The word cairn is derived from the Scottish Gaelic meaning stone man. It may conjure images of faith, purpose and the spiritual journey. Cairn construction is a popular activity in the backcountry. It’s not difficult to see why people are drawn to these tiny piles of flat stones that are balanced like blocks for children. A hiker who is suffering from aching shoulders and black flies buzzing around her ears will attempt to pick a stone that has the right mix of flatness width, tilt, and depth. After a few near misses (one that’s too bulgy, another that’s too small) The solitary will pick the one that sets perfectly in place, and the next layer of the cairn becomes complete.
Many people are unaware that cairns can create negative environmental impacts particularly near water sources. When rocks are removed from the edge of a pond, river or lake, it degrades the ecosystem and destroys the habitat for microorganisms that support the entire food chain. These rocks may be swept away from the edges of a river, pond or lake through erosion and end up in areas in which they could harm wildlife or humans.
Cairn building should be avoided in areas with rare or endangered reptiles, mammals amphibians, reptiles, or flowers or where the water is buried beneath the rocks. If you build a rock cairn on private land, it could be in violation of federal and state laws protecting the natural resources of the land. This could cause fines or even arrest.