Monday, May 12, 2008

Rock Piles, Cairns, and Ducks - Oh My!

ADK Fire Tower Challenge: Spruce Mountain

It was a dreary Saturday and my Sister (in law) decided that we would check out the opening of the opening of the Glens Falls Farmer's Market, then conquer another fire tower mountain. As part of the Adirondack Mountain Club (ADK) Fire Tower Challenge, you must climb 23 mountains with a standing fire tower to collect your prize - the fire tower badge. We had heard that Spruce Mountain is a really easy day hike. Given the time and the weather, we decided to check out the short day hike. The mountain was a very easy walk, something that could have been a very short round trip had we not been so interested in taking pictures of everything. We rediscovered our child-like imagination and a new interest - rock piles.

Ecclesiastes 10:9: "Who so removeth stones shall be hurt therewith"

I recently renewed my enjoyment of hiking, though I had hiked a lot growing up.
I do recall seeing man made stacks of rocks in the past, but no where near the number of piles we saw on Spruce Mountain. The thick fog, the weird bird call noises Sister could not recognize, and she is familiar with all the Upstate New York bird calls, creaking trees... we had several "Blair Witch Project" moments and chills.

Of course our curiosity got the better of us, and upon our safe arrival home, we simultaneously Googled up all the information we could on rock piles - our new fascination.

A rock wall fence

Wikipedia's Trail Blazing entry describes the most simple cairn, the "duck". Ducks are used to mark poorly marked trails where trees are not available for marking. When people blaze their own trail off the official one, ducks can also be a more environmentally friendly method for trail marking. I would assume that on Spruce Mountain, with its poorly marked trail, most of the cairns were ducks guiding us to the top.

A duck

Take heed, however, a rock resting up another rock could be the result of a natural occurrence or accident and should not be relied upon for a marker, hence the phrase, "two rocks don't make a duck."

A paint blaze to mark the trail - We named him Ketchup Mustard face

Rocks can be balanced into an art form, such as the work by Bill Dan. I really recommend you check out Bill Dan's blog and Flickr page for beautiful pictures of his amazing rock balancing skills.

A balanced rock art, nothing in comparison to Bill Dan's, however

According to Bill Dan's website Rock On, Rock ON! those carefully balanced to stand for extended periods of time could be a cairn to provide a place for a moment of reflections. There are ceremonial cairns as well, which would be a rock stack centered in a ring of rocks, providing a point of focus for a ritual. A fun modern cairn is the memorial cairn for people visiting the site to put their own rock in the pile.

Perhaps a community memorial cairn?

I came across this blog, titled Rock Piles, that is a blog dedicated completely to rock piles, particularly in the Northeastern / New England area of the country. The group of rock pile experts that manage the blog were kind enough to look at my pictures and give me their thoughts. It was concluded that most of the cairns we saw were for trail marking or an artistic expression, not ceremonial.

Upon reaching the summit, all signs of trail markers were gone, the area was clear of rocks for making ducks. We were on our own trying to see our way through the swampy fog to find the fire tower. Finally we saw a large structure through the fog. Much to our embarrassment, and thanks to the thick fog, we were only about five feet away from the base of the structure when we realized that it was a satellite tower, not the fire tower we sought after. What to do? We made it up the mountain and the creepy horror movie setting, only to not find the fire tower? The fog cut for just a moment and I saw what I believed to be the fire tower, or at least another satellite structure. We approached the area until at last, we had found it! Three down, twenty more to go!

We found a little "troll hole" that Sister was small enough to fit into. On our way back down the trail we made a little pile of rocks in her hole, leaving our little mark on the trail.

Check out other pictures from this hike on my Flickr page.


Rosebud Collection said...

Sounds like quite the hike..I think I would have been just a bit nervous on
your trip..Do like rock formations..interesting.

Katie L. said...

sounds like that was a fun hike! now you've got me interested in rock piles :)

industrialpoppy said...

Very cool...kinda spooky too!

Unknown said...

Hope your are still checking this sit. My husband and I are interested in rock cairns as trail marker or for ceremonial reasons - BUT more interested in the bent tree in your first photo about this hike. We are doing a documentary about native American s and their trails - they used trees as well as rock to mark them. We would be interested in using your picture - since it show both a rock cairn and a bent tree. Check us out at We would love to hear from you. You can email through the web site.-

pwax said...

Thanks for the reference. It is always interesting when other people notice rock piles.
PWAX (from