Cairns and Ducks

Cairns and ducks are litter!

Human beings, being the clever creatures that they are, have devised a way to construct litter out of natural materials, namely the stacks of rocks called ducks or cairns.

They need to stop. Everyone using the backcountry needs to practice a leave no trace ethic, and this includes no ducks. All those who love the wilderness should take the time to destroy every duck they encounter.

In rereading some of my guidebooks, I am surprised and pleased to find that I am not alone in passionately detesting and condemning ducks: Steve Roper in the 1976 "Climbers Guide to the High Sierra" said:

Small piles of rocks -- called ducks, cairns, or stonemen -- have become an eyesore all over the high country. One time I was behind a pack of Boy Scouts who were ascending toward Gabbot Pass. There were about twenty of them, and as they drifted in separate packlets over high meadows and gentle talus fields they built such sturdy and so abundant a supply of ducks that it took me an extra hour and an extra mile to destroy them all. I had better things to do, and I would hate to be thought of as a duck pervert, but I genuinely shudder each time I see those little piles of stones which someone has so kindly placed to help me on my way. What arrogance the duck-builder has! Does he really believe that he has found the only possible route? Does he believe that he has checked out all alternate routes? Does he think we can't find our own way?

It is not only the populated areas of the Sierra which are affected, and it is not only Boy Scouts who build ducks. In the difficult to reach Gorge of Despair I found hundreds of ducks which must have been built by rockclimbers since few others ever see the valley. There were ducks on class 1 slabs, ducks which laboriously took me to a class 2 ledge instead of a direct class 2-3 route, and ducks which led through brushfields to a stream crossing. Hervey Voge hated ducks too, and he wrote a powerful paragraph against them in his original climbers guide. He pointed out that "it is better for a climber to judge the situation himself than to follow blindly a series of ducks." I maintain unequivocally that ducks in the High Sierra should be destroyed. They are not only unnecessary and misleading, but the ruin the sense of adventure for those who believe, however falsely, that they are explorers trodding over new ground.

Secor in his 1992 guidebook "the High Sierra Peaks, Passes, and Trails" says:
The problem with ducks is that they seldom actually show the easiest route. They also have a tendency to direct all cross-country hikers onto the same path. This leads to the creation of a use trail, which usually scars the land above timberline. There are many use trails in the High Sierra ... but we must do everything we can to prevent more from being created. Anyone who sets out cross-country should be capable of finding the correct route on his or her own without the assistance of ducks. Don't build ducks, and destroy all ducks encountered.

All of this was driven home to me by a visit to an area that was pristine when I visited 20 years ago. Now I find well established paths with ducks, now unnecessary and ridiculous due to the well established use trails themselves. This area (the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek near Mount Whitney) was relatively pristine on my first visit (and simple enough to navigate), but is now littered by an abundance of ducks.

Recently, I have been on certain trails in southern Arizona (Elephants Head in the Santa Ritas and the trail through the Wilderness of Rocks in the Catalinas) where an absurd number of ducks along a clear and obvious trail were a disgusting eyesore. I did my best to destroy as many ducks as I could and regret that I did not do more.

I don't have the energy to knock them all down, I need your help. I will do what I can until you come along to join me!

Summit Registers

This perhaps deserves an essay page of its own, but just what purpose do summit registers serve? I usually decline the opportunity to sign them. I think for most people they allow them to "put their mark on the world" and recorded their grand achievement for the world to recognize. A moment of thought and reflection will make clear how ridiculous this is, yet the practice continues.

I recently heard some people mention that unknown individuals were tossing summit registers off of peaks. My initial reactions was outrage, perhaps in sympathy with the emotions of the people telling me the news. But after some thought, I could readily see why a person might do this. Wouldn't the summits be more pure and natural without some metal box or container resting on it as tribute to mans ego?

The only real justification I can concieve of for summit registers (and this is definitely not why they exist on the peaks) would be that in a search for a lost person, they might give clues to searchers.

So, I find myself in sympathy with the summit register tossers. I am not tossing them myself though, nor am I encouraging others to do so.

Have any comments? Questions? Drop me a line!

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