The Ethics Of Cairn Building

We just got an e-mail from our friend Louis Nielsen. Louis has lived for over 20 years, mostly alone, in a remote cabin on the west coast of Spitsbergen. He is one of the last, perhaps the very last, people to make a living as a trapper in the Svalbard archipelago, some 500 miles north of the northernmost point of Norway.

Louis is a seriously smart guy who has more real practical knowledge about the far north than just about anyone we have ever met. He is also well read and articulate so that when he speaks, or maybe pronounces (he is not shy with his opinions), we listen.

Well, Louis is upset at us and has been since he received our news letter at the end of 2003. We are talking seriously angry here, although he has cooled over the last three years to the point that he finally wrote and explained why he had been silent. The passage that offended him read:

“Climbing mountains is old hat to Ted, but to me the feeling of achievement and euphoria as we reached the top and looked out over Lindenow Fjord and west across the ice cap will always be a highlight of our northern cruises. At the top we built a cairn and left a note. Was it a first assent? Probably not, it’s not that hard, more a tough walk than a climb, but on the other hand there was no cairn or other evidence of people—so maybe, just maybe.”

I have heard people criticize the practice of cairn building on the grounds that it is environmental vandalism, although I’ve always had a hard time getting too worked up about a few rocks piled up in the wilderness as long as there is no erosion risk. But that was not what set Louis off, his point was:

“…and then, before you go down, build a cairn. A bloody cairn, that will make sure that nobody else can have the same experience–ever. Why? I just don’t understand it. Well, maybe I do, but still I find it nearly unforgivable.”

Now, I have always thought of cairn building as a tradition in the north going back to the early explorers and whalers and not thought that much more about it. Over the years we have probably built half a dozen, usually near remote anchorages with a note in a bottle inside them in the hope that someone will find it and write to us and in that way we will get to communicate with someone else who loves wild places. But after reading Louis’ e-mail I’m wondering if that theory is just a justification of the age old urge to leave a mark.

Worse than that, perhaps by building a cairn what we are really doing is saying “I got here first” (whether that is true or not) “and you who come after need to know that I was first, so there”—not an attractive reason.

So after thinking about it over several days, I think Louis is right. In the future I might build a cairn to start a ‘post office’ in a remote anchorage that has obviously been visited multiple times, but no more cairns on the top of mountains or at anchorages that might not have been visited by a yacht before. I will let others share the rare and special feeling of getting to a place where there is absolutely no sign of humans.

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John was born and brought up in Bermuda and started sailing as a child, racing locally and offshore before turning to cruising. He has sailed over 100,000 miles, most of it on his McCurdy & Rhodes 56, Morgan's Cloud, including eight ocean races to Bermuda, culminating in winning his class twice in the Newport Bermuda Race. He has skippered a series of voyages in the North Atlantic, the majority of which have been to the high latitudes. John has been helping others go voyaging by sharing his experience for twenty years, first in yachting magazines and, for the last 12 years, as co-editor/publisher of AAC.

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