An Epidemic of Cairns

Recently, I sent out requests for stories about notable experiences with cairns for my new book. The response was and continues to be fascinating. One person relayed a story about the cairns on the Kilauea Iki crater trail in Hawaii. Made of basalt boulders, some of which are quite young, they are known as ahu and are key for helping people across a landscape often covered in fog. In many places, additional items adorn the cairns. These include cigarettes, beer, and fruit, all placed to calm the fiery ire of Pele, the creator of the islands. People also leave aspirin and Rolaids to help Pele’s indigestion and headaches, which some say are the true cause of Hawaii’s eruptions.

The most common theme of the comments was the concern over too many cairns on the trail. A friend from Yosemite described an “epidemic of cairns.” These are not trail cairns but “works of art,” seemingly inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s stone projects. In other areas, the problem is the proliferation of regular cairns near or off trail. It has gotten so bad in some national parks that in addition to regularly destroying cairns, rangers have had to put up signs asking people not to build cairns. The signs appear to have had some success but raised the issue of too many signs in the backcountry.

What is it with these cairn-builders? Erecting such structures is the equivalent of graffiti, an unneeded, self-centered blemish on the landscape. I suspect that some think its okay to do it because others did it or they feel a need to be creative or it’s fun but come on, part of the reason we hike and go in the backcountry is to get away from the narcissistic “I was here” mentality that pervades our modern culture. (I just want to be clear that there are appropriate places to build these stacked stone structures but they are not in places such as national parks.)

I know that some will say that building a cairn does no harm, claiming that they are impermanent structures that can be taken down easily. Yes, that is true but consider that removing stones from their natural settings can degrade and/or destroy the homes of plants and animals and that walking off trail leads to more off-trail use that can damage the environment.

So, I say to those who feel the need to build their own personal cairn in the backcountry, get over yourself; most of us don’t want to see any more cairns than we have to and we certainly don’t want to see your attempts at “art.” Take your visual pollution elsewhere.


DIG School in Montana

For the past week, I was privileged to participate in an innovative program designed to bring paleontology into the k-12 classroom. The organizers are Greg Wilson, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of Washington, and his graduate student, Lauren Berg. The DIG school, as they call it, brings teachers from Montana out into Greg’s field site north of Jordan, Montana, and introduces them to Greg’s research, the geology of the area, and paleontological field techniques. I was along to assist in developing curricula for the teachers. We had a blast.

We spent four days out in the field, in the badlands of the Hell Creek and Tullock Formations. Both units represent fluvial deposits with channels and overbank deposits. The main difference, and the key one for distinguishing the two, is the presence of lignites in the Tullock, due to perched water in swamps and ponds. Deposition of the Hell Creek occurred during about the final four million years of the Creteceous. The Tullock, which sits conformably atop it, was deposited during the first couple million years of the Paleocene. A 2-cm-thick bed of ash separates the two layers.

Most of the fossils that Greg studies are small mammals, turtles, and amphibians, which requires tightly focused examination of surface deposits. In most cases, the fossils blend in quite well with the popcorn texture of eroding clays and silts. We donned knee pads and cheaters (magnifying lenses like the ones worn by jewelers), and poked and probed on our hands and knees with awls. Each time we found a fossil we put it in a film canister that contained a field label with site name and number, date, and collector.

As we gained in knowledge, we continued to search for fossils, visit additional sites, and try new field techniques. We figured it how to distinguish clay from silt by tasting it. We talked about ways to incorporate paleontology in the classroom. We learned that paleontologists have odd names for their sites, such as “Bubble Tea,” “Chef Marie,” and “Crack Dirt.” We found theropod teeth, turtle scutes, mammal teeth, gar scales, various dinosaur bones, vertebrae, and triceratops teeth. We also participated in unearthing and jacketing part of the jaw of a Triceratops. One of the highlights was also seeing the contact between the Hell Creek and the Tullock and the legendary K-T boundary. Greg took us to a spot where we could see and touch the iridium-rich, ash layer deposited by the bolide.

In the future, Greg, Lauren, and I plan to continue to work with the teachers. We want to assemble a traveling box that contains specimens, background material, field tools, and lesson plans. We also hope to make this box and the lessons plans applicable to a wider geographic area than the wonderful sediments around Jordan. Judging from the enthusiasm of the teachers we worked with, I think there will be many who want such information. I certainly hope so.