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The weird “cuckoos” of Crete

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One *cuckoo doesn’t bring the spring….but it certainly shows us the path. But what is “cuckoo” in mountaineering-hiking terminology?

*cuckoo in Greek hiking terminology is the name of the cairn

Alternative crete, hiking and trekking tours
Photo: Alternative Crete (Lefka Ori)

During a hike we come across one or more piles of stones on the path, not randomly placed, but obviously by human action where they usually have a triangular or pyramidal shape.

This pyramid of stones is called cairn in hiking terminology
, and if one often hikes mountain trails it is good to learn to recognize them and distinguish them from a random pile.

History of Crete Island
Photo: Alternative Crete (Lefka Ori)

The purpose of the cairn is to indicate a path where the markings are incomplete or where there is a change of direction without other obvious signs.

Sometimes they are made by professional trail markers when there is no other solution for marking at that point. This is of course very rare because cairns, no matter how masterfully they are made, are easily destroyed by the difficult weather conditions of the mountain, which is why it is not advisable to use them for a safe and sure marking of a path.

Most of the time the cairns are the creation of experienced hikers who know the trail fairly well or by locals who know the region.
They are made in such a way that they are visible from distance, do not disorient and direct the hiker from the safest point of the path.

Therefore, whoever decides to build a cairn must be sure of the trail that he follows and has very good knowledge of the region and the mountain.

Otherwise, if someone, not expert makes a cairn, without knowing the path or the landscape, or simply because he has seen it by chance on another hike and thinks it is an artistic intervention, it is better not to do it.
And this is because there is a risk of confusion and disorienting the hikers who will follow the same path and perhaps with dangerous results.

Όσοι πεζοπορούν αρκετά συχνά στα Ελληνικά βουνά θα έχουν παρατηρήσει ότι οι κούκοι δεν έχουν αποκλειστικά τριγωνικό σχήμα αλλά βλέπουμε και κούκους που μπορεί να είναι τοποθετημένοι  πάνω σε έναν ξερό κορμό δέντρου, πάνω σε ένα χαρακτηριστικό βράχο ή σε κάποιο χαρακτηριστικό σημείο του μονοπατιού.

Άλλες φορές η φαντασία και η υπομονή αυτών που αποφασίζουν να φτιάξουν μία τέτοια κατασκευή δεν έχει όρια! Και εξηγούμαστε:

Υπάρχουν κούκοι που είναι ισορροπιστικοί. Πέτρες τοποθετημένες η μία πάνω στην άλλη και μόλις μία μικρή επιφάνεια τους να εφάπτεται η μία με την άλλη. Τόσο ήρεμα και προσεκτικά τοποθετημένες όπου είναι ένα μικρό θαύμα πώς η βαρύτητα δεν τις επηρεάζει.

Αυτοί οι κούκοι βέβαιά είναι οι πιο ευάλωτοι στις καιρικές συνθήκες και το δημιούργημα είναι καταδικασμένο να κρατήσει για τόσο λίγο!

Those who hike quite often in the Greek mountains will have noticed that cairns are not exclusively triangular in shape, but we also see cairns that are placed up on a broken tree or above on a big boulders, or up on a characteristic point of the trail.

Sometimes the imagination and patience of those who decide to build such a construction has no limits! And we explain:

There are cairns that are in totally balance. Stones placed on top of each other with only a small surface touching each other. So calmly and carefully placed that it’s a small wonder how gravity doesn’t affect them.

These cairns are certainly the most vulnerable to the weather and the creation is doomed to last so little!

Hiking in the Cretan gorges
Photo: Alternative Crete (Imbros gorge)

There are some others that are oversized. When a path is crowded, many leave a small stone on it. Stone by stone the cairn can be visible from outer space…

Photo: Alternative Crete (Lefka Ori)

Recently on our hikes in Crete we  discovered cairns sculptures. Cairns carved on cut or dry tree trunks, apparently the work of an experienced woodcarving artist.

But wonderful cairns that turn the Cretan landscape into an outdoor woodsculpture exhibition. We think it’s a great idea, art and hiking!

‘Έτσι λοιπόν καλό είναι να μάθετε να ξεχωρίζετε τους κούκους ανάμεσα στο όμορφο τοπίο όταν κάνετε μία πεζοπορία. Αυτό θα σας φανεί χρήσιμο και ίσως σας προστατέψει από αρκετά μπλεξίματα εκεί έξω.

Όσοι κούκοι είναι σωστά δομημένοι και τοποθετημένοι, καλό είναι να μην τους καταστρέφετε. Αυτοί θα σας βοηθήσουν κατά την επιστροφή σας ή να ξανά εντοπίσετε το μονοπάτι σε περίπτωση που θα χαθείτε.

Αν είστε πολύ καλοί γνώστες της περιοχής και του μονοπατιού που κινείστε και καταλάβετε ότι ένας κούκος είναι λάθος φτιαγμένος και αποπροσανατολίζει καλό είναι να το διορθώσετε αυτό. Μερικές φορές το να παίρνουμε πρωτοβουλίες εκεί που είμαστε σίγουροι για τον εαυτό μας θα βοηθήσει.
‘Όχι μόνο εμάς, αλλά και τους επόμενους πεζοπόρους που θα ακολουθήσουν μετά από εμάς.

Και αν έχετε την υπομονή να φτιάξετε έναν που να είναι σε απόλυτη ισορροπία, όπως εμείς όλοι, όταν πεζοπορούμε στα υπέροχα ορεινά μονοπάτια, τότε φτιάξτε έναν κούκο.

Που ξέρετε, μπορεί και να έρθει η άνοιξη τελικά.

So, it is good to learn to distinguish the cairns in the beautiful landscape when you are hiking. This will be useful for you and might save you a lot of trouble out there.

Those cairns that are properly structured and placed, it is best not to touch and destroy them. They will help you on your way back or re-locate the path in case you get lost.

If you are very knowledgeable of the region and the trail you are moving and realize that a cairn is incorrectly made and disorienting it is a good idea to correct this. Sometimes taking initiative where we are confident will help.
Not only us, but also the next hikers who will follow after us.

And if you have the patience to make one that is perfectly balanced, like we all are when we hike the great mountain trails, then it’s a good idea to try and build your own cairn and leave your kind mark on the trail.

Who knows, spring might come after all.