Posted by: Dave Neads | March 27, 2010

Life Cairns

Have you ever blazed a trail, building cairns for those who will follow?

For several years I was fortunate enough to be employed as a back country ranger for B.C Parks. It was a dream job in many ways: being paid to work in the outdoors, camping in the wilds of Tweedsmuir Park, lounging in the lush colours of blood red flower meadows, embraced by some of the most idyllic surroundings to be found anywhere.

Early in June we would start clearing the trails of winter blow down, chasing spring up into the alpine. Then the real adventure started. Parks wanted us to go into the more remote parts of Tweedsmuir, well beyond the trail head. Our job was to find, explore and reestablish old routes as well as develop new hiking experiences, map them (no GPS in those days), write trail descriptions and build cairns along the best routes for others to follow.

Exploring new areas was the most exciting part. First, I’d get out the map, look at the contour lines, elevation, aspect, size, distances and proximity for possible peaks to hike, then work out the logistics of several days for me and my crew away from base camp.

In the area surrounding Ptarmigan Lake, there were several possibilities for new routes leading to a flat bottomed valley with many lakes, glaciers, waterfalls and streams to explore. Set against the serene beauty of the coast mountains as a backdrop, this was the perfect alpine wonderland we wanted to open up for hikers.

For one of the routes we needed to explore a path to reach a col suspended between two fractured peaks. So up we went. Scramble here, back down and retry another line over there, getting a feel for a good route over the scree, between the transport truck sized boulders, across the snow patches, along the edge of the vertical cliffs dropping into the small lake far below.

In all, it took several days of exploring to locate good ways to reach the valley, finding the best angles to walk the slopes in a relatively safe, easy manner. Routes could not be too steep, nor too long, they had to miss the boggy parts, cross snow patches safely, and, most important, they had to find those special view points for rest stops as they snaked up the mountain.

Once the way had been chosen, then we’d build cairns to mark the way for those who will follow. My style was to make just enough; when you reach a cairn, then another one will come into sight, gently leading up and across the bare mountain.

If you build too many cairns, then the feeling of wildness, aloneness, is damaged; if not enough, then the way can be lost.

In the end, we provided three access possibilities into the new valley, but once there the hikers were on their own, no more cairns to follow; it was now their turn to explore new routes, to continue the process.

In the end, we are all trailblazers, climbing personal mountains. In doing so, if we can provide markers for those who will follow, then we are part of the ongoing process of discovery.

For me that is the trick, to provide set of cairns for those who follow, so they can cover the same ground I did , then move onto the new explorations. That is the fulfillment, the thrill of participating in the magic: building life cairns.


  1. Thanks for sharing – I really enjoyed reading this, especially since we just discussed it. 🙂

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