Written by Alison M Jones, NWNL Director
Photos © Alison M Jones
The significance of signage hit me during a 2008 stroll with Walter Volovsek in Castlegar, British Columbia. This Columbia River Basin historian and volunteer sign-maker walked with me along Canada’s upper reaches of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River. His signs dotted our trail and greatly spurred my interest in the Columbia’s history of exploration, heritage bridges, and the wildlife sharing our path.
Explaining his passion for riverine lore and streamside flora and fauna, Walter said:
When I read and study the various components of history, I don’t think there is one topic where the river did not play a role. [In my signs I try to convey] the importance of the river as it has been in the past, and the importance of preserving a river that still looks and functions like a river, if that is possible.
On dozens of NWNL watershed expeditions since then, signs have excited and educated me in ways that Google and other resources haven’t. I’ve understood the disturbed balance in the Rockies of pine trees, pine beetles, climate change and fire. I’ve paid more attention to expansive fern meadows, unique “tree root” stream crossings, or ledges of tumbled river rock. A sign taught me that almost 80% of ocean pollution comes from land-based activities and rivers. I’ve seen fishermen, after seeing a “Don’t Leave the Line Behind” sign, properly dispose of monofilament lines that entangle marine life.
As summer trips begin, I urge you to enjoy the humor, creativity, warnings and wisdom in signs along your routes to a cooling river, lake, beach, or forest. In a tribute to my riverside chat with Walter, below are some of my favorite signs.
From Mississippi to California, I’ve found an exuberance in directing travelers to beloved destinations and recreational opportunities. Consider unexpectedly following a sign that will get you out on a local river to “feel its pull” – whether that of the Mighty Mississippi or a local stream.
Signs can also share important warnings based on local knowledge, via bold colors or sun-washed tones that are still just as critical. This summer, especially in the Mississippi River Basin, headwater stream-banks recently have been severely eroded and dangerous flood waters are rampant.
Unexpected diversions can be highlighted by signage! Do take a pause to leave the boring, hot tarmac, stretch your legs and enjoy a surprise you may not have planned.
There’s nothing like stopping for fresh local produce, especially if it’s organic. While following the Columbia River, I once bought and devoured an entire flat of glistening, in-season Rainier cherries. I suspect I became Washington State’s “Cherryseed” version of Johnny Appleseed, having left a trail of cherry pits along my river route.
Regional issues that concern watershed residents and stewards may pop up along your route, asking travelers to pay attention to their local issues. Perhaps those worries might be worth investigating in your own community?
Road-sign humor is always fun, whether created by local biodiversity or jovial farmers! There’s nothing like chuckling or laughing out loud in a car by yourself – except for doing so with family and friends.
Signs can suggest new topics to mull over until reaching that next waypoint, or can spark a conversation amongst all in the car. It’s healthy to address new issues that are foreign to our own region. That knowledge can launch fascinating conversations with folks we meet along the route, whether we’re in line for a roadside cup of coffee or at a B&B breakfast.
Often Mother Nature offers juxtapositions to her responses to signs, such as this buffalo signaling appreciation for park signs asking visitors to be respectful of their presence and habitat. And don’t miss the optimism that a rainbow can add to a seemingly-intractable crisis.
You may adopt a sign’s promotion of local recreation possibilities that you’ve not considered – or maybe thought you didn’t have time for – until a sign reminds you of how much you enjoy being on a river. And children, as well as adults, always enjoy the chance to play in a stream!
Again, do pay attention to signs warning of local danger! A STOP sign in the desert, may seem unnecessary, but heat mirages and sudden dust devils can play tricks on the eyes. As well, engineers know the condition of their infrastructure better than we travelers do – even though we may be inconvenienced. And wildfires are no joke!
In conclusion, enjoy the permanence and grandeur of our mountains, while also respecting the temperamental flows of our mountain streams. Closed areas can be a disappointment, but they are often closed in order to establish long-term preservation or restoration. Since many watershed scientists and stewards I’ve met are also avid fishermen – so it was no surprise to see this scrawled explanation of a Delta closure: “Fishin’ is the Mission.”