Rocks on a Hard Place

If they come, they will build it. A cairn, that is. Or, to be more precise, cairns. Dozens of them. Hundreds, even.

Such is the scene along Ogunquit’s Marginal Way, the spectacular mile-long shore path that connects Perkins Cove and Ogunquit Beach. Increasingly, it seems, the hordes of visitors who descend on Ogunquit each summer want to leave their calling cards in the form of rock towers standing anywhere from 1 to 5 feet high.

Depending on whom you talk with, the cairns are blights upon the natural landscape or harmless love tokens to this village by the sea.

“Last year it was horrible,” says Arthur Hussey, a retired Bowdoin College professor of geology and advisor to the town’s Marginal Way Committee. Hussey, whose affection for these rocky shores stretches back eight decades to his boyhood, leads free walks in which he interprets the prehistoric tale embedded in the ledges’ ridges and furrows.

“I especially like to show the places where the features of the rocks are well displayed,” he says, “and if I have to compete with all these little decorations, it makes it difficult. I regard the rocks around there as a park, and the cairns are messing up its natural beauty.”

“Beaches are playgrounds,” believes Louesa Mace Gillespie, owner of Beachmere Inn, whose property is crossed by the otherwise town-owned footpath, and a committee member. “Rock cairns are certainly one of the great pleasures of going to the beach for a lot of families.”

While a relatively new phenomenon on Marginal Way, piling rocks is an ancient practice that traditionally has had a distinct purpose: spiritual offering, monument, or, most often, navigational aid. Cairns, typically conical, remain a common method for blazing trails today. Acadia National Park, in fact, has its own unique stone trail marker — the Bates cairn, consisting of two large base stones supporting a stone mantel on top of which sits a fourth rock pointed in the direction of the trail.

Acadia also has a cairn problem not unlike Ogunquit’s. Charles Jacobi, a natural resources specialist at the park, has been fighting it for more than a decade. Excessive cairn building, he says, contributes to soil erosion, confuses hikers trying to follow a trail, and detracts from nature’s beauty. He is aided by Friends of Acadia’s volunteer ridge runners, who topple renegade cairns and spread the gospel of Leave No Trace. Still, cairns keep sprouting up all over the park’s granite mountaintops. “This year we’ll put out about 40 signs discouraging cairn building — reluctantly,” says Jacobi, acknowledging that signs are no more a part of the natural landscape than cairns.

Look for signs, too, on Marginal Way this summer, reports Helen Horn, the Marginal Way Committee’s chairman. “The magic of Marginal Way is that our visitors see that it is cared for, and they respect it in turn. They are not looking to do harm,” she says. “But I thoroughly believe that you get more of what you ignore, and we apply that to Marginal Way. If everyone gave into the compulsion to mark where they’ve been, it wouldn’t be enjoyable at all.”