One in a series on Acadia’s Bates cairns
The iconic Bates-style cairns of Acadia National Park, Zen-like in their simplicity and historic in nature, keep hikers from getting lost on the trails. But they also attract vandals and random rock-stacking visitors, making trail maintenance a nightmare.
A couple of years ago, vandals knocked over nearly all the cairns on the Cadillac South Ridge Trail, even shattering some of the rocks. And every season, visitors pile rocks on ridgetops and cobblestone beaches, not knowing that violates park rules, or that it may offend others who come after.
Just last month, a reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News of St. George, Utah, wrote an article entitled “Stacking cairns to commune with nature,” about a family trip to Acadia, featuring pictures of his sons piling rocks on the beach along the Ship Harbor Trail. He reasoned that the next big storm would knock the rocks over, and that it’s not the same as graffiti or vandalism marring national parks.
For park resource specialist Charlie Jacobi, who’s been trying to educate the public for years about leaving Bates-style cairns and other rocks alone, it’s been so disheartening, he almost gave up last year. “I was ready to throw in the towel and say, ‘We can’t do it,’” Jacobi said in an interview. “It is a waste of our time when somebody is undoing the work that you do on a daily basis.”
It’s against park rules to randomly stack rocks, or to add to or dismantle Bates cairns. The issue of people messing around with cairns or building stone heaps of their own isn’t just dogging Acadia. Earlier this month, National Public Radio focused on the controversy in a piece entitled “Making Mountains Out of Trail Markers? Cairns Spark Debate in Southwest,” spurred by a column in the High Country News, “Stop the rock-stacking.”
Whether the issue is unofficial rock piles in the Southwest or in Acadia, vandalized Bates-style cairns or graffiti in national parks, said Jacobi: “There’s a larger issue here about stewardship of public lands and land trusts and places we love and go to.”
“Leave What You Find,” one of the seven principles developed by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, is the message people need to get, said Jacobi.
“Whether it is rocks or wildflowers or anything else, the little bit of restraint that is needed to share Acadia or any place with thousands and thousands of other people is tough to accept. But I think that is what we need to do,” said Jacobi.
Otherwise there could be rock stacks littering the landscape, or vandalized Bates-style cairns. “I’ve got photos ad nauseum. I’ve got pictures of different things that visitors have built. You could see holes in the soil where rocks have been removed,” said Jacobi. He’s also seen rock stacks piled on a boulder in the middle of Echo Lake, destruction of summit cairns and other random acts.
History of Bates cairns of Acadia, and of humans stacking stones
The Bates cairns – two to four base stones, with a mantel rock across and a pointer stone up top – were first dreamed up by Bar Harbor pathmaker Waldron Bates, during the early 1900s, even before Acadia came into existence. These unique trail markers had fallen out of favor somewhere along the way, with conical cairns replacing them over the years, according to Jacobi. But these, too, were a maintenance nightmare for the Acadia trail crew.
In the 1990s, the Olmsted Center for Landscape Preservation, part of the National Park Service, highlighted the Bates cairns in a report it did on Acadia’s historic trails. That’s when Jacobi suggested to Acadia trails foreman Gary Stellpflug that they try Bates-style cairns, to see if they would be any easier to build and keep up than the conical cairns.
“We started with a couple of years’ experimentation. We did them on a couple of south ridges and we found that, sure enough, they are easier to build and maintain, even though they get tampered with a lot,” said Jacobi.
“They are historic, so we are restoring part of that historic fabric of the park. They also use a lot less rocks. That is environmentally much better for the ridges if we are not using quite so many rocks. We avoid taking rocks from the soil as much as possible. If we do, we replace the rock we take with another rock so that we are still retaining the soil there. Even the rocks that are loose, lying around on the landscape and not embedded in the soil, they provide habitat for invertebrates and spiders,” said Jacobi.
In 2001, the park began converting from conical cairns to Bates-style cairns. It’s taken about 10 to 12 years for the process to be completed, primarily by a Friends of Acadia-funded and park-trained group of college-age youngsters known as Ridge Runners, as well as by park staff and others.
“That is where we are at now,” Jacobi said, with annual maintenance of the Bates-style cairns, and trying to “make them bigger and better and more consistent in their appearance, so it is less tempting for visitors to add a rock or subtract a rock, or build another one.”
But there seems to be something deep in human nature that prompts people to move rocks around. There’s even a book entitled “Cairns: Messengers in Stone,” chronicling the history of humans making rock piles, and the geology, ecology and global nature of the stacks, whether they’re used to mark trails or a grave site, or to otherwise communicate to the next person to come along. (NOTE: Please see sidebar about Amazon.com links on this site.)
Jacobi was even featured in the book by author David B. Williams, for his attempts to try to change the rock-moving aspect of human behavior in Acadia, through signs and other forms of education. He’s written op-ed pieces, letters to the editor and research studies, and been interviewed by a variety of publications, including the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Outdoors magazine.
But so far, Jacobi said, “When you ask about my faith in changing human behavior, from my perspective, the jury is very much still out.”
Efforts to educate visitors about cairns of Acadia make slow progress
Just as Jacobi was ready to give up fighting for the cairns of Acadia last year, he decided to approach the sign committee to try one more time to come up with a message that would stop some of the rock moving.
“I went to our park sign committee and said, ‘The only thing I can think to do here is to put up a whole bunch of signs. I don’t like doing it but as far as I am concerned, the choice here is between signs and Bates cairns’,” Jacobi said.
Working with researchers from the University of Vermont, the park tested six different signs on Gorham Mountain Trail “based on what is called the theories of moral development,” Jacobi said.
“None of the signs was a smoking gun in terms of working that much better than any other, none was statistically more significant than another,” said Jacobi, although any of the signs was better than no sign. However, “there was one that percentage-wise had done a little bit better and I preferred that message over the other. That is the one we selected to go on the signs.”
So at the end of last summer, Jacobi had his crew put the new signs up on tripods, on the popular ridge trails near the first, second or third cairn.
Theories of moral development aside, Jacobi knows “we are probably never going to be able to stop the occasional vandalism. There are just some folks who cannot be educated. We are not going to reach them. We need to reach the people who are maybe on the fence, whether they are children or young adults, and help them understand that the park will be a better place if they leave the cairns just as they are.”
That goes for not randomly stacking rocks in Acadia, either, whether simple piles or elaborate structures, Jacobi said.
“Some of it is actually pretty neat, but if you are going to do that sort of thing – and I don’t recommend it for the most part – but if you are going to do it, you should make sure that when you get your rocks, you are not doing any damage where you get the rocks from, and that you take a picture of whatever it is that you do, and then put the rocks back where you got them from. I think very few people would be willing to do that.
“I would not recommend doing it on top of a mountain. The only appropriate place in Acadia to do anything like that is probably along the seashore where we have the cobble beaches. If you want to construct something, go ahead and do it, take your picture, and then knock it right back down again.”
That’s the message about the stones that Jacobi wishes people would get.
One other message Jacobi wants to relay: Civic-minded hikers who want to do something about the vandalism and haphazard stone heaps shouldn’t just start moving rocks they think are out of place on their own. Instead, they should become a trained volunteer to help with cairn maintenance, and maybe adopt a trail, he said. The park’s volunteer coordinator is Dianna McKeage, and she can be reached at (207) 288-8716 or via an an online contact form.
One such volunteer, Donald P. Lenahan, author of “The Memorials of Acadia National Park” and a blog by the same name, said he and his fellow Bates cairn caretakers sometimes call themselves “Waldron’s Warriors,” after the pathmaker who came up with the idea for the simple yet elegant trail markers.
“The Bates cairns are a maintenance issue,” said Lenahan, a volunteer crew leader with the Friends of Acadia. “Whenever I see an extraneous one I destroy it. If one has been modified, I fix it. This I do whenever I’m hiking.”
As the park prepares to celebrate its Centennial next year, wouldn’t it be a fitting memorial to Waldron Bates and others who have blazed the trails before us, to see the cairns of Acadia unmarred, and the landscape free of random rock piles?