By Shawn Wilson
Channel 2 News
6:33 PM AKDT, September 10, 2012
A peculiar sight has popped up in creeks across Anchorage -- sculptures called rock cairns, standing in the water. Channel 2 finally caught up with the mystery man behind the stacked stones, to ask him how and why he created such memorable works of art.
Daniel James Vanpelt is a prep worker at Downtown’s Hott Stixx restaurant -- but a notebook of intricate drawings he keeps in the kitchen is obviously food for thought.
“It was the rocks that inspired me to stay, that inspired me to draw,” he says, paging through the detailed works as he speaks. “You can tell with this one that I was just kind of exploding: I had to fill in every gap, I had to express as much as I could.”
That same depth of expression also carries through to Vanpelt’s other project, a summer enigma that’s drawn both bystanders and bylines alike: dozens of freestanding rock cairns rising above the fast-moving waters of local streams like Campbell and Chester creeks, their presence exuding a sense of serenity amid turbulence.
“A friend from Minnesota I met in Seward, and he did a couple of them on the trail, just to mark our spot -- and I got obsessed with them,” Vanpelt said.
Vanpelt says stacking the rocks involves assessing their angles, then rotating them atop one another into positions where they remain stable.
“Like if you have a slant like this and then you have one like this,” Vanpelt said, gesturing with his forearms to indicate the angles of two rocks, “it’s just a matter of turning it to where it lines up, you know?”
It’s work that takes a lot of trial and error, with one freshly placed rock promptly shifting to fall back into the water as Vanpelt rebuilds a series of sculptures under the A Street bridge which were recently washed away by high waters along Chester Creek.
According to Vanpelt, much of the skill in forming the cairns revolves around finding each rock’s center of gravity, then testing their placement by letting go to see if they slide.
‘You just find the center,” he said. “If you find one that doesn’t stack, you will be able to get it in a stack if you’re just patient and you find the center and you just keep spinning gently -- letting off, letting off.”
For his part Vanpelt says the popular response to his work, which many people have watched him build one stone at a time, has made him question his sense of ownership in it.
“Some have said it’s performance art; I like to think of it as temporary art,” he said. “And then the people who kept coming by were so happy about it that they said, “You know, you’re -- you’re brightening up our day’ and all kinds of stuff like that, so I figured it’s theirs now.”
Bystanders described the rocks’ transcendent effects as cars and trucks zoomed across the low bridge, part of a popular artery into Downtown Anchorage, about 10 feet above their heads.
“I knew that someone had to do it,” one woman said. “I didn’t think gnomes came in the middle of the night, although it could have happened that way?”
“Smoothness, for me, the water, clearness,” a second woman said.
“It’s sanctuary,” said a third woman. “(It) kinda, maybe, makes you think maybe you’re not in the city at this moment.”
“The first time I’d seen it I thought it was very creative, and I appreciate someone taking the effort to complete something like this,” another man said. “Whoever built this, thanks.”
As heartwarming as people find the cairns, however, the approach of winter may cool Vanpelt’s interest in making more this year.
“Yeah, I think that may have to be it for today,” Vanpelt said, rubbing his hands as he straightened up barefoot in the waters of the creek. “It’s getting too cold. If there is a rock-stacking season, then this is the end of it -- September’s the end of it.”
Email Shawn Wilson
Copyright © 2013, KTUU-TV