When the Canadian government created the First Nations province of Nunavut above the Arctic Circle, the first postage stamps the new province issued were photos of inuksuit, or stone cairns.
Traveling across the great expanse of the snow covered Arctic, the horizon remains flat and unbroken, the light flat with no sun for direction.
“As the distance closes, you are compelled to stop, transfixed by an ancient message left upon the landscape,” writes Norman Hallendy in Inuksuit: Silent Messengers of the Arctic. “Stone upon lichen-encrusted stone, it is an inuksuk, the signature of an Arctic hunter who passed this way on a journey that would last a lifetime ... You marvel at the perfect balance of stones selected and arranged with great care. The size of a young boy, the inuksuk, its mere presence attaching you to its unknown builder, warms you with its sense of humanity.
“As thanks, you leave a piece of your precious food tucked between its lower stones and move on,” Hallendy continues. “Only you know what you said to it the moment before parting. Soon you meet another inuksuk, and another. You are no longer alone.”
I have long been interested in cairns as more than random piles of stone. Here in the West, on high elevations and off remote trails, we also have an abundance of stone messengers.
In Colorado, we have all manner of cairns. We have stones piled for high altitude game drives 9,000 years ago in what is now Rocky Mountain National Park, and there are stacked stones on mountain summits left by the F.V. Hayden surveyors in 1874. Modern climbers on those summits often add a stone or two in gratitude for a successful climb. The act of piling stones in remote places is ancient human behavior.
“Cairns can be seen as one of the earliest forms of communication ... for thousands of years, and across cultures and continents, we have piled up stones to mark our way,” writes David B. Williams in Cairns: Messengers in Stone. “Explorers across the centuries have left their mark by erecting a pile of rocks. It may be the one feature uniting world exploration.”
The word cairn comes from 16th-century Scotland and occurs in all Celtic languages including Old Irish and Welsh.
Trail markers can be as simple as one stone atop another or the more common aggregation of two flat rocks and one round stone, especially at a point where a trail splits or diverges.
But what intrigues me are the larger, more complex cairns – big piles of stone far removed from trail systems. I seek out cairns that took hours to construct with hundreds of pounds of rock that had to be moved to the site and then carefully assembled for balance, form and structure.
Across the West when I see cairns on a ridgeline, I’ll stop the truck, whistle to my dog, grab a camera and take an impromptu hike. Why is that cairn where it is? What does it mean? Who built it and when?
Two decades ago I left the Yakama Nation Reservation in Washington driving south across the Columbia River Plateau headed for the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs in Oregon.
I asked a Yakama elder if there was anything culturally to photograph on my journey, and he said to look for a row of cairns high on the plateau before the road began to drop to the Columbia River.
I found that ancient line of stone piles, some finished with a hand-sized rounded basalt rock on top and others incomplete. He said they were clan boundary markers delineating fishing territories and created by generations of families who had passed that way.
On top of the ridge, with grass waving in a steady breeze, I photographed the cairns and knew they had been there beyond remembering – and would always be there.
In the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho as Lewis and Clark hurried home in the spring of 1806, their Nez Perce guides insisted the Corps of Discovery stop at stone markers indicating the Smoking Place, where tradition required offering a pipe of tobacco to the Creator and to all the directions.
I’ve been there, too. Though those cairns have come down and been rebuilt several times, the stones remain.
What is it about stones, special places and human memory?
At Bosque Redondo and Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico, where Navajos were forcibly interned from 1864 to 1868, tribal members now bring stones from the reservation as a remembrance and as an offering to their ancestors who suffered. At Skeleton Canyon in southern Arizona, a rock pile from fallen cairns marks the spot where Geronimo surrendered after 25 years of Apache wars.
If Native Americans have left stone markers across the Western landscape, so have Basque and Hispanic sheepherders in the Stinking Desert along U.S. Highway 50 in northwest Delta County on their way to Grand Junction. More than 50 cairns built by herders who grazed their flocks in the area since the early 1900s have been recorded.
I’ve photographed cairns high in the Flat Tops Wilderness of northwestern Colorado near Deep Lake and Bison Lake. These are ancient cairns with lichen growing between the stones. They are Ute landscape markers positioned within sight of bison wallows made by a smaller mountain bison, which are now extinct but were once pursued by Ute hunters with bows and arrows centuries before the Spanish brought horses to the West.
Cairns are scattered across the Weminuche Wilderness above Dollar Lake, on the peninsula between Pine River and Vallecito Creek, on the Cave Basin Trail and on Middle Mountain. Most of these probably came from the hands of sheepherders.
Two huge “stone boys,” also nicknamed “stone johnnies,” are on a straight line northwest of Perins Peak stacked with perhaps 1,500 pounds of rock.
One on Colorado Parks and Wildlife land is at least 8½ feet tall and 3 feet around at 37 degrees 17.977 minutes north latitude.
“You can see the entire town of Durango from the cairn,” says San Juan National Forest Public Affairs Specialist Ann Bond. “You also have a clear 360 degree view of surrounding landmarks. It is in a location that is difficult to reach. The round-trip hike took me five hours from the trailhead at Rockridge into the Perins Peak State Wildlife Area.”
The matching cairn, at the same latitude due west, is on a public land bench below Lewis Peak just south of the La Platas on a south-facing ridgeline west of Lightner Creek.
As a hunter, I’ve hiked to both cairns and realized the only way to get those final stones on top would have required being on horseback. What a lot of work!
Are these really sheepherder cairns? Are they boundary markers for livestock allotments or for some early government survey? Whatever they are, they’re worth the hike.
I’ll keep looking for cairns. I believe in a “leave no trace” hiking ethic, so I won’t be making any large piles of stones, but I’m fascinated when I find them.
OK, maybe as darkness descends after hours of trekking, I’ll place a stone or two atop another. Just a few. It’s such a human thing to do.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.