A wave washes onto a stretch of city-owned shoreline known as Cairn Beach on Peaks Island. The cairns that some residents and visitors build there have become a point of contention for some on the island. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On the rocky back shore of Peaks Island lies a small beach where, for at least a decade, likely longer, people have stacked the shore’s flat, shale rocks into towers that teeter over the landscape. The structures are knocked down often, either by high tides or by other people, and are quickly replaced. 

They have become so ubiquitous that at some point, the area became known as Cairn Beach. But for years, islanders have debated whether the cairns should exist.

Several people who spoke with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, all with varying relationships to the island, shared competing views. Some said the cairns disrupt the back shore’s ecosystem and pristine beauty, while others contended that building cairns is a fun and relatively sustainable activity. 

The debate extends to other scenic places in Maine, too. At Acadia National Park, well-meaning visitors often erect cairns of their own, public affairs officer Amanda Pollock said, but they can confuse other visitors because park staff use cairns to mark trails. 

The Maine State Parks system discourages hikers from building their own cairns – partly to avoid leading hikers off trail, but also because they believe moving rocks can damage those parks’ habitats and sully other visitors’ experiences in the parks.

Rex Harris, director of planning and acquisition for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, said building cairns in mountainous areas damages habitats that are already vulnerable.


“In the alpine and the subalpine areas, the soil is incredibly fragile and takes an awful long time to establish. … It also has a big impact on erosion,” Harris said. “If you take multiple rocks out of an area where there is some soil and vegetation that support is gone, and all of a sudden, heavy rains and snowmelt can just carve away the soil that supports the little community of plants.” 

Harris said he knows less about the ecology of coastal ecosystems, though he suspects that moving rocks on beaches such as the one on Peaks has similarly damaging effects. 

“I think there’s a general principle that leaving things as you find them has value for the ecology,” Harris said. “There’s lots of things happening at different scales, including very small scales with animals, organisms underneath rocks and in those zones.”

A rock sculpture stands precariously on a stretch of city-owned shoreline known as Cairn Beach on Peaks Island’s back shore. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Christopher Jenkins, a member of the Peaks Island Land Reserve, lives across the street from Cairn Beach. He agrees that it would be better for the environment if the rocks weren’t moved. But he thinks it would be difficult to keep Peaks completely free of disturbance, given its high number of visitors

“I definitely do feel like the ideal goal is to leave everything as it was,” Jenkins said. “But the reality is you can’t have that on a 4-mile-in-circumference island on a busy Saturday or Sunday, with 2,000 people arriving.” 

The cairns are condensed into one small area of the nearly 2-mile back shore, which makes it easier for Jenkins to accept them. 


“I’d much rather activity be concentrated in that 200-by-200 square-foot area than around the entire island,” Jenkins, 65, said. “You don’t find towers anywhere else on the island, particularly in the woods, where towers would likely cover habitat for creatures and insects. … But I don’t see any life on the rocks or any habitat issues in that 200-by-200-foot area.”

But Carol Eisenberg, 60, a lawyer who has lived on Peaks since 1986, said she dislikes the cairns and sees them as emblematic of the way tourists visit the island with a sense of entitlement. 

“I think there’s this (idea that), ‘Oh, yes, you go to Peaks, you rent a golf cart, you drive over to Cairn Beach to build a stack of rocks and leave your mark’ – sort of treating Peaks as an amusement park,” Eisenberg said.

Siara Soule, however, rejects this notion. 

Soule, 20, who grew up in Cumberland but has spent numerous summers at her grandfather’s cottage on Peaks, has fond memories of building cairns when she was younger. 

“Some of my favorite memories are going there with my siblings and building cairns,” Soule said. “And we’re local.” 


For SJ Fournier, 34, who grew up in Jay and visits Peaks about every other year, building cairns evokes special memories and carries a kind of spiritual meaning. 

A rock sculpture seems to lean toward Cushing Island as it stands on a stretch of Cairn Beach. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“I’ve gone (to Cairn Beach) with some people that really matter to me – some of those people are not even with us anymore,” Fournier said. “So whenever I come back here, it’s just a remembrance of time that I’ve spent with folks. And I think there’s some kind of balance we can create within when we stack the rocks.” 

George “Bud” Higgins, 77, who has owned a house near Cairn Beach on Seashore Avenue for about 25 years, remembers when people used to frequently litter on Peaks. In comparison, the cairns seem harmless.

“When my wife and I first came out here, there was a lot of litter. We walked the seashore routinely and picked up trash, especially after a Saturday night or whatnot. And then others started picking up, and now it’s really, really clean,” Higgins said. “When I see them down at Cairn Beach building little castles out of stone, I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s a memory for them. It doesn’t hurt the island, and it’s a natural, nice thing to do.” 

Eisenberg, however, thinks the backshore is what gives Peaks its appeal. In her view, people shouldn’t tinker with it in any capacity. 

“I find the cairns to be blots on the landscape. … I think the backshore is what draws people (to Peaks) – they want to come out and experience something they don’t have in town, and then people spoil that,” Eisenberg said. “It’s less of what draws you here in the first place.” 

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