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A Walk with the Rock Doc
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Joel Carter makes adjustments to a rock sculpture in the woods of Chester Park in Duluth. He calls this piece, "Twins." (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
Some people call Joel Carter the "Rock Doc." He's an emergency room doctor in Duluth, and now he's a sculptor, too. But you won't find any of his works in a gallery. He builds them outside, from stones he finds in the woods. Some people love the rock sculptures. But at least one person doesn't, and Joel Carter thinks he knows who that is.

Duluth, Minn. — If you want to see Joel Carter's work, the best place to look is along the hiking trails in Chester Park in Duluth.

"This is a beautiful place," he says as he scampers across the top of a dam that runs across Chester Creek. "In spite of it being right in the center of the city, it's really just an oasis of the wilderness."

Carter is a wiry, athletic guy. He's wearing shorts and hiking shoes. He grew up in Winnipeg, and he went to medical school in Canada, but he's been living in Duluth for almost ten years now. He walks the trails in Chester Park almost every day. This is his sculpture studio, and you come across his creations all along the trail.

"It's sort of nice to see a familiar friend here," he says as stops next to pile of rocks as tall as he his. "I think this is it's third incarnation. Originally there was one that was about eight feet tall, and I named that one 'Sasquatch.' It was like a rock man walking through the woods."

"Sasquatch" was one of his biggest sculptures. Some are only knee high. Some are towers -- one stone set on top of another. Sometimes a stack of rocks rests on a larger, cantaloupe-shaped stone, perfectly balanced. It might take Carter 20 minutes to balance one stone. Some of the sculptures look impossible -- you'd think there's some mortar, or maybe superglue holding the rocks in place, but there isn't. Joel Carter simply stacks up rocks that he finds.

Up in the Arctic, the Inuit people build stone markers like this. They call them inukshuks, (pronounced 'in-NOOK-shoocks.)

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Image "Embrace"

Joel Carter's known about inukshuks for years, but he wasn't inspired to make one until he went on a couple of trips. He went to Europe with his father, but first he went to Taos, New Mexico. He was in a Native American sweat lodge, and he asked how a man could engage his heart as well as his head.

"And this fellow, his name was Guy Red Owl, he said there are two things you need to do," Carter remembers. "The first thing, you need to learn from the women. And the second thing is you need to listen to the rocks."

Six months later, Carter was in Poland with his father, visiting Treblinka, the site of a Nazi concentration camp during world War II.

"There were symbolic, stone railway ties leading up to where the off-loading docks were," Carter says. "The Jews were taken off the trains and marched into the center of the camp, where the gas chambers eliminated 800,000 Jews, including my grandmother."

Carter says he and his father came around a corner and a field stretched out before them.

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Image Joel Carter

"There was nothing but an expanse of rocks," he says. "Stones that had been set in memorial for all the people who had died. And in the center was this huge stone structure, and I thought to myself, my god, it's an inukshuk."

He thought of the sweat lodge six months before.

"The words of Guy Red Owl came back," he says. "Listen to the rocks."

When Carter got back to Duluth, he went to the shore of Lake Superior to practice balancing stones on top of stones. Then he started building his rock people along the trails in Chester Park.

And somebody else started knocking them over.

"This one has undergone a little bit of transformative change," he says as he look down on a jumbled heap of rocks next to the trail.

The stones range from the size of a softball to the size of a bowling ball. Last time he walked here, these rocks were still arranged in two towers. Someone's pushed them over.

"I've built one of these in the early afternoon, and I've come for a run and it's been down. I've actually come in the middle of the night with a little headlight to set them up for the next day, and by the time ten o'clock rolls around in the morning, they've all been down again."

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Image Letting go

Carter says it's "a chore" to rebuild the sculptures.

"There's a number of very heavy stones here," he says. "Maybe 70 or 100 pounds. And to get them balanced at higher levels, I've lost a fingernail or two. You have to be sort of careful."

Carter says he's built hundreds of sculptures in the park.

"Eighty percent, if not more, have been pushed down," he says.

So Carter started building decoy inukshuks. He puts them right next to the walking path. Then he steps off the trail, back into the woods, and builds his larger, more elaborate inukshuks.

"It's a little safer off the beaten path," he says. "If you don't know where to look, if you're not paying attention, you won't see them.

Joel Carter's happy with the idea that his sculptures are temporary -- that they eventually tumble back into the woods. But he wanted some permanent record of them, so he started taking photographs. A local publisher saw the photos, and now Carter has a book out -- photographs of his rock people combined with his poems.

I decided to stop
praying and instead consider
my whole life a prayer.

Now all my moments are sacred,
it's more time effective,
and my knees aren't so sore.

- "Sacred Moments," by Joel Carter

Carter says some of the credit for his book goes to the person who pushes down his sculptures.

He's pretty sure he knows who it is. Duluth's a small city, and he learned the person's name through the grapevine. He thinks she's upset that the sculptures are on city land and might be dangerous. But they've never talked about it. They've never even met. Still, Carter says he's grateful to her.

"It's given me a great opportunity to be present in the moment," he says. "It's changed my life. And maybe someday we will meet and have a beer or a coffee and see where the journey has taken her."

Carter's been getting anonymous help with his rock people. Sometimes, when his sculptures get knocked over, someone else rebuilds them. And folks are starting to build their own rock people from scratch, too.

"That's not mine," he says as he rounds a bend in the path and spies a waist-high inukshuk next to the trail. "Someone has done a really nice job. This piece has been really well balanced. I wonder if there's another little rock. We might add something to it."

Carter scours the ground and comes up with a stone the size of a golf ball. He moves in slow motion, and gently sets the stone on top of the inukshuk.

"We'll see what they have to think," he says with a smile.

Carter says he likes it when people add to his sculptures. He calls it "community art," and he's glad it's catching on, because he's leaving Duluth. He has a medical fellowship at Harvard. He'll spend a year studying pain and how to treat it.

"I'll probably be leaving sometime in the fall," he says. "So I'm sort of savoring my time here. I'm not sure how many more days I have here to do my rock work."

He likes to think someone will carry on after he leaves.

"Maybe we'll pass the baton on to someone else," he says. "Or maybe the community can continue to care for the rocks."

Joel Carter has built rock people as far away as South America and New Zealand when he was on vacation. He says he'll keep building them wherever he ends up.

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