The word cairn is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It can conjure images of faith, purpose and a spiritual journey. Cairn-building is a common activity in the backcountry. It’s easy to see why people are drawn to these small piles of flat stones that can be stacked like blocks for children. A hiker suffering from stiff shoulders and black fly flies buzzing in her ears will try to select a stone that has the right mix of flatness as well as tilt, width and depth. After a few close misses (one that’s too wide or too small) the shrewd will choose the one that is perfectly set in the spot, and then the second layer of the cairn becomes complete.

Many people are unaware that cairns can create negative environmental impacts, especially when done near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edges of the shores of a lake, river or pond, they alter the ecosystem and degrade the habitat for microorganisms which provide the food chain. These rocks can also be swept away from the edges of a pond, river or lake due to erosion. They can end up in areas that could pose a threat to wildlife or humans.

Cairn building should be avoided in areas that are home to rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or where the moisture is buried beneath the rocks. And if you build your cairn in private land, it may violate federal and state regulations that protect the land’s natural resources. This may result in fines or even arrest.

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