.
The word cairn is Gaelic, meaning “heap of stones.”
I’ve always loved cairns. My first exposure was likely along a trail somewhere, or maybe on the shore of a river back when I was a kayaker. Beyond admiring their peaceful elegance and elemental beauty, I never thought much about them.
Until recently, learning they’re highly controversial. At least, it seems they’ve become so in the past few years. Blame Instagram and selfies. Blame crowding, especially in well-known outdoor spaces, the same reason I fled Washington for the mountains of Idaho fifteen years ago. I used to say Seattle was loved to death. It appears cairns have been now, as well.
When the recession hit full bore in late 2008, I returned to my home state of Washington for full-time work that allowed me to keep my house in Idaho, knowing eventually I would return. The girls were slowing down so they and I took daily long walks together through the suburbs of Seattle, where they got to meet tons of admirers. Finn, only two, became my trail running companion on mountainous state park trails not too far east of our temporary residence. In the five years I’d been away, those trails had become hugely popular, the trail running and ultra-distance trail racing boom having exploded. While Finn was always well-behaved and responsive, I got yelled at frequently for allowing him off-leash. Our habit became to start our runs at 7:00 am in the summer months, at daybreak during winter, to avoid those conflicts.
During what ended up being five years back in Washington, all three of my dogs and I visited our Idaho home every chance we got, including the entire summer of 2013 when I wrote my book there. By then, Maia was 14 and Meadow twelve. Maia was diagnosed with lymphoma in January of that year. She underwent chemotherapy and was in remission by the time we arrived in Idaho in May. Old age caught up with her, though. With the help of a vet and me telling her how much I loved her as I stroked her face and ears, Maia passed away at home in Idaho on June 6, 2013.
During Maia’s final days, I thought a lot about how I wanted to handle her remains, how best to honor and celebrate her life. Maia was my heart dog, the one with whom I had the deepest and most rewarding bond. Her keen sense of space and awareness of her surroundings gave me the confidence to explore forests. Even Meadow relied on her to keep us safe. I had learned from prior experience with pets that burying them someplace didn’t work; one moves, sells, or otherwise loses access to the land where the grave is located. I decided, with Maia, that I would have her remains cremated. Once I had her ashes, though – in a nice white cardboard box sealed with a paw print sticker – I couldn’t decide what to do with them. Spreading them on the ground at the house didn’t feel right, and since Malamutes – including Maia – aren’t big swimmers, tossing them on a body of water was a non-starter.
As I pondered the best approach, Meadow was slowed by an as-yet undiagnosed limp and so she wasn’t going on any runs, just short forest walks. Finn was accompanying me on the early morning runs that not only helped me deal with the grief of losing Maia, but were catalysts to the creativity I needed to write.
Cairns as Memorials
Soon after moving to Idaho I started running/hiking a trail that climbs steeply through some large scree slopes to a Forest Service fire lookout at 8,200 feet. The path through the scree zig zags and is marked by occasional cairns. Since my first trek up the trail to the summit in 2006 with the girls as companions and guides, hikers and perhaps the people hired to spend the summer manning the lookout have added cairns along the route, some of them quite elaborate and lovely in their construction. Every time I go through the scree section, I take photos, not just of the stunning views of distant peaks, of the alpine lake below, of the wildflowers, gnarled old trees and quartz-lined boulders, but also of the cairns alongside the trail.
That mountain is just one of many places in the Payette National Forest Maia, Meadow and I explored and visited repeatedly in the first four years they lived with me in Idaho, 2005-2008. The forest has always felt like my backyard, it’s so close to home and accessible, but I doubt I would have explored a tenth of the trails I did if I didn’t have the girls alongside me, sharing their eyes, ears and noses with me through their body language, alerting me to what was around us.
After Maia passed and Finn and I ran trails most mornings, I continued my practice of taking photos. Processing and editing them later, at home, I realized that Finn was often posing in the same wild, beautiful places where I had run with Maia and Meadow in previous years. One morning, as my feet trod the dirt and rocks of the trails, Finn trotting ahead, surrounded by tall trees and the peace of silence, the idea to leave some of Maia’s cremains in these places we shared and loved took root. As I continued the run, the idea blossomed – like the beautiful wildflowers alongside the trail – into a plan.
Photos of Maia and Meadow: The girls among wildflowers June 2007 (photo by Sheree Sonfield); high above a ravine with creek July 2008; on early autumn snow, October 2007, and posing on a boulder in a high-mountain valley, August 2008; in the forest July 2007, where we saw the wolf a month later; at the summit near the fire lookout, July 2008 (photo taken by the nice fire lookout guy); among the daisies near a creek not far from home, July 2007.
I would build a small cairn in a few of our favorite places, spots where I had taken photos of the girls, and put some of Maia’s cremains at the base of the cairns. She would be free to run in the wild forests she loved, and I could visit and remember her each time I ran by the cairn in the future.
In Scotland, it is traditional to carry a stone up from the bottom of a hill to place on a cairn at its top. In such a fashion, cairns would grow ever larger. An old Scottish Gaelic blessing is Cuiridh mi clach air do chàrn, “I’ll put a stone on your stone.” (Wikipedia)
With Finn for company, I soon built two cairns alongside two of our favorite trails. In both cases, I piled a few rocks atop a much larger boulder that was several yards to the side of the trail in open areas where the trail itself was obvious, places where spring wildflowers bloomed abundantly. I scooped some of Maia’s ashes into a plastic baggie – a bit of a mental leap the first time, trust me – which then rode in the running pack on my back up the mountain and along the trail. I put the ashes on the large boulder, and built the cairn above them. As I stood back to look at my creation, I offered a blessing to Maia: “I love you. I miss you. Thank you.”
Buddhist writers describe the construction of a cairn as a form of worship, a way to ask for good fortune or an effort to balance energies. Cairns were used in astronomy or for pointing toward the setting sun for solstice celebrations. (Goshen College)
Roughly three weeks after Maia passed, I learned that Meadow had bone cancer in the leg she had been favoring. I thought it was an injury after Finn accidentally slammed his head into her leg while they were playing in the yard in May, but sadly her yelps of pain that day were because the bone was already invaded with cancer. Finn just happened to hit the exact spot. The diagnosis explained why she had slowed down so much – preferring to walk rather than trot – since January, about the same time Maia had been diagnosed with her lymphoma. After considering Meadow’s age, the surgical options (removing the leg) and how much time surgery might buy her even if successful (maybe six months at best, assuming the cancer hadn’t already metastasized into her heart, lung or other organs), I decided to allow her live the rest of her life without additional pain. Palliative care gave her three more weeks, and on July 22, 2013, I helped ease Meadow out of this life, at home, her big fluffy head cradled in my lap as the vet injected her with the drug that would stop her heart.
I was devastated. Maia’s passing was expected. But I was looking forward to another couple of years where Meadow got to be top dog, pampered, playing with Finn without Maia interfering by insisting Meadow play only with her. It was not to be.
Shortly before Maia’s passing, I had an incredibly vivid dream: I was away on vacation someplace in the mountains, a place that felt like Glacier National Park. Wandering through a resort lodge, I came upon a low display case, under a countertop, where you’d expect to see trinkets or clothing for sale. Instead, oddly, I saw the girls, curled up and napping. As I tried to find an employee to help me reach them, the scene shifted, and I was standing on a second-story deck of the lodge, watching the girls romp and wrestle playfully, as they always had, on the resort’s lawn down below. I called out to them, but they didn’t hear. I awoke, puzzled, yet remembering every detail of the dream. Later that day, I invited a neighbor up to help me preserve Maia’s paw print in plaster, knowing the time to say goodbye to her was nigh. I shared my dream with my neighbor; she became strangely silent. We focused on obtaining the plaster print. I didn’t realize until later that subconsciously, in my dream, I knew Meadow’s limp was more than a simple bruising from contact with Finn’s scull. I knew, deep in my soul, that Meadow was going to be joining Maia in a place beyond me. My neighbor had instantly interpreted my dream that way but didn’t have the heart to tell me.
I had Meadow cremated. I added Meadow’s ashes to the two cairns I’d already built, then built four more cairns in Idaho. Each time, I mixed Meadow’s ashes with Maia’s in the baggie, placing it in my running pack, and headed up mountains to place their combined ashes beneath discreet heaps of rocks.
Photos of cairns: beside a tree on that hillside of wildflowers, May 2019; high above the ravine in late May 2019; lupine blooming in 2018 beside the high-mountain boulder the girls posed on ten years earlier; the wolf-spot cairn, June 2019; the mountain-top cairn on a stump near the fire lookout, September 2018; Finn and Conall posing among the daisies, the cairn on a boulder behind Finn, July 2019.
In Washington, where the girls and I first ran trails together, I left their ashes in big, old cedar stumps near streams in three places on two mountains outside Seattle, trails where we learned to run together as a pack, where they showed me how pay attention to our surroundings, giving me the courage to venture far without another human companion. I tossed some of their ashes into a high alpine lake where Meadow first tasted huckleberries near the shore, eventually learning to pick them off the bushes herself. And finally, I placed some of their ashes in an old cedar stump where I’ve hosted dog camp every summer since 2002, the camp I named after the girls.
“I love you. I miss you. Thank you,” I tell them, every time I visit one of these places. And now I add, “I’ll be back soon.” I visit the Idaho cairns most frequently, of course. It brings me such joy every spring, after the deep snows of a long winter melt away, to see the cairns re-emerge intact, with maybe a small upper stone or two having fallen and needing replacing atop the stack.
A New Ethic Wanting to Replace an Ancient Form of Symbolism
In the summer of 2016, I began noticing that a couple of the girls’ cairns in the Idaho forest had been deliberately destroyed, the rocks knocked off and scattered just inches from their original location. It was clearly deliberate. I rebuilt them. Hiking with an out-of-town acquaintance one day (okay, a blind date), showing him one of the cairns, he casually mentioned having a mountain biking friend who kicked over every cairn he saw, hating them. I was shocked. Until that moment, I had no idea someone could hate a cairn. “Why,” I asked, genuinely puzzled. “He considers them trash,” my date explained with a shrug. I intuited that he agreed with his friend’s opinion. This – added to a couple other red flags – told me there would not be a second date.
That night, I did some googling, researching, trying to understand why anyone would find a cairn offensive. I discovered that cairn hating is a bit of a thing now, a trend, especially among younger hikers, runners and mountain bikers relatively new to the outdoors who sadly know nothing but crowded trails outside urban areas or in popular national parks. Instagram and selfies on social media are much of the problem, as people want to show of the cairn they built next to the show-offy cairns of others. The reasons leading to the cairn-hating trend make sense if you traverse trails that are heavily used, where a desire to create cairns leads to a proliferation of them, significantly altering the natural landscape. But as with so many trends, the reasons and logic get lost in the adoption, and now the cairn haters postulate that all “new” cairns are bad, deeming them trail trash.
Many cairn-haters cite the Leave No Trace movement as justification for their position. I visited the Leave No Trace organization’s website. I researched the phrase and the ethics behind it, as well. I applaud the sentiment of Leave No Trace – leaving nature as untrammeled as possible – but take issue with the name. Rather than Leave No Trace, a better and more realistic name would be Leave Minimal Trace. It’s impossible for a person to venture into nature without leaving a trace: footprints (and today, hiking pole holes); bodily debris (shedding hair, skin cells, spit, waste – pee and shit, sweat mixed with bug spray); food crumbs and leftovers; tent footprints, fire rings; noise pollution of voices, music, gas stoves, or simply moving through the environment; etc. The trails themselves – and the trailheads – are a huge human trace. And let’s not forget the carbon footprint we leave getting to and from our engagements with nature, whether by individual vehicle, bus, train or airplane or a combination of them. We leave an abundance of traces, no matter how careful we are. Yet those who need to feel superior, showing off their new-found trail creds, point fingers and shame those who they deem leave a trace they don’t like. Such as cairns.
My response: Chill. It’s all relative. And situational. Find something truly worthy of your rage. Like human-caused climate change.
I recently read a question posed by a member of a Facebook group for Seattle-area trail runners: How do people feel about going a few hundred feet off trail to get a good picture? Cool/not cool? Several responses were like this one: Leave no trace- not cool, unless you’re on snow. But then someone pointed out moving across snow can have negative impacts as well. Others debated walking on rocks versus other terrain. “Leave no trace” came up a lot. A few voices argued for nuanced interpretations of impact based on location and levels of use in the area.
In other words, no one in that discussion could agree upon a “leave no trace” definition let alone a rule to follow in all cases.
When it comes to cairns, the ardent leave-no-tracers argue that by moving a rock you’re disturbing the bugs living under it and changing the topography of that piece of ground, even if minimally. Absolutely true. That’s also true of the shoes we wear on our feet as we travel down the trail, the tires of our dirt or mountain bikes or ATVs, the hooves of our horses. Bugs, rocks, sticks, branches, downed trees, all get shifted, moved or trampled on when we venture into nature, whether on or off trail. Wildlife gets spooked. In fact, of all the trail users I see here in Idaho, it is the horse riders, dirt and mountain bikers and ATV/side-by-side drivers that do the most damage. In their defense, those user groups also perform most of the back-country rescues of lost or injured visitors, and volunteer to do a lot of trail work, repairing the damage they cause, maintaining existing trails and helping build new ones. It balances out, at least here in sparsely-populated central Idaho. (Although that’s changing with increased motorized uses by tourists, most on ATVs and side-by-sides. They use – and often damage – the trails and back-country roads and then go home. The Forest Service budget for trail and road maintenance is too small to keep up and the volunteer groups or programs like the Idaho Conservation Corps can’t take up all the slack.)
The same man who asked his Facebook group of trail runners about moving off trail for a photo posted a follow-up a few weeks later, noting he asked a Forest Service ranger he encountered the same question. The ranger told him it’s 100% okay to step off trail on national forest land. The poster added that his personal philosophy is Take only photos, leave only footprints.
Another online forum discussing Leave No Trace ethics had a post asking about building fire rings and adding seating logs on national forests. A detailed response cited Forest Service regulations about what people can and can’t do on the forests, including this prohibition against:
(a) Constructing, placing, or maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure, fence, enclosure, communication equipment, significant surface disturbance, or other improvement on National Forest System lands or facilities without a special-use authorization, contract, or approved operating plan when such authorization is required.
The person posting this response, identifying as having worked for the Forest Service, added this commentary: A fire ring and a few logs do not constitute a structure or a significant surface disturbance. In some areas (heavily used, ecologically sensitive, or high fire danger) the Forest Service will prohibit constructing new fire rings, but elsewhere, these are not LNT [Leave No Trace] but they aren’t illegal either.
The Seven Principles of Leave No Trace are actually far more flexible than what many adherents claim when citing them as criticism for the actions of others. (Cairns aren’t even mentioned on the website.) As for going off trail, the principles talk about how to do so with least impact. That makes sense, and is a fine ethic to follow.
It’s All Relative
Every national forest is different, based on its resources and ability to withstand various uses with the current numbers of visitors. Adaptations will undoubtedly be required as more people venture into nature, and that’s okay. The more people who see what a treasure these public lands are, the more people will advocate for their preservation.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all Leave no Trace approach, so as shorthand, “leave no trace” is meaningless.
For example, in Arcadia National Park, cairns marking the path through scree fields that have been there decades are now being knocked over and destroyed by cairn-haters. In addition to the negative impact of the toppled rocks, park officials have to rebuild the cairns because they’re necessary for correct navigation. Those who destroyed them – presumably following their interpretation of Leave No Trace – left a doubly-negative trace.
Is it a precious affectation to prove how environmentally aware someone is by kicking over a cairn? Maybe to the applause of one’s friends? Is that sort of zealotry ever good, whether based on Leave No Trace, a religion, a political viewpoint? It seems to me that an occasional cairn poses much less damage – visual or real – to the landscape than the ruts made by bike tires that twist my runner’s ankles and turn into rivulets of spring runoff, eroding trails. In my experience, zealots never have clean hands, and in fact, usually have the dirtiest.
Wouldn’t it be better if such zealots focused all that judgmental outrage first inward, accepting that they can only change themselves, then outward with the proactive goal of preserving local, regional and global environments while minimizing their own carbon footprints and other large-scale negative impacts? Otherwise, in fifty (or fewer) years, their sense of outrage at cairns, at stepping off trail for a photo, at whatever they perceive as a violation of Leave No Trace, won’t matter because the earth will be done with sustaining all of our abuses, small and large. Earth will be done with us as a species. Those micro-rages will be meaningless.
“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” –Marcus Aurelius
Here in the Payette National Forest, there are few humans and lots of space. It’s permissible to camp virtually anywhere for as many as 18 days at a stretch; build fires at campsites unless there’s a burn ban in effect; cut trees for firewood to use in camp as well as to stock one’s home through the winter; use motorized vehicles in most locations, and snowmobiles in winter; hike, run, mountain bike, ride horses; hunt and trap in defined seasons; target shoot, year-round. Cattle and bands of sheep (as many as 4,000) are turned out to graze all summer. Many trails are open to dirt bikes and ATVs, while others are non-motorized use only. I don’t like many of the permitted uses – a few of them I outright loathe – but I co-exist, largely because I can still easily find places where my dogs and I rarely encounter another human, where we’re immersed in wildness and nature, far from the sounds of “civilization.” I enjoy what I can, and am grateful for it.
And thankfully, at least for now, dogs are free to be off leash anywhere in the Payette (despite what some trail descriptions claim on various websites), although the Forest Service recommends dogs be on leash at trailheads and leashes are required in designated campgrounds. I worry that freedom will disappear as more people, including those who don’t like off-leash dogs, visit the Payette. Conflicts are inevitable and once the volume of complaints reaches a certain point, forest managers often take the path of least resistance and begin adding restrictions. It happened in the forests outside Seattle, including the Snoqualmie National Forest, where leash laws were suddenly added and enforced. It’s one of the major reasons I left Washington for Idaho.
Shortly after arriving in Idaho in 2005, I visited the local Forest Service Ranger District building. I asked the woman behind the desk if I could let my dogs off leash on trails in the forest. Her blank look quickly turned to one of amusement as she responded, “Sure. We don’t have any leash laws here.” I knew I was in the right place.
It’s Easy to Destroy, Hard to Create
In wish people would change their focus, letting go of the petty, judgmental outrage toward small things that don’t harm them and instead focusing on the big picture, changing our political will to fund and preserve natural spaces for all, making individual choices and changes with the goal of environmental sustainability – for our forests, for the earth. Instead of destroying things – don’t we humans already do enough of that? – let’s work toward creating a sustainable future for all.
The two cairns that were repeatedly knocked over have been moved to more discreet locations nearby, using the same rocks. In one instance, I was able to transfer some of the cremains. The other cairns are remote enough to go unnoticed by anyone but me.
This spring, when visiting one of the moved cairns for the first time since last fall, I was delighted to see it made it through the winter intact. I also saw that someone had built a small cairn a few feet from it. I smiled. I feel validated. I have no idea who built that second cairn, but I know I like them.
“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” –Henry David Thoreau
I hope that anyone who does come upon one my cairns will see it for what it is, a simple, natural memorial, in my case honoring a special human-canine bond. A creation of human-inspired reverence, helping me process my grief, no different than a grave marker in a graveyard. My cairns are in places I visit regularly to recharge spiritually, remembering beloved dogs who taught me how to be in the wild, sharing together what we each loved so much: the natural world, trees, dirt, and rocks.
Cover photo: Conall and Finn in 2016 beside the original cairn built in 2013 that – after being toppled twice in 2017 and after learning from a blind date about the trend of kicking cairns was moved to a discreet location nearby and ultimately inspired this rant/article.