Building a Cairn

As we were hiking, Tiffany asked how to spell cairn. I told her, then explained that cairn is the Gaelic word for “heap of stones”, and they are made as memorials or markers. When the trail disappears into a meadow, look for a cairn.

I love rockwork. Humans have probably been making cairns for thousands of years, and I feel something clunk in a deep part of my brain as I hunt for rocks and fit them together. It’s an art, sort of. On Teanaway Ridge, the rocks are basalt from a long-ago lava flow. They break off in angular chunks, and these were slightly purplish. Basalt is usually dark gray-brown, but can also be reddish. You want the larger rocks at the base of the cairn, and they are placed in a circular shape. Other rocks are are stacked on top, and you move them around till they are in the most stable position. The final product should be shaped more or less like a bee skep. Cairns require maintenance. Heavy winter snow can displace the rocks on top, so when the trail crew comes along they need to repair the cairns.

It was a blustery day on Teanaway Ridge–rain squalls followed by sunbreaks. The icy wind never stopped, and we were glad to stop and work on the lee side of the ridge. The snow had just melted on top, so there were fritillaries and glacier lilies blooming. I heard my first hermit thrush of the year; the song that means summer is here.

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