White-headed woodpecker by Gillian Roshak. photo provided
White-headed woodpecker by Gillian Roshak. photo provided
Through a collaborative effort of the Sisters Trails Alliance (STA), Rima Givot’s Sisters High School biology students, and Bethany Gunnarson’s art students, interpretive signs are being created for the Tollgate Trail that winds through Trout Creek Conservation Area (TCCA) in the woods adjoining the high school.

“Having been a high-school educator, I am very aware that Sisters High School is unique and blessed to have a conservation area immediately adjacent to the campus — and that it is owned by the school district and is dedicated as an outdoor classroom conducting research on the plants and animals that live there,” STA member Gary Guttormsen told The Nugget. “Then, add to this that we have a public path that winds through the area allowing us to create these informational signs telling visitors about what they are seeing as they wander through that beautiful place. Pretty cool.”

Several years ago STA received a generous donation from former Sisters resident Mike Ilg for restoration of the bike and walking trail between Tollgate and SHS, Guttormsen explained. Ilg also requested the installation of several benches along the trail as well as interpretive signs. Sisters Trails Association volunteers restored the trail and installed benches.

“Biology students have conducted ecology plot surveys of the TCCA forest each year since 2010, and amidst COVID restrictions, they were able to collect data this year too,” Givot said.

“Students came to the school in small groups and learned about the forest while following COVID protocols. The data they collected substantiated information learned in previous years and was incorporated into the narrative for the signs.”

She went on to say, “The students recognized the need for education about the forest and emphasized putting informational signs along the trail and at entrances, so people know what a special place this is. (One special specimen found in TCCA is Peck’s penstemon, a rare and protected wild species of plant with trumpet-shaped blooms.) They wanted to encourage appropriate behaviors in the forest, like foot and nonmotorized travel only, dogs on leash to protect wildlife, staying on trails, and appreciating the natural surroundings. They recognized that the use by people recreating has increased sharply in the last two years. I compiled the information for the signs.”

To enrich the narrative on the signs, last spring Gunnarson’s art students began creating illustrations of the flora and fauna found in TCCA for the sign project. Due to COVID, it was put on hold until this winter when the Drawing II class reopened the project.

“They were asked to do up-close and far-away versions of the species that I assigned to them,” Gunnarson explained. “The kids were excited to participate.”

The drawing students who participated are: 12th graders Ryan Ilmberger, Sarah Leonard, Maliah Mandal, Gilliam Roshak, and Nate Wyatt; 11th graders Neya Kountchev and Lexie Miller; 10th grader Caitlin Quam; and ninth grader Makyla Wyatt.

Guttormsen said the next step in the sign project is to synthesize the students’ work into content and graphics suitable for each interpretive sign site and then turning it over to STA’s graphic artist.

“Rima gave us some amazing and detailed descriptions of the uniqueness of the Trout Creek natural area that the path traverses; what plants and animals make it their home, and how her students use the area for various natural studies,” said Guttormsen.

The original plan called for two interpretive signs, but Guttormsen is eager to provide interested trail users with all the narrative and art that the teachers and students have provided. He suggested developing a brochure.

“But, better yet in my view, we could develop a downloadable PDF file with the full story that Rima provided, along with all the artwork. This would be accessible by path users scanning a QR code that would be on both interpretive signs as well as the small kiosks at each end of the path. With Rima’s help, we could even have small, numbered posts along the path signifying a section of the PDF describing what folks are seeing. I think we could also have a link on the file for folks interested in supporting the school’s science and art departments through the Sisters Schools Foundation!”

Everyone involved in the project is excited to see the finished signs installed along the trail. As Guttormsen pointed out, “Not every high school sits right next to its very own and exclusive ecology lab.”