HomeTop StoriesOn the back coast of Peaks Island, residents and tourists are divided...

On the back coast of Peaks Island, residents and tourists are divided over rock sculptures

June 23 – On the rocky coast of Peaks Island lies a small beach where people for at least a decade, probably longer, have piled the flat coastal shale rocks into towers that teeter over the landscape. The structures are often toppled, either by high tide or by other people, and are quickly replaced.

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

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

The debate also extends to other scenic spots in Maine. At Acadia National Park, well-meaning visitors often erect their own cairns, said public affairs officer Amanda Pollock, 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 keep hikers from going off-trail, but also because they believe moving rocks could damage those parks’ habitats and disrupt the experiences of other visitors in the can tarnish parks.

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

“In the alpine and subalpine areas, the soil is incredibly fragile and takes an awfully long time to settle. … It also has a big impact on erosion,” Harris said. “If you take several rocks out of an area where there is some soil and vegetation that doesn’t provide the support, and suddenly heavy rains and melting snow can cut away the soil that supports the small community of plants.”

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Harris said he knows less about the ecology of coastal ecosystems, although he suspects that moving rocks on beaches like those at Peaks has similarly damaging effects.

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

Christopher Jenkins, a member of the Peaks Island Land Reserve, lives across the road from Cairn Beach. He agrees that it would be better for the environment if the rocks were not moved. But he believes it will be difficult to keep Peaks completely disruption-free, given the high number of visitors.

“I definitely feel like the ideal goal is to leave everything the way it was,” Jenkins said. “But the reality is that that is not possible on an island with a circumference of six kilometers on a busy Saturday or Sunday, when 2,000 people arrive.”

The cairns have been condensed into a small portion of the nearly two-mile coastline, making them easier for Jenkins to accept.

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“I would much rather have the activity concentrated in that 200 by 200 square meter area than around the entire island,” says Jenkins, 65. “You won’t find towers anywhere else on the island, especially not in the woods, where towers would probably cover habitat for creatures and insects. … But I don’t see any life on the rocks or any habitat problems in those 200-by-200 feet area.”

But Carol Eisenberg, 60, a lawyer who has lived on Peaks since 1986, said she hates 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: ‘Oh yeah, you go to Peaks, you rent a golf cart, you drive to Cairn Beach to build a pile of bricks and make your mark’ – sort of treating Peaks as an amusement park,” Eisenberg said.

However, Siara Soule rejects this idea.

Soule, 20, who grew up in Cumberland but spent countless 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 brings back special memories and has a kind of spiritual significance.

“I went (to Cairn Beach) with some people who are really important to me – some of those people are not even with us anymore,” Fournier said. “So every time I come back here, it’s just a reminder of the time I spent with people. And I think we can create some kind of balance if we stack the bricks on top of each other.”

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

“When my wife and I first came here, there was a lot of litter. We used to walk along the seafront and pick up rubbish, especially after a Saturday night or something. And then others started picking it up, and now it’s really quite clean.’, says Higgins. ‘When I see them building little castles out of stone on Cairn Beach, I think that’s a wonderful thing. I think it’s a reminder for them. It doesn’t harm the island, and it’s a natural, beautiful thing to do.”

However, Eisenberg thinks it’s the back end that makes Peaks so appealing. According to her, people are not allowed to tinker with it in any capacity.

“I think the cairns are blobs in the landscape. I think the backside attracts people (to Peaks) – they want to come out and experience something they don’t have in the city, and then people spoil that,” Eisenberg said. “It is less what draws you here in the first place.”

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