Last summer, Anna Bennett and her friend Stacey Fox drove to the North Shore from the Iron Range for a getaway. At Iona’s Beach, tucked between Gooseberry Falls and Split Rock Lighthouse state parks, they saw several delicately balanced stacks of stones, framed by turquoise water in the background.
Fox took a picture, and posted it to a popular Facebook group dedicated to all things North Shore.
But the picture was quickly removed. Bennett posted a message, asking why.
"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."
Without warning, Bennett had waded into a debate that's exploded in the past several years among a certain segment of outdoor enthusiasts, over cairns.
That's right — over literal piles of rocks.
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It’s an argument that’s raged from Utah’s Zion National Park to Acadia National Park in Maine to the British Isles. Now it’s spread to Minnesota’s North Shore, where on one side people say the rock piles are like graffiti, despoiling the natural landscape — "monuments to the human ego," as one cairn-hater put it.
To which the other camp says: Chill out. They look cool, they're relaxing to build. And they eventually get knocked down by wind and waves, anyway.
The debate has gotten so passionate, even nasty at times, that several people, fearing blowback, declined interviews for this story.
"It's just ridiculous. Why would that topic elicit that much emotion by either side?" wondered Bruce Holmen, one of the administrators of the North Shore Tribe Facebook group, where Bennett posted her query. A few years ago, the group changed its policy — now all posts have to first get approved — all because of the cairn controversy.
"When comments start getting personal, then we have to step in and keep it more civil," Holmen said.
People who live along the North Shore say cairns started appearing in large numbers about five years ago. Many attribute the growth to Instagram and other social media sites.
Travis Novitsky, a photographer who grew up on the Grand Portage Reservation and still lives there, said the cairns didn’t bother him at first. But then he started seeing them at virtually every public access along the shore, practically covering entire stretches of beach.
"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.
Novitsky sympathizes with tourists, especially families with children, who like to stack rocks, “kind of like building a sand castle.” But then to leave them there, he said, “takes away from the next person’s experience.”
His tendency, he said, is to knock them down.
Photographers like Novitsky have been some of the most vocal critics of stacking. He and others argue it doesn't adhere to the Leave No Trace ethic of leaving only footprints and taking only photographs.
It's not against the law to stack rocks on public land along the North Shore. Officials with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said while it could be argued that building cairns disturbs state property, from a practical standpoint, it’s not going to be considered a violation of state park rules.
But at Tettegouche State Park, interpretive naturalist Kurt Mead acknowledged that much of the staff doesn’t like them.
"I think we have a lot of rock kickers on our staff,” he said, adding it really comes down to personal taste. “And personally, there's a bunch of us at the park that will just quietly knock them over when we see them."
It's mainly an aesthetic annoyance when people stack dry rocks along the shore of Lake Superior, Mead said. But rock-stacking can cause real ecological harm in rivers, he said, where stones provide habitat for macroinvertebrates that form the bottom of the food chain.
A possible middle ground
Smack in the middle of this contentious debate stands Peter Juhl, an airline database administrator by day who has been balancing rocks for the past quarter-century, mainly along the North Shore.
I met Juhl at Brighton Beach in Duluth, where he demonstrated his unique art — balancing stones on top of one another in ways that seem to defy the law of gravity.
"It's like a conversation you're having with these rocks, and every movement you make to one rock, or every weight you add to one rock, affects all the others," he explained.
It's a meditative process for Juhl. He makes what he considers small, ephemeral works of art.
“I feel like my job now is not only to do this art but to try to be kind of an evangelist or ambassador for the people who do it the way I do, who do it responsibly and care about the environment just as much as everybody else," he said.
So after he finishes a balance, and takes pictures of it, Juhl knocks it down. He thinks other people who stack rocks should follow suit.
As the controversy has grown, Juhl has worried that some day a ranger could approach him as he’s balancing rocks and say, “Put those down.”
He doesn’t want signs placed at North Shore beaches saying rock-stacking is not allowed — something that has happened on public lands in the West.
Juhl acknowledges that there are many environmental concerns more significant than rock-stacking. He admits the fight can seem silly. But he says public lands, like North Shore beaches, are for everyone.
“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.”