Lessons From A Rock Cairn

by Jen Slayden on · 5 comments

Rock cairnnoun 1.  A human-made pile of stones erected to define a trail or mark a memo­r­ial    2.  A small breed of ter­rier from Scotland

Cairns are found all over the world, and have dif­fer­ent spir­i­tual mean­ings and his­tor­i­cal pur­poses.   When a large rock is placed on top of smaller rocks the cairn is fondly referred to as a “duck cairn” and it’s pur­pose is to show the way at a turn in the trail.

The sec­ond year of an annual back­pack­ing trip with my sister-in-law was one I won’t ever for­get.  After a whirl­wind of jug­gling kids, activ­i­ties, work, and musi­cal per­for­mances I was ready for the sound of silence that only the moun­tains can provide.

We thought we had our trip orga­nized, but the plan kept chang­ing.   A series of unfor­tu­nate events forced us to make a quick deci­sion about where we were going the night before we left, leav­ing us scram­bling to gather the nec­es­sary belong­ings the morn­ing of the trip.   It didn’t help that I left a pile of intended clothes back home on the couch that never made it into my bag in my whirl­wind to leave my house.

My sister-in-law is a plan­ner.  She likes to have her duck cairns point­ing her in the right direc­tion.   I, on the other hand, am used to being a bit more spon­ta­neous and have always had the habit of doing things more last minute.….call it a rock slide, if you will.

Our final deci­sion was to head into the Cab­i­net Moun­tain Wilder­ness south­west of Libby, MT.   We would hike 5.5 miles to Cedar Lake and ascend Dome Moun­tain the next day.   We pre­pared for wet weather and started our climb through the thick for­est with lush veg­e­ta­tion and Cedar creek flow­ing abun­dantly next to the trail.

Mona at the trailhead

The hike was beau­ti­ful but gru­el­ing.   The ele­va­tion gain was steady, and I had packed my bag hap­haz­ardly.   Mona was hik­ing along with­out a prob­lem, being the plan­ner who loaded her belong­ings in a much more orga­nized way!    We had beau­ti­ful weather.…partly sunny but cool with the shade of the clouds and cedar canopies.   A nice sur­prise along the path were amaz­ing huck­le­berry patches that were in their prime.

We made our final ascent to the lower Cedar Lake and took a minute to take in the view and take a rest, then headed up toward upper Cedar Lake.

We no sooner had found our per­fect camp site and set up the tent when the sky opened up and a steady down­pour of rain fol­lowed.  We ducked into the tent, popped open a bev­er­age and enjoyed the safety of our dry shel­ter while hav­ing con­ver­sa­tion that was not being inter­rupted by chil­dren.   The rain and con­ver­sa­tion washed away any resid­ual stress that remained before our quick break away from real­ity.  We both soon felt refreshed and excited for our hike the next day.

The weather gods smiled upon us, leav­ing us with a beau­ti­ful aroma in our lux­ury retreat for the night, and enough break in the weather to get a fire going to cook up some din­ner.   No fish this year, and our lit­tle moun­tain goat from last year’s trip was fondly missed.   How­ever, after an amaz­ing light­ning and thunder-storm dur­ing the night (which Mo slept right through) our one and only wildlife friend of the trip made his appear­ance at approx­i­mately 7:45 am the next morn­ing.   An obnox­ious squir­rel, who sit­u­ated him­self on a tree limb right above our tent was chirp­ing more fer­vently than any cuckoo clock I have ever heard.

Later, we thanked him.   We lazily made our way out of our tent and were blown away by the beauty of the blue sky reflect­ing on crys­tal blue Cedar Lake with Dome Moun­tain beck­on­ing us to her peak.

The still­ness of the early morn­ing at Cedar Lake

We ate a good break­fast, packed a day bag, and headed up the trail, which took us away from the lake and through diverse land­scapes.  The var­i­ous wild­flow­ers scented the moun­tain air and birds ser­e­naded our efforts.   The trail was good desen­si­ti­za­tion for any­one afraid of heights (aka: ME on occa­sion) as it hugged the moun­tain­side and forced us to pay atten­tion to every step we were tak­ing.    It was easy to be dis­tracted by the view as we climbed fur­ther and fur­ther up in ele­va­tion and were able to see  peaks and moun­tain ranges for miles.

We hes­i­tated at a fork in the road that wasn’t well-marked and con­tin­ued on, later to learn we had gone off track, extend­ing our trip another cou­ple of miles, but worth the beau­ti­ful view we received from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point.   Another spon­ta­neous gift!

After back­track­ing we found our­selves near sum­mit where the last ascent was rugged ter­rain of rock piles.   It took some fancy foot­work and con­cen­tra­tion to stay bal­anced but see­ing the end in sight was great motivation.

After tak­ing in the view from every angle we real­ized we didn’t see Cedar Lake.   Upon fur­ther obser­va­tion and look­ing over at another sum­mit we saw more rock cairns.

More ridge hik­ing and rock danc­ing took place until we made it to yet another summit.….the elu­sive peak of Dome Mountain-finally!

What a won­der­ful, quick, adven­tur­ous trip we had!   After all the obsta­cles we encoun­tered try­ing to make this trip come to fruition I believe Mona and I learned some­thing about our­selves and each other.    I some­times do not plan enough, and prepa­ra­tion is impor­tant.    She some­times plans too much, and flex­i­bil­ity is important.

The rock cairns that were erected on both the peaks we reached were great reminders of life and bal­ance.   Each rock rep­re­sents events in our life.   Some are weath­ered and sharp, some big and some small.    The struc­ture sig­ni­fies the whole per­son, made up of all our events, thoughts, expe­ri­ences, and even where we are head­ing.   The excit­ing thing is that we have the power to take all those lit­tle pieces of our lives and shape them how­ever we want!

LIFE LESSON? Embrace your rock cairn and enjoy the view!


by Jen Slay­den

Jen Slay­den finds her har­mony in West­ern Mon­tana with her hus­band Mark, their three kids, and an out­door lov­ing black lab named Cody. Stop by and check out her life in music, words, and edu­ca­tion at Find Your Har­mony.
Jen Slayden
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