Stirn brings ancient tradition home from Ontario

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Eric Stirn places a stone atop one of the inuksuk he built on his riverfront property. He began studying inuksuk because of their prevalence in the areas of northwestern Ontario where he often travels. (Press photo by Molly Moser)

By Molly Moser

Since ancient times, humans have been purposefully leaving traces of their presence throughout the landscape. From spray-painted graffiti and names carved into the bricks of Guttenberg’s 1903 school building, to projects like traveling painted rocks, all the way back to prehistoric cairns built worldwide, we have long had a desire to communicate our existence to future voyagers. 

Guttenberg native Eric Stirn began paying closer attention to those signs during annual fishing trips with his father in Ontario, Canada. Inuksuk, or inuksuit in its plural form, were placed throughout the Arctic as ‘helpers’ to the Inuit people dating back to 1800 BC. These stacks of stones were built without mortar, depending on gravity and balance to keep them erect. Inuksuit are used as navigational aids, pointing the way for travelers; as indication of food caches; or as message centers where hunters or followers communicated through stones and flowers left behind. 

“Up in Canada, in Northwest Ontario, they are all over the sides of the roads and are on some of the islands and lakes where I go fishing,” said Stirn. “So I was curious and looked it up.” The inuksuit Stirn sees on his travels are built by other modern fishermen and travelers, and he has begun building his own outside his Guttenberg home. 

Stirn has made a habit of collecting rocks from his travels to places as far away as northwestern Canada and as nearby as the Chippewa River valley in Wisconsin. “Anyplace I go I see some kind of unique rock and bring it home,” he told The Press. 

So while the inuksuit of the North are built from local stone, Stirn’s creations are tributes to his own journeys, made from rocks he’s gathered along the way. There are three inuksuit on his property currently, ranging from roughly two to four feet in height and made from stones in a wide range of colors, shapes and sizes. 

The northernmost inuksut is balanced on a tripod of pointed cylinders, each about eight inches long with banded grey and white coloring. “The pillars came from Lake St. Joseph, on Eagle Island,” Stirn explained, referring to a large lake that is the source of Canada’s Albany River. The pillars are core samples left behind after feasibility studies for iron mining on the island. 

Though Stirn says his inuksuit are just for his own personal enjoyment, an inuksuit’s job is to ‘act in the capacity of a human,’ by providing some service. To the trained eye inuksuit can communicate depth of snow or water, safe or dangerous crossing places, dangerous spring ice, regions with abundant game or where fish spawn, and where there are hauling-out places for seal and walrus, or landing sites for boats and kayaks. 

According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, “Besides indicating the location of a cache or where an object had been hidden, such an arrangement may signify a change of direction from an intended course, or serve as a precaution or a sign for the follower to go to an alternative location or to the camp of a relative. For example, if a hunter lost a harpooned seal in shallow water, the hunter's companion may align two stones on shore pointing to where the seal went down, allowing it to be retrieved later. The configurations that shape these messages are known between hunting partners and often among members of their family.”

Many inuksuit are constructed with a window, which when gazed through aligns with other inuksuit to project a sightline toward a destination or a navigational constellation. These were not only used for navigation but also for sending thoughts home to distant but familiar places. 

The inuksuit aren’t the only messages for travelers in Stirn’s yard. He recently discovered a geocache hidden in his lilac bush while mowing the lawn. Geocaching is like a modern-day inuksuk, a way for today’s travelers to communicate by leaving messages or small objects in the cache. According to geocaching.com, there are 214 geocaches around Guttenberg.

Stirn spent about a half an hour creating his largest inuksuk, located on the southern corner of his home and topped with a red stone. “These are just for decoration,” said Stirn. “Every one is unique, just like a snowflake, because the rocks are all unique...They are little monuments to, ‘I was here.’”

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