Wild Home


This week, I’d like to share a special interpretive signage project I recently completed.

Last summer, my clients at the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council near Bend, Oregon, contacted me with a specific request: they wanted an interpretive sign on the topic of stewardship, and they wanted to use student-created artwork and poetry.

I’ve discovered over the years in my business that using student work for an interpretive project—or any design project—requires a special touch. Sometimes, people are surprised to find out such projects often involve more time and can end up costing more in the long run. They are not merely design projects, they are learning experiences as well.

But, if done right, it is most definitely worth it.

In this case, it worked out great. The Watershed Council staff and their partners spent a lot of time working with the students, and they generated spectacular results. It was my job to take their finished work and tie it all together, designing a sign to feature the artwork—adding one illustration of my own for context—and to make the topic complete.

The basic design was done to coordinate with an earlier series of signs I did for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Click on the sign for a larger view.

The basic design was done to coordinate with an earlier series of signs I did for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. Click on the sign for a larger view.


To give a background and context for the more imaginative student work, I painted a watercolor of the mountains and the headwaters of Whychus Creek.


Peaks from left to right: Broken Top, South Sister, Middle Sister, North Sister.


The other illustrations were done by high-school and middle school students.I particularly liked the center mandala. If you look at it closely, you will see it is amazingly intricate, with gorgeously designed elements pertaining to the river and the life it supports.



And the salmon! Each one has its own wild design within the contour of the species—truly an artistic expression of the concept of Wild.


Equally compelling were the poems.


“This place is a home,

to the fractured

and the ones who

never had

one of their own.”


-Alaina Todd, Sisters High School.


For me, this poem is deeply affecting. It really says it all—why we so desperately need to preserve the wild places left on earth. The Wild is our home.

Our only home, in so many ways.



If you’re ever in the vicinity of Bend, Oregon or Sisters, Oregon, be sure to visit the Whychus Creek Area and the Three Sisters Wilderness.



Karst, caves and sinkholes


NOTE: In a sad coincidence, as I was writing this post, (a continuation of the last two posts—click here to go to the first in the series), a man in Florida was killed when a sinkhole opened up below his bedroom. Today’s post discusses the interpretive topics of the project I was working on in Southeast Alaska, including sinkholes.


Princes of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska is karst country. Karst is a landform that develops when water dissolves the carbonate bedrock, resulting in unusual features such as caves, sinkholes, shafts, disappearing streams and caves.

The following illustrations are details from the first sign of my project at Beaver Falls Interpretive Trail.


In limestone caves, features such as spires, pinnacles, soda straws, stalactites and stalagmites take thousands of years to form.

Soda straws are delicate, hollow tubes that hang from the cave ceiling, growing longer with each drip.


Eventually soda straws build up layers of minerals and become stalactites. Below, stalagmites form.















This detail from one of the signs shows the influence wetlands have in the development of karst.


Muskeg, or peat bog wetlands above ground contain very wet, acidic soils that are a catalyst in cave development. As the water flows through the muskeg, it sometimes flows sideways across layers of hard clay until it finds a way down through the porous limestone.

The entire sign.


A detail illustration from a sign interpreting the karst formation of sinkholes.


Sinkholes are etched into the landscape as water trickles down from the surface. The second illustration in the sequence shows what happens when the “roof” wears thin and suddenly collapses.

The full sign.


Trees in Alaskan karst tend to grow larger because the soil is rich and the limestone helps anchor the the trees against fierce storm winds.


Many animals use caves to escape harsh weather, find safe places to nest, give birth or hibernate. Some creatures spend their entire lives in the darkest interiors of caves.

A detail illustration of the many species that use karst caves.


The signs were installed on an accessible boardwalk trail above the cave.










To find out more about Prince of Wales Island and Beaver Falls Karst Interpretive Trail, check out:




The Pacific Northwest is not immune to sinkholes. In Shorelline, a city just north of Seattle, a giant sinkhole took out an intersection, just missing a nearby house. I designed some interpretive signs for the nearby park (written by Chuck Lennox). Check out the third sign in the series of project: Boeing Park

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.


Interpreting Tragedy


Occasionally in my interpretive sign career, I have been hired to deal with difficult, sensitive topics. Many historical themes fall into this category…our nation’s past has its share of dark subject matter, after all.

One particularly sad project was an interpretive sign I did for the U.S. Forest Service in Montana about the tragedy at Mann Gulch, a wildfire that killed thirteen young firefghters in 1949.

At full size, the sign is 2 x 3 feet.


The Forest Service wanted to tell the story of the fire to honor those who died as well as the three who survived. They also wanted to frame the story in the greater context of what it taught us about firefighting techniques. There were a lot of hard lessons learned at Mann Gulch.

The sign was to be installed on the ridge above the canyon where the fire occurred. From the viewpoint, you can see across to the very place where the men died. It’s a chilling view.

This is where the sign was installed.


This detail from the sign shows the route the men followed from the time they parachuted in until they were engulfed by fire. On the hillside, granite columns mark where each man died.

The Fire

The lightning-caused fire was—as most wildfires are—small at first. But it was a windy day and soon the fire “jumped” downhill to the mouth of the gulch—a much more dangerous position. Fires naturally burn uphill, and fueled by the tall, dry summer grasses, it soon “blew up” into a raging monster, racing uphill until it became a three-story high wall of flame, burning with the intensity of a giant blow-torch.


The Sign Project

One of the difficulties in interpretation is deciding what to include and what to leave out. On a sign, you are limited to approximately 150 words or so—not many when you consider how complicated most topics are. The objective is not to impart knowledge or information as much as it is to spark curiosity and interest. We want viewers to walk away with questions…wanting to know more.

But Mann Gulch was also a particularly sensitive subject. There was still one survivor alive at the time, as well as many close family members of the men who had died. The Forest Service wanted the subject matter handled carefully, out of respect for their feelings.

I decided on an approach to help the viewer relate the events of the day to the place—to bring the story alive. As in most sign projects, the graphics are where you hope to tell the story. I wanted to create illustrations that would ignite a sequence of events in the viewers’ imaginations—as if they were standing in this very spot in 1949 and witnessing those terrible events.

Here are some close-up snippets from the sign. You can’t see at this scale, but there are tiny little marks that indicate where the men were at each stage. Click on the photos for a larger view.

The fire started close to where the viewers stand as they read the sign. The smokejumpers dropped in by parachute.





Leaving with a thought

The concluding message on the sign was “They did not die in vain.” The investigation and study of this fire led to new and improved strategies and techniques in modern fire fighting. This tragedy may have ultimately saved the lives of future firefighters.

Unfortunately, Mann Gulch was not the last tragic wildfire. Firefighting is a dangerous business.

All the more reason to be careful with fire. You know that already, right?



To read a detailed blow-by-blow account of the events at Mann Gulch http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mann_Gulch_fire

To read a blog post on Mann Gulch by the Forest History Society http://fhsarchives.wordpress.com/2009/07/10/visiting-mann-gulch-60-years-later/

To read a popular book based on events at Mann Gulch check out “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean


As always, I love hearing what you think! Have you ever been near a wildfire? Have you ever worked as a firefighter or smokejumper? Have you ever been to Mann Gulch? Leave a reply in the box below!



Clarissa Colman Homestead at May Creek


It’s common wisdom that living in the present moment is healthy, but sometimes, I like to let my mind drift into past worlds. Walking through my neighborhood, I imagine how it looked before the native forests were cleared. Where were the biggest tree groves, the stream drainages and waterfalls, meadows or wetlands? And later, when it was a growing community in the early 1900s, what kind of people lived in my tiny (at that time) farm-style house? How did they make their living? What was their life like?

But, when you visit May Creek­—the wooded riparian area in Renton I told you about last week—you can do more than just wonder about history.

This sign will be installed at May Creek when the trail work is complete. I wrote and designed this sign for the City of Renton, with research help by the Eastside Heritage Center. To see the sign at a larger size, click on the image.


Clarissa Colman, the woman who homesteaded May Creek from the late 1800s through the early 1900s made daily diary entries describing her life—a rare first-hand historical account of life along the shores of Lake Washington. The diary is archived at the Eastside Heritage Center.

Clarissa lived at the mouth of the creek with her husband James until he was mysteriously murdered in 1886. After that, she lived as a widow with her children, raising her family and running her small farm. Her words, written in pen and ink in longhand, describe her grief and loneliness after her husbands’ death and how she struggled to make ends meet. She tells of watching Indians paddle their dugout canoes on Lake Washington, of steamships and coal-filled barges crossing the lake, of seeing the sky glow red from the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, and of the hardships of farm life—everything from making her own soap, baking bread, sewing, and handling household repairs.

The diaries were donated to the Eastside Heritage Center and have been digitally recorded. When I was designing the interpretive signs at May Creek for the City of Renton, the Eastside Heritage Center provided photos and some excerpts of Clarissa’s diaries for use on the sign. I only had room for a few sentences on the sign itself, but there were many other interesting passages. Here are some examples:

In her own words…diary entries by Clarissa Colman:

November 2, 1886

I have been debating in my own mind for sometime, whether I should go to the Polls & cast my vote; a thing I have never done yet, but as the country seems to be going to the bad, I think I will have to do all I can to save it. I therefore have concluded to go & vote. So Jim took Clara & myself in the buggie to Newcastle.

(Note: women in Washington Territory had the right to vote from 1883 until 1887 when the voting rights law was overturned. In 1910, the State Constitution was amended granting women their right to vote in Washington. It wasn’t until 1920 that all women in the U.S. were granted their voting rights).

Feb. 23, 1888

Jim went to NewCastle, carried up apples & butter & brought down the 40 books we sent for all in one vol. Canoe with Indians at the mouth of the brook hunting. Dan Murphy went past about noon going up the lake. George finished hauling manure for Ross.

March 4, 1889

Foggy all the morning. When the Boat went past it was so foggy that it could not be seen from the boat house but in a little while after it was perfectly clear. Jim has commenced working on his boat by himself. George hauled wood off Mr. Rosses place. I worked out in the afternoon. Jim butchered Pattie’s calf. A great deal of firing up at NewCastle, firing Cleaveland out.

June 7, 1889

The big smoke we saw was Seattle in flames. The whoe business part is burnt. Dan Murphy came down this morning for hay & told us. Jim, Mathewson & Goodycootz went to town. They took Mr. Rosses boat as Dan had asked for ours, theirs being all gone to town. Mrs. Leifhelm & children were down & bought a gal of strawberries. Those men who were in the meadow fishing were here when the boys strated for Seattle & they bought a half gal. strawberries.

August 30, 1905

No rain. High wind. Mrs. Gibson came & done washing. She was to have come & picked prunes tomorrow but is going to Olins to do washing. Mrs. Olin has a daughter born on Monday. Allie rode by on a gray “hoss,” said she was going to the Shingle Mill to meet the boat.


Learn more about May Creek Trail: http://renton.patch.com/articles/city-state-community-leaders-celebrate-port-quendall-infrastructure-completion-may-creek-trail-groundbreaking


Visit the Renton Parks site: http://rentonwa.gov/living/default.aspx?id=65


Read an interesting Seattle Times article about the diaries: http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/archive/?date=20060805&slug=diary26e


Visit the Eastside Heritage Center: http://www.eastsideheritagecenter.org


Want to know whenever I publish a new post?  Sure you do! Just enter your email address in the “subscribe” box in the left-hand sidebar on my home page. You’ll get an email notice each time a new post is published. That’s all there is to it! Your email will never be shared.

If you like the blog, please tell your friends about it or “share” or “like” it on Facebook. (See button in sidebar).

And, leave any comments or questions in the box below. I love hearing from you!