The World Doesn't Want Your Inukshuk

CC BY 2.0. Claude Robillard

These little stacks of stones might be fun to build, but their proliferation around the globe is turning into a real problem.

An invasive species has appeared on remote beaches, hiking trails, hilltops, and lookouts all around the world. Inanimate, made of local materials, and fairly easy to dismantle, it might not seem like a problem at first glance, but in reality it is. I am referring to a simple stack of stones, also known as an 'inukshuk' when in human-like form.

Stacking stones and leaving them for others to see is nothing new. These structures have been around for millennia, used by ancient people to mark trails, favorite fishing holes and hunting grounds, and places of spiritual importance. What has changed, though, is the sheer number of tourists gaining access to previously inaccessible locations and wanting to leave their mark with similar stacks of stones for strictly aesthetic reasons. Park workers at Killarney in Ontario, Canada, have dismantled up to 30 in a single day. Patrick Barkham, in The Guardian, has referred to the "almost industrial scale of this new age of stone-stacking". He wrote:

"Adventure tourism and social media have created a perfect storm of stones. Cruise ships decant hundreds of visitors on to once remote islands such as Orkney, the Faroes or Iceland, each passenger burning with a creative desire to memorialize their sightseeing on Instagram."

And memorialize it they do, with an irritating reminder to every subsequent visitor that others have been there and enjoyed the view, until the stack finally gets knocked down. While most of us realize that we're treading on previously discovered territory, it is not something that we want to be reminded of all the time. That's part of the reason why we escape into wilderness, and stacks of stones undermine that sense of getting away. In Barkham's words,

"A forest of stacked stones destroys all sense of the wild. Stacks are an intrusion, enforcing our presence on others long after our departure. It’s an offence against the first and most important rule of wild adventuring: leave no trace."

There are other reasons why obsessive stone-stacking is not a good idea. It can destroy wildlife habitats that you may not even be aware of. From an article in Wide Open Spaces, shared by the UK's Blue Planet Society,

"Everything from aquatic plants to micro-organisms are attached to those rocks. They also create habitat for crustaceans and nymphs. Crevices in the rocks hold eggs in salmon redds to be fertilized, supporting those eggs until they grow into fry and begin feeding off the very critters that were hatching off of and crawling around those same rocks. You could be lifting the roof off the home of a crawfish, or disturbing the cradle for the future generations of already dwindling salmon runs. Removing rocks from fragile stream habitats is essentially the equivalent to removing bricks from someone else’s home while raiding their refrigerator and food pantry."

Stacking stones dismantles historic sites, which has been a real problem at neolithic Stone's Hill in Cornwall, to the point where the overseeing organization, Historic England, has said stone-stackers could face jail time. Canadian provincial park officials point out that rearranging stones can harm archaeologically significant quarry sites.

Finally, it creates confusion about which stacks are authentic trail-markers. The superintendent of Killarney Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, told The Globe and Mail nearly a decade ago that "the proliferation of inukshuks built by well-meaning but clueless people threatens to lead hikers astray."

The bottom line is, it's always better to leave a wild place untouched. Unless governments take up Barkham's suggestion and designate specific places for stone-stacking, it's best to quell the urge or choose a spot that will be flooded at high tide, to wash away the traces of your creative work.