We've visited Michigan's Old Mission Point many times to take photos of the lighthouse, and I've always been intrigued by the balanced rock sculptures that invariably dot the beach and the shallow water at the point.
There often are dozens of stone cairns in the water at Old Mission Point, especially on sunny summer days like the one when I took most of the pictures accompanying this story.
Some cairns are historical or memorial markers.
You'll sometimes find small stacks of stones left by visitors atop a grave stone, like the small stack I added my own stone to atop the grave stone of Traverse City's Colantha Walker.
Hikers sometimes add stones to an existing stack along the trail to mark their visit there, something I first remembered seeing when a guide on our trip to the Basque Country in Spain urged us to add a stone to piles along El Camino de Santiago.
Rock stacks often fascinate photographers, and there are several collections of amazing balanced rock sculptures online, including ones I found at Photography Blogger, Lila Higgins' photostream at Flickr, the website of professional rock balancing and rock stacking Team Sandtastic, photographer James Jordan's Flickr set of rock balancing photos taken in Wisconsin and Illinois, and Minnesota rock balancer and photographer Peter Juhl's website.
I planned to write this article even before participating in a conversation about #balancedrocks on Twitter late last year, when I discovered that other folks who shared my fascination for rock piles and taking photos of them.
I discovered that rock balancing is more than a hobby for many people who often create the temporary sculptures as performance art, as a meditative or spiritual practice, or as a mental exercise.
Some balanced rock sculptures look as if they should be physically impossible to create, but rock balancing artists use no tricks like glue, wires or other supports to create their pieces. The art, instead, requires patience or sensitivity to balancing each rock to create the work.
Filipino balanced rock artist Idelfonso Vista compares the art to the game of chess, pointing out that the focus is where to place each rock.
Juhl, who travels from this Twin Cities home to Lake Superior several times every year to create and photograph balanced rock sculptures, offers some tips and a rock balancing tutorial on his website.
Juhl says rock balancers look for small depressions, bubbles, chips or cracks in rocks that can cradle the curve of the next rock in the stack. Rock balancers need three points of contact around the edge of the depression a rock nestles into, and the combined center of gravity must be directly above that triangular point of contact. It is also important that enough friction exists between the surfaces to prevent the rocks from sliding off of each other.
Juhl shows his balanced rock photos in gallery shows and teaches workshops on the art.
Most balanced rock sculptures take just a few minutes to complete, although complicated pieces might take as long as 15 minutes to build. That probably explains why you'll often see entire groups of balanced rock sculptures together.
The sculptures usually don't last too long as wind, flying birds, waves, or people can disturb the balance and cause the work to topple.
Many balanced rock artists tout the art as compatible with leave-no-trace ideals, especially if the rock artists return the rocks to their original places after creating the piece.
Critics sometimes object to the art because they feel it disrupts the natural view or can harm flora, fauna or wildlife dependent on the particular placement of the rocks.
Bill Dan, a San Francisco sculptor and performance artist, is one of the most well known rock balance artists. You can find many videos of Dan in action online that show how a balanced rock artist carefully selects and places each rock in their sculptures.
Be sure to also check out my stories Light Keeping at the Old Mission Point Lighthouse and Early northern Michigan pioneer history comes alive at Hesler home.
© Dominique King 2012 All rights reserved