Further Adventures of Graphic Designer in the Wild

(This is part two of a three-post series. Click here if you missed part one)

…I watched him teeter toward us, disbelieving my eyes…

His legs bowed outward from the tops of his wobbly cowboy boots, and as he zigzagged down the dock, I was sure he was going to end up in the water. His hat was pulled down low and a shaggy gray mustache covered most of his sheepish grin. He looked like he had spent all night in a bar. Maybe more than one night.

“Charlie, you crazy old coot! You had some kinda weekend, huh?” The receptionist slapped him on the back affectionately. “Where’s yer bag, hon?” She grabbed his greasy-looking duffel and loaded it in for him. “Look, we’ve saved you the best seat!” She helped steady him as he weaved up to the little stool and climbed into the back of the plane.

I was such an idiot. Of course he wasn’t our pilot.

THAT was our pilot.

A tall, strapping young man was striding down the dock, and even from forty feet away it was clear that he was stone-cold-sober. Relief flooded me. Like all bush pilots I have flown with, this guy positively radiated calm, capable, no-nonsense efficiency and all-round good sense.

Alaskans are a bit kooky, but they don’t mess around with survival.

Just like that, my jitters vaporized. Welcome to Alaska.

For the entire trip, the pilot’s focus never wavered for a second. (Even with an annoying passenger sitting right next to him snapping a photo.)


The instrument panel of the deHavilland Beaver has a classic, almost art-deco style design. These planes were designed in the post WWII era specifically for flight in rugged and remote areas. They’re quite fun to ride in.


As the little plane puttered over the seemingly endless wilderness, I felt peace start to wash over me. For the first time since I had left Seattle, I felt truly relaxed. It was so nice to be far away from the insanity of 9/11.

The ride was a little bumpy through the occasional fog bank, but the winds were nice and calm..


We got to Thorne Bay right on time.


We landed, I made it up to the Ranger Station, met with my clients, took a little walk through town, and headed off to the place I would be staying. The couple who were renting me the room let me use the kitchen to heat up a can of chili, and we had a beer and talked about life on Prince of Wales Island and how much things had changed when the logging “stopped”. I’m on the environmental side of most resource-extraction issues, but I can understand how hard it is for people when their familiar way of life gets disrupted. Especially in a place like Thorne Bay, where the options are so limited.

But then, that’s why I was there, to make a small contribution to their recreation and tourist economy. Now—twelve years later—I wonder how they’re doing.


Thorne Bay is not what I would call charming, but it has a rough-around-the edges appeal.

You can find nice rooms to rent, either for a few nights or longer stays. People are very welcoming in this isolated little village.


Next week, I’ll tell you a bit about the real reason I was there…interpreting the fascinating limestone caves that lie hidden below beautiful Prince of Wales Island.

Click here for the next post in the series.








Graphic Designer in the Alaskan Wild

a Dahn Design, LLC True Adventure


“Welcome to Pacific Airways!” said the receptionist with a big smile. “Is this your first time in Ketchikan? What’s waiting for ya up in Thorne Bay? Gonna do some fishing?”

“No,” I said. “It’s business…just some contract work for the Forest Service.”

“Well, y’all should be leaving any minute…we’re just waiting for the pilot. Don’t worry, though, I’m sure he’ll roll in sooner or later.” She winked and smiled mischievously.

Alaskans are famous for their friendly, casual style. It’s part of their regional identity, the face they like to show the world. In the tourism industry, it’s practically an art—trying to get a rise out of Outsiders by being slightly outrageous. Europeans, especially, love this about Alaska, perhaps because it’s so refreshingly different from their own formal and proper culture. “Mein Gott,” they probably tell their friends back home,  “the martini came with a swizzle-stick made of real moose-droppings!”

It must be fun, being Alaskan.

Moose droppings


I glanced around the little waterfront waiting room to check out my fellow passengers. There was a pair of guys in grimy sports-camo with hunting and fishing gear, and several people I guessed were locals, loaded up with parcels of what looked like dry-good supplies. We weren’t a fancy bunch, but then this was no elegant cruise…this was an hour-long seaplane ride over the rugged Inside Passage on a de Havilland Beaver, commonly known as a bush plane.

The islands of Southeast Alaska are largely wild and remote, mostly accessible only by seaplane or boat. Loaded with salmon, brown and black bear, deer and mountain goat, it’s prime sportsman country, something that the Forest Service was trying to promote to offset the dwindling logging industry. It was part of the reason I was headed up there—to help them develop sports-tourism by designing some interpretive signs for their nature trails.

After all, when the bottom falls out of your resource-extraction economy, who do you call? Graphic designers, of course.

I settled into a plastic chair to wait, breathing deep to try to calm my nerves. It was silly, I kept telling myself. Nothing is going to happen. Of all places in the world, Alaska is probably the safest place to be…especially right now. Still, I had been feeling uncommonly jittery for a while.

Sixteen days, to be precise.

It was September 27, 2001—just two weeks and two days after the planes had crashed into the Twin Towers. Like most of America, I was still under the bad spell of it, still feeling twinges of shock and anxiety. It seemed like the whole country had ground to a halt and was sputtering to get going again, moving in clumsy slow-motion.

On the morning of my flight to Ketchikan, I had been stunned to find the airport in Seattle practically deserted. Not just quiet, but boarded-up, shuttered…dead.

I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had cancelled my flight, but the call for boarding had come as usual. There were only fifteen other passengers, and the Boeing 737 seemed eerily empty, especially because we were not allowed to sit near one another.

“Spread out evenly throughout the plane,” the loudspeaker ordered. “If you all sit in front, we could become nose-heavy.”

It wasn’t a comforting thought. This was the best Boeing engineers could do to keep their planes horizontal? Oh, we don’t bother too much about stabilization. We just order the passengers to spread out. Works fine.

Now, sitting in Ketchikan, I was feeling real jittery. Where was that pilot, anyway? If we didn’t leave soon, I’d be late for my meeting, and the whole project would get thrown off. On my first seaplane flight to Thorne Bay a few years earlier, we had been delayed for several hours because of bad weather—high winds, I think it was—and I had arrived late and missed my meeting. I wanted this trip to go more smoothly, in all respects.

Thorne Bay is pretty small, only a few hundred residents in a settlement that was once the world’s largest logging camp. From the air it looks like a cluster of buildings and a marina, surrounded by what seems like endless, unbroken wilderness, with countless islands, craggy coastlines, fiords, and thick forests that extend beyond the arc of the horizon. Southeast Alaska, and the Tongass National Forest in particular, are not necessarily pristine—there are plenty of human footprints from logging and other endeavors—but it is still a place where wildness is the rule rather than the exception. It is beautiful country.

From the air, Southeast Alaska seems like endless wilderness.


On that first trip, we had taken off from Ketchikan with three other passengers, dropping them off one-by-one along the way at what appeared to be isolated waterfront cabins, surrounded by mostly wilderness for as far as you could see. I wondered what it must be like to live in such places, so cut off from the rest of the world.

Taking off again after dropping someone at their isolated property (the cabin barely visible on the rocky shore).


By the time we reached Thorne Bay, I was the only passenger left on the seaplane, and the pilot swooped down, deposited me on the dock in front of the deserted-looking village, and took off again. My contacts at the Forest Service had long since given up waiting for me (this was before total cell phone connection) and I ended up wandering around the muddy streets of town with my pack, looking for the ranger district headquarters.

It must be around here somewhere…


Anyway, this trip, I wanted to be on time. I shifted around on the plastic chair and tried deep breathing again. Relax, I told myself. Even though this is a business trip, you’re in Alaska now—surrounded by friendly people and wild nature—far from the horrors of 9/11, those unspeakable images, the sorrow, hatred, bewilderment, the adrenaline-fueled debates. Here was nature…and peace. The peace of the wild.

Just breathe it all in.

The little crowd in the waiting room was certainly jovial enough. The receptionist was flirting with the hunters and the locals were laughing and joking with one another.

“Whadja tell her then? That you were flying in to go the library?” Wild laughter. “She’s gonna see the barstool imprint on yer butt, you know.”

His buddy grinned.“Yeah, well, at least I keep house with a human.” He spat a brown wad into a styrofoam cup. “What keeps you comp’ny at night?”

I was looking forward to hearing the reply, but the receptionist interrupted, “Okay everyone, let’s load up! The pilot is coming!”

We all lumbered down the dock to where the plane bobbed up and down in front of the little loading-stool. The hunters climbed into the back seats, and one of the locals ushered me forward politely. “Lovely ladies ride shotgun,” he said, with an exaggerated bow. “Thank you, kind sir,” I replied.

Good. I like to ride in front where I can keep an eye on the pilot.

But, where was he, anyway? The dock was empty now except for the receptionist who was helping us get loaded. Then she glanced back and yelled cheerfully “OH, THERE YOU ARE! Where the heck ya been?”

I followed her gaze to the end of the dock, and instantly, my jitters solidified into cold fear.

I watched him teeter toward us, disbelieving my eyes.

Oh. Crap.


Click here to go to the next post and read the exciting conclusion.


Happy Thanksgiving!


In art school, they did their best to warn us about the pitfalls of being an artist. “Consider the impact on your family,” they would say. “Having an artist around the house is not easy— just think of Mrs. Manet or Mrs. Bonnard. Every time those poor women turned around they were being painted. Eating lunch, playing the piano, even taking a bath…it all ended up on canvas for the whole world to see.”

“If you really want to be an artist,” they told us, “make sure you marry someone who doesn’t mind long periods of sitting still. Find yourself a good artist’s model.”

I’ve been lucky in that regard. Not only did I marry a wonderful man, I got an excellent model in the bargain. Over the years of my design career, I have needed to illustrate a variety of historical scenes, including numerous depictions of Lewis and Clark, Native Americans, Oregon Trail pioneers, ranchers, farmers, sheep herders, Depression Era characters, Hudson’s Bay fur traders, Ice-Age mammoth hunters, and a slew of ordinary Joes. He’s modeled for all them, cheerfully enduring the most difficult and sometimes even undignified poses, all in the name of Art.

Not only that, he has enthusiastically supported every artistic endeavor I’ve dreamt up. He spent six years listening to me bang out beginner pieces on the piano when I decided to buy a piano and take lessons (never having touched a piano in my life). He always seemed glad to hear me play, no matter what it actually sounded like. If you’ve ever lived with a beginning music student you know…that’s true supportiveness.

And, when I decided to write a novel, he spent an entire year listening to me talk pretty much exclusively about the story and characters—endless hours helping me work out the plot twists and turns. For those long months, he essentially welcomed an entire troupe of fictional characters into our lives. At times, it must have seemed a bit crowded around our house, but he never once complained.

I am lucky, indeed.

So, on this Thanksgiving, I’d like to give special thanks to my favorite pioneer, explorer, mammoth hunter, and husband.


These are all modeled by the same person! I change the features, clothes and hair to match the characters I’m illustrating:

Meriwether Lewis and his dog Seaman examining sagebrush. Lewis was an excellent naturalist and cataloged many plants that the explorers had never seen before. This illustration was part of my Hat Rock project.


Captain Clark writing in his journal. I did this illustration as part of a large project at Three Forks, Montana.

A Hudson’s Bay fur trader in Oregon.

Another fur trader!










Meriwether Lewis again. This was part of my Lewis and Clark project.


Lewis giving medical attention to a sick man on their expedition. Both figures were modeled by the same person. Also for Lewis and Clark project.

A snippet from an illustration showing a scene of Depression Era hobos. The man on the left was modeled by my husband, the other by my father! From my Hiawatha project.


A Basque sheep herder from my Hells Canyon project.

Ice Age mammoth hunters. This is from a project I did long ago in Arizona. This illustration has gone missing from my files, and I had to search this out on the internet! But all those hunters are either my husband, or my brother!

















The real guy! (and me)









The Art of Seeing

Written by Denise Dahn

Painting by Emanuel Garcia, 8th grade


One of these days, I’m going to fall flat on my face. I just hope that when it happens, I’m not walking on a trail with mud puddles—or worse, one of those trails with sharp pointy rocks. That would be a dangerous place for a face-plant.

I guess it’s one of the hazards of being an artist who loves hiking. I get distracted by the scenery—clouds, trees, mountains—and forget to watch my step.

Emanuel Garcia is an 8th grade middle school student who is inspired by the Impressionists.


I often wish the artistic gene came with a specialized mutation—one that gives artists an extra pair of eyes. That way, one pair could watch the trail while the other admires the view. I envision a couple of eye-stalks—like a hermit crab—flexible, so you could swivel them around in all directions.

But, being a distracted artist has its advantages, too. I’m probably biased, but I think the world is more interesting when seen through artistic eyes. For instance, when most people look at a tree…they see a tree. But when I look at a tree, I see art.

Take an old-growth Douglas fir, for example—one of the most magnificent trees in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest where I live. These trees can grow so big, it seems like you could park a car inside the width of their trunks. They tower up into the sky—sometimes hundreds of feet high—and their tops reach into the misty clouds, where their brush-like needles “comb” moisture out of the air, dripping it down to their roots below the forest floor.

Imagine that…trees that reach up and grab water right out of the sky!

Douglas firs are giant, living beings…marvels of the plant world, but when I walk through the forest, I sometimes forget all that. I’m so distracted by light and shadow, and the lines, colors and shapes, that the forest sometimes melts away and is transformed into art right before my eyes. It’s a way of seeing—kind of like squinting, but more with the brain than the eyes.

In my painting-forest, trees become dark, jagged strokes sketched onto rough paper with a soft piece of charcoal and smudged with a thumb. Branches morph into quick, angular strokes from a sable brush dipped in green, brown, and blue, and forest shadows dissolve into swirling puddles of purplish gray. And sprinkled throughout: autumn leaves…spatters of sienna from a stiff bristle brush.

Don’t get me wrong—I love forest ecology. I think it’s fascinating to learn how millions of living beings work together to create the whole forest system. The trees are the biggest, most imposing life forms, but there are countless tiny, hidden ones. They’re all busy doing their own specialized things, and they’re all contributing to make the forest work.

But when I’m going for a forest walk, I usually let my imagination float into watercolors. I guess it’s no wonder I stumble a little now and then.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret, too. Often, when I’m with a friend and we’re talking, I find my attention wandering. I nod and pretend I’m listening, but actually, I’m concentrating on their face—imagining drawing their portrait, tracing the angles and curves of their features, mixing colors to capture light and shadows on their skin or hair. It’s true, you know…what they say about human beings. We’re all beautiful, no matter what we look like. Maybe not movie-star beautiful, but interesting—at least to artistic eyes.

So, the next time you’re chatting with an artist, if you happen to notice they’re nodding and saying “Uh-huh…yep…mm-hmmm”, and maybe staring just a little too intently at your face, consider this: they may not be listening to you at all. They may be painting your portrait in their mind.

Don’t sweat it, though. They’re seeing beauty. No matter what you look like.

And if you go walking with an artist—especially in a forest—keep an eye on them. If you notice their gaze wandering up to the sky, or off into the distance, or anywhere but down at their feet…maybe take their arm and guide them around the trip hazards.  Because, even though we’re all beautiful—artistically speaking—no one looks good after they’ve face-planted into the mud.


About the artist:

Emanuel Garcia, an 8th grade middle school student, lives at home with his mother and brother.  He is very involved in sports playing soccer, wrestling and baseball.  He manages all this and maintains a 3.5 GPA in his classes.

After studying the Impressionist period of Art, Emanuel was inspired by the manner in which the Impressionist artists worked with light.  Intrigued by the colors and peaceful solitude of sunsets, Emanuel created a sunset of his own, hoping to capture nature’s beauty in his painting.


Thank you Emanuel! Keep up the great work!


WOULD YOU LIKE TO SHOW YOUR STUDENT ARTWORK ON THIS BLOG? I’ll be featuring student artwork from time to time. If you are 18 years old or younger, and are interested in being a guest artist on this blog, or if you are a teacher and have a student you think would be interested, contact me at denise@dahndesign.com. I’ll reply to your email and let you know more about the submission process. This is how it works: you supply the art—anything related to nature, any style, any medium, and I’ll write the post to go with it!

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Three Seats of Stone

Seat 1

A large flat boulder, blue-green, cool to the touch and smooth as silk. In the middle of the North Fork Teanaway River.
















It’s like sitting on a piece of elegant marble—an anomaly in this stream filled with sharp basalt and rough sandstone.

This is a pleasant, shady spot with lots of room to set out my acrylics, water bucket, and brushes. Facing downstream, with the current flowing all around and nothing behind me but river.

I relax and focus on the mesmerizing flows, the ripples, the reflections. The stream gathers high above me in bright alpine wildflower meadows dripping with snowmelt, and flows down steep basalt canyons and through forests and farm valleys, finally coming out onto the open, drier landscape of ponderosa-covered rolling hills. There, it joins the Cle Elem River, then the Yakima, the Columbia, and finally the Pacific Ocean. It’s a trip of a few days, I would guess.


Seat 2

Small, rough, lumpy, uncomfortable. Sandstone? On the rocky banks of the Salmon River near Mt. Hood. Very hot.













I have to spread out my watercolors at my feet and hunch over to reach them. The sun is blindingly bright on my white paper.

The current is rushing just enough to block out all other sound. I fall into the painters’ trance, focusing on the river: a moving picture of shapes and colors. The water shows me different things, in some places reflecting the forest and sky, in others the rocky bed below. Sometimes nothing but the greenish depths of the water itself.

I occasionally glance behind. Has someone approached while I was away in art-world? Am I being watched? I scan the banks, and the forest beyond. I am alone. Just me and the mossy giants of this classic old-growth forest.


Seat 3

Sharp, wet, precarious. A bus-sized rock formation—one of the Oregon Coasts’ famous Earth-sculptures.


I imagine it was erupted from some Jurassic volcano, then plunged under the continental plate, pressed, cooked, uplifted, shook, and wave-attacked…for millions of years.

Now, it’s my own private rock painting-bus, with a series of sharp but perfectly butt-sized notches to squeeze into. I scramble up and choose the best one: the drivers’ seat. There is a built-in back to lean against and shelves for my palettes and brushes.

I’m high up, out of reach of annoying looky-lous, and with a sweeping view. The air is fresh and salty, the ocean unbelievably blue. Wow. This place is perfect. I could stay here all day. I get settled and launch myself into my watercolors and soon I have fully entered art-mind. I feel so great I think my brain waves are probably rising and falling in sync with the ocean.

I realize my mistake. Darn.

I pack up and climb down from my magic painting bus and reluctantly head back up the trail.

Next time, remember: no extra cups of morning coffee. It’s better to be a little dehydrated on a plein air day.