Blog: Cairns

Christine Alfery

Posted on October 09 2020

Blog image: Cairn water media painting

Featured image: Cairns

Recently we took a road trip to enjoy the fall colors and visit Lake Superior. Lake Superior is one of my favorite places to go. Often when we walk the shores we come across stacked rocks called cairns. These piles of rocks are similar to the Inukshuk that were historically created as landmarks or navigational markers by the native people of Arctic North America. 

cairn photo blog


Today, Inukshuk are part of various Canadian flags, are an Inuit symbol of cultural pride, and inspired the 2020 Vancouver Olympics logo. Inukshuk in the shape of people have been transformed into a symbol of hope and friendship that transcends borders.


cairn image 2 blog


When hiking, we often find cairns marking trails in national parks. Every park has different rules about cairns, so it’s always a good idea to check out a park’s website for information on hiking trails before you go. In some places, cairns built by hikers have become so prevalent; they have been banned so they do not mis-direct anyone off a trail.  


cairn image 3 blog


Personally, when I see these frequent cairns on the shores of Lake Superior it upsets me. They are not a natural part of the shoreline, they are not being used for navigation, they do show respect to the symbolic history of the Inukshuk. They are like graffiti. It is like saying “I was here”. Yes, they are beautiful, and it can be enjoyable to make them, but when you are done, return the rocks to their natural state.

Historically, cairns were a sign used to guide the way, to mark a sacred spot, to indicate a hunting ground. They were as important to the people who made them as pictographs were to ancient cave dwellers. It was a way to communicate to others coming this way. What do today’s hikers need to communicate to others who follow? Nothing. Others who come to enjoy the natural beauty of Lake Superior don’t need to know “you were here”.  


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My husband and I have been wilderness travelers for a long time. While on a group kayaking trip in Greenland, we took a break from paddling and went ashore to explore. We came across an ancient Inuksuit (singular) on a hill. It surprised all of us to find it in the middle of nowhere. It filled us with wonder to think about why that landmark was created – who put it there and why? What did that particular ancient Inuksuit symbolize to the people who saw it before us? Our guide chose to honor the creator of that landmark by spending that night sleeping within its structure. Such power, such respect, such symbolism, such history.



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