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.








Hawgs, Toads, and Lunkers

Donkeys. Sows. Whales. Line-stretchers.*

If you’re a largemouth bass fisherman, you know what I’m talking about. The big guys.

A largemouth bass male guarding his young from marauding northern pike. This is a watercolor illustration I did for my Rocky Mountain Arsenal Project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


This is what I love about my interpretive sign work. It takes me outside my normal habitat and I get to learn new things. I’m not a fisherman, and I didn’t know very much about bass before I worked on this project for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Colorado. As I was researching the signage project, I not only picked up some cool fisherman lingo, I learned a bit about the lifeways of bass.

I was surprised to learn that it’s the male bass who not only does the housework, he raises the kids, too. When spawning season rolls around, the male searches out a good place for a nest—usually close to shore, and preferably near some sort of cover. Using his tail, he sweeps out a depression in the sand or gravel bottom, then starts looking for a “ripe” female, or one that is ready with eggs.

Once the pair have spawned, the female usually leaves. Sometimes, she’ll find another male and lay a batch of eggs with him. But the male stays with the nest and guards the eggs and the hatchling fry (young fish) until they are ready to leave—usually a few weeks. During this time, the male vigorously defends his young against lurking predators—everything from crayfish and minnows to sunfish and pike.

While he’s working so hard to defend his young, the male himself is especially vulnerable. What fishermen call an “educated” bass—ones who are older, wiser, and bigger—would normally be wary of a fisherman’s lure. But when he’s in defense mode, the male bass will strike at most anything that approaches his nest…including a lure. Unfortunately, a few fishermen see this as an invitation to go after nest-guarders. That is not only unsporting, it ultimately leads to a depleted fishery.

The interpretive signs I did for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were installed at Lake Ladora, in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Denver, Colorado. The lake is a popular bass fishery, but signage was needed to encourage fishermen to use proper techniques to help protect the spawning beds and the fishery. In particular, the USFWS was trying to convince fishermen to avoid trampling the spawning beds.

The Refuge itself has a fascinating story. It was once part of a sprawling short-grass prairie habitat that supported huge herds of bison (commonly known as buffalo) and multitudes of other prairie species. Fast forward to the twentieth century and World War II, and the site was being used to manufacture chemical weapons, and later to produce agricultural chemicals. In the 1980’s, a series of fortunate events led to the site being designated as a wildlife refuge and targeted for a massive clean-up effort. It is now one of the largest urban refuges in the country, and once again supports a multitude of wildlife species.

Here is how the finished interpretive sign looked:

Research, text, design and illustration by Denise Dahn for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge.

To learn more about the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge: http://www.fws.gov/rockymountainarsenal/overview/overview.htm


*terms used by fisherman for big largemouth bass…especially for the ones they’ve caught.

The Urban Wild-ish

Have you had your Vitamin N today?

Is it just me, or does it seem like nature is getting farther and farther away? The city is more crowded, traffic in neighborhoods moves at freeway speeds, while freeways have become giant parking lots.  Daytime gets gloomier as sunlight is blocked by taller buildings, while at night, the city is lit up like a prison yard with blindingly bright LEDs.

Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more natural areas woven into the fabric of cityscapes—nearby places where you could retreat into nature, if only for a few moments?

I did this illustration of May Creek for the City of Renton.


In Renton, the city that sits at the south end of Lake Washington, there is a pocket of wildishness—a few acres of woodsy riparian area, called May Creek. It’s surrounded by freeways, condo developments and commercial areas, but when you’re there, all that seems to melt away. The stream is rich with wildlife—when I visited, I saw a deer, woodpeckers and songbirds, bear scat, salmon spawning areas, and places where river otters like to play. The City of Renton and its partners* are doing habitat improvement work there, including trail access and interpretive signs (written, designed and illustrated by me). It’s going to be a wonderful asset for people living nearby.

I wrote, designed and illustrated interpretive signs for the new trail at May Creek.


Urban spaces are going to get more crowded and hectic, and we need to get better at making them livable, healthy and pleasant. People, especially children, need nature in their everyday lives. A daily dose of nature, your Vitamin N, can be small, simple and easy. It doesn’t require expeditions into the pristine wilderness—a bit of wildishness will do. The urban wildish should be a priority.

During spawning season, you can watch salmon doing their thing at May Creek.


There’s more to the May Creek story. The site has some fascinating and unique history. I’ll tell you more about that in the next post.


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


Renton Parks Info: http://rentonwa.gov/living/default.aspx?id=65

Read more about how people need nature, called “Vitamin N” by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle” http://richardlouv.com/blog/Ten-Reasons-Why-Children-and-Adults-Need-Vitamin-N/