1August 2018

What kind of cairns will you build?

“I can’t believe it! They’re still here!”

This past summer, Jeff and I spent a few days hiking from Mistaya Lodge, a ski touring and hiking gem up the valley from our home, perched at 7,000 feet among rocky peaks and blue-green alpine tarns.

For me, it was a new experience, but for Jeff, it was a 20-year reunion tour.

It was his first real job, working up there. Starting at age thirteen, and for four consecutive summers, Jeff was the all-around lodge lackey and junior hiking guide.

I’d been hearing about those years since we met. Guiding groups through the wildflowers, building trails, cutting firewood, doing endless dishes, trying NOT to read the copy of Bear Attacks! on the book shelf.

Or, being given tasks that I definitely couldn’t imagine in my 15-year-old ice cream scooping days:

“See these rocks? I want you to make this into gravel.”

The stuff of teenage legend, if the backcountry is what you love more than anything else.

Hiking through Canadian Rockies in summer at snow level

But mostly, there was a lot of moving rocks. By hand.

Building kilometres of trails, through subalpine, alpine, moraines and ridges, leaving an easy line to follow so unguided groups could enjoy the terrain safely and find their way back to the lodge.

Key to making those trails clear, when you’re in terrain like all these photos show, is cairns. Stacks of rocks, short or tall, that call to you from the distance when it’s hard to see the way.

This way, they say.

The art to it is making just enough so you can always spot one in the distance. Not clutter, just softly spoken guidance.

Rock cairn in the high alpine of the Canadian Rockies


So Jeff built cairns. Lots of them.

The habit stuck. When you drive up to our house, there’s a cairn beside the garage. There’s little collections of interesting rocks in most of our windowsills. I… moderate how many build up.

He spent so many hours scanning for just the right rock, now he can’t turn it off.

But he’s not doing anything new.

The tradition is old. Very old.

People have been building rock cairns, all over the globe, since before anyone was keeping track of what year it was.

Cairns marked many things, in many cultures, but it seems everyone use them to mark the way, the right direction on a path.

Hiker in the rocky alpine with snowy peaks in the background

So here we are, back at Mistaya twenty years later.

And everywhere we go, Jeff recognizes them! Still there. Still doing their thing.

I got plenty of chances to catch my breath as Jeff stopped to fiddle with the angles, fix up any that had slumped or lost their tops. Sometimes he would just add a pebble as we walked by.

It was like catching up with an old friend.

Back on the deck of the lodge, cold beer in hand, reflection set in (as it does).

Cairns are the way we talk to each other in the mountains. And that conversation can be spread over an amazing amount of time.

Seeing those stacks all those years later was unexpectedly inspiring. Long after the effort was made, those cairns were still talking to everyone who walked through there, helping them find the way. They silently did the same for us on this trip.

It was a moment when you not only have the crystal clear appreciation that ‘your impact matters’ but that your impact can last.

For all of us, it’s true:

Even if you’re just one person, doing a small thing, in a small way. Even if you’re just doing your job, or what’s expected of you. Even if most of the world doesn’t see that you’re doing it. Even if we don’t expect what we’re doing to last.

Maybe it will.

Rock cairn among snow patches in the summer alpine

Maybe you’ll look back one day and realize your actions were a guidepost, humbly leading the way for those that came after.

What kind of cairns do you want to build?



It’s easy to find inspiration in a fresh environment, don’t you think? Like this time we went to the ocean, and got reminded what true STOKE can look like.





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