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To stack or not to stack

To some along the north shoreline of Lake Superior in Minnesota, building stacks of rocks, or cairns, is akin to making sand castles and can even be meditative. To others, these manmade rock formations despoil nature's beauty and stand as monuments to the human ego.

Those who live along the north shore say cairns began appearing more often about five years ago, possibly because of the growth in popularity of Instagram and other social media sites, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

Photographer Travis Novitsky, who grew up and still lives on the Grand Portage Reservation, where the shoreline extends north into Canada, said he wasn't bothered by cairns at first, but that he now sees them all along the lakefront.

"I see it as a big detractor to stepping out on the shoreline, where you're expecting to see ... an untouched piece of shoreline," he said.

The debate over stacking rocks isn't unique to the Minnesota shoreline — it has raged everywhere from Zion National Park in Utah to Acadia National Park in Maine. And although Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officials said the agency wouldn't consider building cairns a violation of state park rules, signs forbidding stacking have been placed on some beaches out West, MPR News reported.

When friends Stacey Fox and Anna Bennett visited Iona's Beach between Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse state parks last summer, they found several delicately balanced cairns. Fox posted a photo of them on a Facebook group dedicated to the north shore, but it was quickly removed. Bennett asked why, not realizing she had waded into a fierce debate about cairns.

"All of a sudden, the controversy on there was unbelievable," she recalled. "Saying that it was wrecking the ecosystem, and can even endanger species of wildlife. I was like, 'What in the world?' I never even knew there was any controversy at all until that post."

Bruce Holmen, one of the administrators of the North Shore Tribe Facebook group, said the amount of vitriol over the issue led the group to change its policy a few years ago and require all posts to get approval before they can go up.

"It's just ridiculous. Why would that topic elicit that much emotion by either side?" he asked.

Kurt Mead, an interpretive naturalist at Tettegouche State Park, said many park staffers don't like the cairns and tend to kick them over, finding them to be an eyesore that despoils the scenery for those who come after they're built. It's not just the esthetics, though, as he said rock stacks can also cause ecological harm in rivers, where stones provide habitat for macroinvertebrates that form the bottom of the food chain.

Peter Juhl, an airline database administrator, said he's been balancing rocks for a quarter-century, mainly along the north shore. He said it's a meditative process for him and he considers his stacks, where the rocks seem to be balanced at impossible angles, to be ephemeral works of art. Although he encourages others to try their hand at stacking, he urges them to do so responsibly and to deconstruct their works after taking a photo of them.

"It's not owned by me, and other people use it," he said. "So, I want to be kind to the beach, and kind to the people who come later."



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