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Nature Notes: Phenology of the North Cascades Ecosystem

January 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute’s resident graduate students have the unique opportunity to live at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for the majority of the Environmental Education graduate program. Living in North Cascades National Park has more than a few perks. The backcountry is just a few steps outside of our back door and thousands of plant species and a diversity of wildlife are our neighbors. Living here also allows us to experience first hand the phenology of the surrounding ecosystem. As part of our graduate work, we take note of these environmental changes as we experience them. It may not be possible to accurately convey the magic of this experience, but we combined a brief list of our observations from autumn 2014 in an attempt to do so.

September

LarchNeedle

Larch needles beginning to turn on Maple Pass
  • In mid September, the vine maple leaves at the Learning Center began turning.
  • On the 21st a pika was seen dragging a false hellebore stem across Heather Pass trail.
  • Among the talus slopes near Heather Pass, a Northern flicker was heard and later sighted. Larches at Heather/Maple Pass were just on the brink of turning.
  • On the 27th black bear tracks were observed in the snowfield below Colonial Glacier.

October

Hydnellumpeckii

Hydnellum peckii mushroom, certainly one of the most striking we’ve seen!
  • First week of October: the area around the Learning Center received record rainfall.
  • Early October: Summer Chinook salmon observed spawning in the Methow River.
  • Oct. 20th: pikas observed in talus slope below Cascade Pass.
  • Oct. 22nd: Sourdough Creek started flowing into Diablo Lake.
  • Mid to late October: the upper Skagit Valley’s array of fungal species were in full display.
  • Oct. 25th: the Oregon grape plants around the Learning Center trails no longer had berries.
  • Oct. 27th: black bear was seen on the Learning Center campus.
  • Oct. 28th: three mule deer (two does and one yearling) seen on the Learning Center campus.

November

  • Throughout the month: snow geese observed migrating down the Skagit Valley.
  • Nov. 11th: snow goose mates and goslings seen during a paddle on Diablo Lake, and black bear tracks were seen at Sourdough Camp.
  • Nov. 14th: a pika peeped at Heather Pass, and big leaf maple leaves crunch under feet at the Learning Center.
  • Nov. 22nd: bald eagle seen circling Ladder Creek Falls area in Newhalem.
  • Nov. 23rd: Highway 20 closes access to Washington Pass due to several slides and heavy snow.
  • Nov. 26th: first snow at the Learning Center (1200 feet).

December

IceandSnow

Iced over roads by Buster Brown field
  • Dec. 2nd: multiple mammal tracks observed in the snow and mud on Diablo East trail: rabbit, possibly mink or fox, and deer.
  • Dec. 5th: almost stepped on a Douglas squirrel frantically running across path by the library at the Learning Center.
  • Dec. 12th: a windstorm and increased risk for landslides in the Skagit gorge caused graduate non-profit class to be dismissed early, and grads headed down valley for winter break.
All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
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Howling to be Heard: An Introduction to Wolves

January 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student

One winter afternoon in 2009 I was driving on a state highway through central Wisconsin on my way back to school in Southeastern Minnesota. Fresh snow blanketed the beautiful hardwood forests in the surrounding area as I cruised along at 60 mph. Suddenly, about a quarter mile ahead, a large animal slowly crossed the highway. I had lived in the Midwest for 23 years and until that moment I had never seen any animal like this cross a road. This was not a deer, bear, or a raccoon. It was too big to be a domestic dog. Having no idea what it was I slowed my Buick down to 10mph, scanning the forest alongside the highway. As I neared the point where the animal had crossed I saw, standing at the edge of the forest, methodically and majestically, a massive timber wolf.

I immediately stopped my car to admire the spectacular creature. There it stood about 50 feet from my vehicle. I had never seen an animal so beautiful, so majestic, and so wild. It was as if the spirit of the wild was summoning me to the forest. As I stared into its yellow eyes, and it back at me, I made a connection with a species that has captivated me ever since.

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Wolves are a fascinating species that has simultaneously fascinated and unnerved the human imagination since the dawn of time. For thousands of years we lived side by side these intriguing animals. Throughout our history we formed myths, legends, symbols, and opinions around wolves. The wolf has been a symbol in mythology since the dawn of western civilization. Throughout its existence no species has undergone more study, persecution, and government regulation than the wolf.

Since that day in college my keen interest in wolves has only grown. I studied their history, I learned about their survival techniques and behaviors, and I was saddened when I first discovered that many people demonize the wolf. To some, wolves represent the spirit of the wilderness while to others they are bloodthirsty killers. In reality, wolves are wild animals that serve a vital role.  Through their behavior and adaptations they keep their ecosystem healthy and maintain a balance among native species.

In my exploration of the world of wolves and I found that wherever wolves travel, controversy travels with them. Whether you love them or hate them, support their recovery efforts or think they hold no place in the world, this series of weekly blogs will provide you with some fascinating information you may not have known about the relative of man’s best friend. In the upcoming weeks I will explore the history of wolves, their role in ecosystems as keystone species, and the wolf/human relationship. If you are a wolf supporter or if you would just like to know a little more about this enthralling animal, check my weekly blog post and I’m sure you will learn some valuable information. So join me each week and take a trip on this fascinating journey into the intriguing world of wolves.

All photos taken by Mike Rosekrans at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota

Get married in the heart of the North Cascades!

January 16th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

By Andriana Fletcher, Group Rentals Coordinator

Imagine mountains high above you while standing on the wooded shores of the glacial blue Diablo Lake. The warm sun setting and your family and friends surrounding you as you say, “I do” in the heart of the North Cascades.

Sarah and Andrew Chaplin’s wedding weekend took place on Aug. 8-10, 2014. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown.
 

 At the Environmental Learning Center, you can host your very own green wedding. We offer an all inclusive venue that includes lodging, custom homemade meals featuring local foods from the Skagit and Methow valleys, guided naturalist activities, as well as an onsite coordinator to help you plan your special wedding weekend.

We offer guided big canoe trips on Diablo Lake. We have two big canoes for 16-20 guests. Photo courtesy of Dan Weber

We offer guided big canoe trips on Diablo Lake. We have two big canoes for 16-20 guests. Photo by Dan Weber.
 

Weddings at the Environmental Learning Center are ideal if you and your significant other are looking for a destination venue for your guests to relax, enjoy and experience. Surrounded by old growth forests and the vibrant turquoise Diablo Lake, you and your guests can explore the beauty of the North Cascades during your stay by hiking along one of the series of trails connected to our campus or by getting in a big canoe that fits 20 of your guests to see incredible views of mountain peaks.

We host weddings with a maximum of 86 guests. Our friendly and courteous staff will help from start to finish as well as educate guests about the local landscape. Our onsite chefs create delicious, gorgeous meals with fresh ingredients and the best part: you get to work directly with our head chef to make sure you get the custom meal you want at your wedding.

View a slideshow and learn more at www.ncascades.org/weddings or take a look at the digital copy of the 2015 Seattle Bride Resource Guide, featuring the Environmental Learning Center!

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Rebbeca Sudduth and Dan Weber were married at the Learning Center Aug. 22-24, 2014. Photo by Teri J. Pieper.

 

The Environmental Learning Center provides the location, lodging, food, staffing and support you’ll need for your wedding. Other items provided are:

  • Bed and bath linens for you and your guests
  • Exclusive use of classroom space for setup and storage
  • An optional guided naturalist hike
  • Onsite host to make sure your needs are met

Our onsite chefs make sure you experience incredible fresh flavors during your wedding.  Photo courtesy of Teri J. Pieper (http://teripieper.com/)

Our onsite chefs make sure you experience incredible fresh flavors during your wedding. Photo by Teri J. Pieper.

 

Interested in getting married at the Learning Center? Here are the dates available for 2015:

  • September 4-6
  • September 11-13
  • September 18-20

Summer is the perfect time for an outdoor wedding! Our amphitheater and outdoor spaces are perfect locations for all your friends and family gather for your ceremony.  Photo courtesy of Paul Joseph Brown

Summer is the perfect time for an outdoor wedding! Our amphitheater and outdoor spaces are perfect locations for all your friends and family gather for your ceremony. Photo by Paul Joseph Brown.

If you have another date in mind, don’t hesitate to ask! Feel free to contact our Group Program Coordinator, Andriana Fletcher, with any questions: andriana_fletcher@ncascades.org or 206-526.2565.

See you in the North Cascades!

 Top photo by Don Tredinnick.
Jumping Mouse 2

The Story of Jumping Mouse

January 13th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

At the start of 2015, the themes of change and transformation are on my mind. It seems impossible not to think of these with so much attention paid annually to commitment to goals and becoming better versions of ourselves. It seems appropriate that the new year comes right on the heels of so many other seasonal changes. The trees around the Environmental Learning Center seemed to lose their leaves in the span of a few hours on a random early December day, and winter has firmly embraced Diablo, blanketing us in snow. The yield of fall to winter happened, not quietly and slowly, but in the blink of an eye. Much of the Learning Center staff left town for vacations or family visits, and the grad students just returned from three weeks of vacation. During those three weeks, the Learning Center found itself in its quietest and most contemplative state. Again, how appropriate.

The graduate students scattered to our various corners of the country, stretching from Oregon to Maine. We too were deep in contemplation. We saw the families we said goodbye to in order to relocate ourselves to Washington, regaled others with stories of funny experiences, the occasional mishap, and knowledge acquired. That knowledge is the topic of one of my very favorite stories of all time. A story I used to share with my students in wilderness therapy, and one that seems to be endlessly relevant to every new environment in which I find myself.

The story is of Jumping Mouse. The origins of the legend remain a mystery to me. The only sourcing I am able to find calls it Plains Indians Sundance story. The particular text I used here comes from this version, which remains one of my favorites. Whatever the source, it remains an inspiration to me. May your new year be filled with curiosity, questions, and the strength to ask questions and seek your own answers.

Jumping Mouse

A beautiful drawing taken from John Steptoe’s beautiful 1989 book, The Story of Jumping Mouse.

» Continue reading The Story of Jumping Mouse

Gary Snyder Nobody Home

Notable Environmental Books of 2014

January 1st, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

As a book reviewer for the Cascadia Weekly, I pay close attention to what’s being published, with a special focus on books on regional topics, releases from regional publishers and titles that explore natural history and environmental issues. I’m extremely fortunate to receive dozens of complimentary review copies through the year, and try to read as many of them as I can. Here at the end of 2014, I put together a list of what I consider to be noteworthy and important environmental books released over the last year. It isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, but hopefully will provide you some inspiration for future reading!

One more thing, I strongly encourage you to purchase any of these titles that interest you from your local independent bookseller. We need community hubs like Village Books, Elliott Bay Books, Trail’s End Bookstore and Watermark Book Company to continue to promote literary diversity, local flavor, community economics and opportunities for grassroots free-thinking and creativity.

Without futher ado…

ecopoetry anthology

The Ecopoetry Anthology
Edited by Ann Fisher-Wirth and Laura-Gray Street (Trinity University Press)
In this new anthology of poetry, the editors are quick to explain that poetry has involved itself with the natural world since the very first poems were written, and that their collection is focused on poetry that is influenced by contemporary developments: the birth of the environmental movement, the incredible discoveries made in the natural sciences and the growing awareness and magnitude of ecological crises enveloping us. So while the book opens a historical foundation provided by the likes of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Robinson Jeffers and Kenneth Rexroth, it soon dives in to a great tangle of recent works — “praise songs, incantations, narratives, meditations, lists, elegies, rhapsodies, jeremiads” — which the editors hope contain power to “move the world — to break through our dulled disregard, our carelessness, our despair.” Poets like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Mary Oliver, Ted Kooser, Robert Hass, Jane Hirschfield, Linda Hogan and W.S. Merwin — and better yet, poets you haven’t discovered yet — are called in to do the heavy lifting.

The Sixth Extinction Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt)
When I received a copy of this book, I thought “why would I ever spend my precious time on such a grim topic?” I dabbled in the first few pages and, before I knew it, Kolbert’s well-built narrative and engaging prose swept me up and through to the end. The Sixth Extinction is engaging and informative and even kind of fun, like a good, long New Yorker article, which is where Kolbert holds her day job. Each chapter is based around investigation of a species that is either long-extinct or currently endangered, with Kolbert traveling around the world to explore jungles, zoos, ice regions, coasts, caves and islands, interviewing scientists, citizen activists, anthropologists, climatologists and other front-line experts along the way.

The author explores the history of our understanding of extinction — how the very concept of species disappearing from the planet challenged science at the time, and how discoveries of mammoth bones and ammonites, plate tectonics, natural selection, climate change and evolving concepts on the origin of homo sapiens have come together to illuminate life on Planet Earth over the past 3 billion years.

As the narrative reaches our modern times, what many geologists are starting to call the Anthropocene, the unfolding understanding of how many species Earth is going to lose is grim indeed. The Sixth Extinction is unfolding right now, primarily because of us, and it’s an open question what will survive our disastrous reign.

spanish-revival mining-towns exotic-plants

How to Read the American West: A Field Guide
William Wyckoff (University of Washington Press)
We are all familiar with field guides that interpret the natural world for us, like Sibley’s Guide to Birds and Pojar and MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. But a field guide for dude ranches, strip malls, grain elevators, cloudscapes, ski towns, farmworker settlements and gay and lesbian neighborhoods? William Wyckoff, a professor of geography at Montana State University and talented photographer, has created a strange, fascinating and often humorous book that surveys our modern American landscape, both natural and human-built.

Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism and Living in Places
Gary Snyder and Julia Martin (Trinity University Press)
This diminutive volume holds three lively, in-depth interviews and a trove of correspondence that transpired over three decades between a graduate student-turned-professor living in South Africa and the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet living in the mountains of California. A mutual interest in esoteric topics like bioregionalism, ecocriticism, Zen practice and poetics sparked their long relationship, and Martin’s sensitive but persistent proddings bring forth a wealth of insights from Snyder. In their letters, we eavesdrop on the development of a caring friendship, reading accounts of travels and academic conferences, all the while Snyder providing sage advice to the younger writer.

» Continue reading Notable Environmental Books of 2014

FireSet

Primitive Skils: A Lesson in Reconnection

December 15th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I remember my first introduction to the world of primitive skills – the day my employer and mentor first showed me how to make fire by friction.

Fifteen of us sat and watched as David sat quietly on the ground and pulled several pieces of wood from a canvas bag. A long bow, a slender rectangle, a cylindrical branch, a stone, and a bag of bark. Without speaking, he positioned the branch, wrapped in the string of the bow, perpendicularly to the slender rectangle. He steadied it with a rock on the top of the branch, then began to rhythmically move his arm back and forth, rotating the branch in a divot in the board. We waited, barely willing to breathe lest we break the spell David wove.

Almost immediately, fragrant sage smoke began to pour from beneath David’s hands. Without breaking his focus, he set down his bow, and lifted the wooden rectangle from the ground to reveal a small, glowing ember. He gently tapped the ember into a clump of bark, then held it to his face and began to gently blow. He seemed to breathe life into his hands. Thick, yellow smoke began to surround his head until, in a split second, flames erupted. To me, he seemed a modern day Prometheus – the bringer of fire.

NestBlowUp

I feel like Prometheus on every camping trip

From that moment, I was spellbound by both fire and the world of traditional skills. Tapping into this body of knowledge felt like a way to connect with the most ancient, ancestral part of myself. As a person already comfortable in the outdoors, I felt catapulted into a new stratosphere of connection to the earth. I could create fire. Ever since man discovered fire, it has played a central roles in so many aspects of our lives. We cook over fire, gather around it as a focal point of community, tell stories around it, and use it to survive long, cold winters. To be able to create it with my own hands, without the aid of lighters or fuel, felt like a revelation.

This skill, and the community to which it introduced me, changed my life.

FireBoard

My trusty fireboard, cut from a sage trunk in the Utah desert

For the next two years, I taught friction fire to my wilderness therapy students while simultaneously seeking out primitive skills teachers. I learned wicker basketry and how to make spirit horses. I attended WinterCount, my first primitive skills gathering, which could fill an entire blog post by itself. While at WinterCount, I sewed with buckskin for the first time, wet-felted with llama wool, crafted a didjeridoo, soaked and manipulated porcupine quills into a bracelet, learned many new ways of making fire, and learned about the bevy of wild edibles growing in the southern Arizona desert. All in the warm embrace of primitive skills enthusiasts who range from ranchers and traditional homesteaders to barefoot, tattooed 20-somethings.

I recently had the good fortune to discover the Marblemount Homestead. Steve and Corina Sahlin live just down the road from the Environmental Learning Center on a beautiful piece of land set back from Highway 20. Corina dyes and spins her own yarn and Steve imparts his impressive body of knowledge to community members through a variety of traditional skills classes including hide-tanning, friction fire, and bow-making. Two of my graduate cohort members and I jumped at the chance to make our own bows and arrived on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning at their homestead, ready to learn.

In just a day, Steve took us through the process of turning a red oak plank into a beautiful working bow. We took the planks, tapered at each end by Steve, and set to work shaping them. We closely followed Steve’s instructions to scrape wood equally from both sides, to only cut from the “belly” of the bow, and to move slowly and deliberately. We diligently scraped, then perched our bows on Steve’s tillering tree to figure out things like draw length and draw weight.

BowMakingRasp

Shaping my bow with a rasp

BowMakingTillering2

Steve helping Kelly Sleight, another graduate student, perfect her draw weight

BowMakingTilleringTree

Liz at the tillering tree

Liz, Kelly and I agree: to learn such knowledge feels empowering. To work with our hands and to create a beautiful, functional product is something so easily lost in today’s world of omnipresent technology and living life virtually. Steve and Corina’s homestead feels like a lovely haven, safe from pervasive iPhones and computers, and a place of great knowledge and learning.

BowMakingFinished

Confirmed: it shoots.

The world of primitive skills has brought such joy into my life. I came into graduate school knowing that this body of knowledge and educational goals would be an integral part of my studies, and that I would work to find ways to incorporate it into my residency at the North Cascades Institute. Along with my bow-making workshop, our entire graduate cohort got the chance to learn deer processing from Katie Russell in the Methow Valley, and I continue to push friction fire on whomever shows the slightest interest in it. Whether it’s my fellow grad students or the inspiring young adults at the Youth Leadership Conference, I see the same reaction upon exposure to these skills: awe, wonder, and a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I am grateful for all my teachers, and for those who’ve allowed me to teach them.

YLCPrimitiveSkills

 

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Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator

December 6th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Sharon Birzer, artist and natural history illustrator

My Creative Residency journal  @ North Cascades Learning Center, Diablo Lake, July 11-18, 2014

July 11-13

The first three days I interacted with a class held at North Cascades Institute’s Learning Center on lichens: “Frog’s Pelt, Pixie Cup and Old Man’s Beard: Lichens of the North Cascades.” Taught by Daphne Stone, the weekend was rich with lectures, hikes and lichen identification. The class hiked to Rainy Lake and Washington Pass. We also took a hike up a service road to Buster Brown, a rocky outcropping covered in lichens.
This is a group that I brought back to look at under the dissecting scope and draw. This group has two lichens- Cladonia cervicornus with the double cup and Cladonia bellidiflora, and 2 mosses–Racomitrium elongatum and Polytrichum piliferum.

 

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July 14 Thunder Creek

Today is hot, in the 90’s. I hiked up Thunder Creek and spent time in the cool shade of an old cedar and Douglas fir forest. A cool breeze wafts down from the mountains and everywhere are ferns, lichens, fungus, and life.
July 15 Sauk Mountain

Hiked up Sauk Mountain today, 4.2 miles, 5537 elevation. Annabelle told me it would be beautiful. Wow. Alpine meadows. Wildflowers abound. Ice fields at the top and glacier lilies and avalanche lilies (finishing) and many others species of wildflowers in full bloom everywhere. Afterwards I was dusty and hot so I dipped into Diablo Lake before working on lichen illustrations.

OldGrowthSml

» Continue reading Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator