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Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator

September 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Editor’s note: Mountain School is about to start back up for its fall season! After teaching two seasons and hundreds of students last year, I thought a lot about how the field of environmental education might be even more useful to participants and the world at large.

It was quite an event, the day the Great Spirit handed out cones to all the trees in the forest. Red alder was given a tiny bouquet of them, befitting its important role as a quick and efficient pioneer in new forests as a nitrogen-fixing species. Douglas fir was bestowed with robust, two-inch long ones. They were decorated with characteristic “mouse tails”, like celebratory ribbons trailing between each thumbnail-sized scale. They provided a main source of food for the squirrels that scampered through the forest. Western hemlock, however, was impatient and pushed its way to the front of the line, eager for the best cones. As punishment for hemlock’s haste, the Great Spirit gave it the smallest cones in the forest. Feeling forever badly about being chastised, hemlock hung its head in shame.

Though I am unsure of this story’s origins, it has undoubtedly evolved over the years as a tale that environmental educators in the Pacific Northwest often share. It is a way to remember, amidst all the trees in the dense forest, that Western hemlocks are the ones possessing small cones and a drooping leader.

Here is another version, adapted from a re-vamping by graduate student and co-editor of Chattermarks, Elissa Kobrin. Her story is different, but still told with the goal of leaving learners with the ability to distinguish common local trees. It begins similarly, with red alder and Douglas fir receiving their cones. Both trees wanted to be the first ones in the forest, and to shoot up toward the sky faster than all the others. Western hemlock, however, waited patiently in line. This patience represents hemlock’s role in the forest community as one of the last species in forest succession, for it thrives in the shade of the canopy other, faster growing species. Hemlock was given cones that, though comparatively small, are very ornate and beautiful, like the rosebuds of the forest. Its head, or “leader”, is always bent over to get a better look at its tiny, pretty cones.

hemlock cone K. RenzA macro rendition of the 3/4″ tall hemlock cone, at home amidst the miniature world in a bed of moss. Note the chartreuse pollen that settled in the scales, details that make the natural world go round. Photo by author.

Which story do you prefer? When I first heard the former, I immediately thought, “Wow, I will never tell this story to students.”  Was I just being overly sensitive, another stringently politically correct tree-hugger quibbling over words? In one sense, the first story is simply an engaging way to remember why a hemlock has a drooping leader and small cones. But in the context of a world where shame and bullying are rampant, and shadow who children become as adults, could it also serve, even in a slight way, to perpetuate the idea of lifelong self-denigration and insecurity? That small is bad, and we are expected to atone for our mistakes for the entirety of our lives?

Such reservations are not to advocate for sheltering our children from reality. We graduate students-slash-Mountain School instructors often discuss, with a lot of concern, the tendency over the last 30 years or so towards “protecting” children from anything deemed negative or risky in this world of unknowns. Even something as intrinsic as play, for example, has been made scary and restricted.

Yet as an editor who has been steeped in media criticism, it is hard to ignore the messaging we’re bombarded with from all directions, even from stories told in the woods. Reinforcing ideologies and paradigms that I consider part of the problem, especially in an ecologically-minded community in which we’re constantly emphasizing the interconnectivity of everything, is problematic. Words are powerful. Looking at all the way we teach kids, both explicitly and implicitly, is fundamental.

Admittedly, it is a little hard for me to write this. I really don’t want to seem uptight, and such reservations prompt me to feel a mite self-conscious and embarrassed. At the same time, though, it baffles me that we are not more self-critical sometimes.

Holly Hughes closeupA fifth grade Mountain School group is an engaged audience as instructors help them “travel back in time” to when Native Americans gathered Hozomeen chert, cured skin ailments with Douglas fir pitch and traveled through the North Cascades via Cascade Pass. Photo by Molly Foote.

» Continue reading Op Ed: The Education of an Environmental Educator

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The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

August 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

In the middle of May, I moved halfway across the country, to a state I’d never been to, to play at a wetland with five- and six-year-olds. After three long days in a car, I landed in Boulder, Colorado. I moved into my tiny studio apartment across the street from Colorado University, and jumped into training with the folks at Thorne Nature Experience.

Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. Though I’ve taught and been involved with Environmental Education for the past six years, I’ve only worked for one organization. North Cascades Institute had been my home as far back as I can remember, and when I realized that I wanted to try my hand at teaching, it was a logical place to start. And then I stayed. I used to joke that I’d never leave. And that was true until I finished the M.Ed program through North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University this past March. I decided it was time, though I was (and still am) deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest, to get some experience elsewhere.

Elsewhere, it turned out, was a city with 300 or so sunny days every year. (I’m really more of a rain person.) Thorne is a pretty cool place. They’ve been around since 1954 and are located on a beautiful piece of “open space” land just east of Boulder proper called Sombrero Marsh.

-9“Come look, I found something! It’s in my net!”
-1No nature center is complete without plenty of dip nets for catching macroinvertebrates! Most commonly we find damselfly larvae, although early in the summer we found quite a few dragonfly nymphs and on one field trip a huge bullfrog tadpole!

I was a little nervous about moving to a city that sits higher than 5,000 ft, after living for my entire 27 years at or within 1,500 ft of sea level. But where Bellingham has hills all over town, Boulder is flat. My commute to work is 4 ½ miles and I can bike there no problem in about 30 minutes, half of it on the Boulder Creek Path that runs east-west all the way through town.

» Continue reading The art of teaching in an unfamiliar ecosystem

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Cascade Pass: Go. Now!

August 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

I have recommended the hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to countless visitors in search of a day’s worth of adventure while working this summer at the National Park Service Visitor’s Center in Newhalem. Yet I, myself, had yet to experience it beyond the National Geographic topo map spread two-dimensionally under glass beneath my uniformed arms. Tragic, no?

This was recently remedied. Some highlights:

CascadePass.KRenz2After climbing 3.7 miles of moderate switchbacks to Cascade Pass, skip though a glaciated valley another 28 miles to Stehekin. Backpacking is the only way to access this tiny village, aside from a 2.5 hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan.
CascadePass.KRenz10Though the hour-long drive up Cascade River Road, from Marblemount, can be a beautiful challenge, it is one of the few hikes in the Park where you are immediately close-up to glaciers upon hitting the trail.
   CascadePass.KRenz4Rocks ‘n’ flowers, rocks ‘n’ flowers. The contrast between hard and angular rocks, eroded through eons, and colorful subalpine blossoms, the essence of ephemeral, is a treat throughout the entire journey.
CascadePass.KRenz3A tenacious team: Fungi and algae pair up to form this unidentified crustose lichen, growing ever so slowly on a rock in the harsh conditions of the alpine environment.
CascadePass.KRenzTrampling heather and other high-elevation shrubs is a huge problem in the subalpine. This is especially easy to do, even by the well-intentioned, when such plants are still covered in snow. The “social trails” criss-crossing these regions, most notably here above Doubtful Lake, are testament to our tendency to wander.
CascadePass.KRenz5After a scramble for the last half-mile or so to the top of Sahale Arm and the base of Sahale Glacier, there was….a family of mountain goats! Seven of them, including two kids. Their goaty antics provided high-peaks entertainment for a solid 45 minutes. Though they were cute and exciting, it’s prudent to remember they are, indeed, wild animals. Here are some suggestions from Washington Trails Association on what to do if you encounter a mountain goal along the trail.
CascadePass.KRenz8Sahale. The Native American name supposedly means “high” or “heavenly”. Yep.
CascadePass.KRenz7The view looking east. Even with fires raging in the Okanogan, the tallest mountains are still visible through the haze.
  CascadePass.KRenz10 Lupines fancy up the subalpine meadows, poking out amidst green grass, pink heather and touches of white bistort. The entire flower, or inflorescence, is made up of several individual flowers. Once one is pollinated, the banner (the top, single petal) morphs from blue-violet to magenta, signaling to bees to not waste their time and instead to get to work pollinating yet untouched blossoms. Smart things, those lupine.
CascadePass.KRenz9Looking south. The North Cascades aren’t called a “sea of peaks” for nothin’.
 
Leading photo: Three from the mountain goat crew contemplate the void (or something like that) after frolicking at Sahale Glacier.
 
All photos by author.
 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She would like to remind you that yes, there are a few rather epic backcountry campsites up on Sahale, but that you have to get a backcountry permit from the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount ONLY (not the Visitor’s Center in Newhalem) before heading up there with a fully loaded overnight pack. Have fun!

 

 

YLA

A Recipe for the Future: A visitor reflects on Youth Leadership Adventures

August 20th, 2014 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

By Sioux Towner

I had the privilege to witness, for the second year running, Youth Leadership Adventures in action. North Cascade Institute really knows how to navigate the tremulous water of teens in America, all kinds of teens: The diversity of the group I listened to today demonstrated to me that the strength of our country lies in its variation. After five days of wilderness hiking, team building, mentoring and “public speaking” (within the group twice a day or more), the ups and downs of North Cascades National Park along Diablo Lake did its magic once again.

It’s called “Visitor Day”; what that means is that each participant shares challenges, accomplishments, thoughts and dreams with an eclectic group of interested people who could be donors, teachers, park employees, national forest employees, alumni from former leadership trainings. It is a melange of adults often as diverse as the participants. What happens during this day, in my experience, is nothing short of perfect. It is filled with a kind of authenticity that can only blossom in a safe and caring environment. How that environment gets made was my personal quest today.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAParticipants transport themselves and their gear through a combination of backpacking and canoeing.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStewardship along the trails is an integral part of the Youth Leadership Adventures experience. The teens pack/canoe all their tools into the backcountry themselves.

I came up with several ideas based on what I heard from the group dubbed the  “Tree Huggers” (a name they gave themselves). The recipe goes something like this:

1.) Combine a group of total strangers — the more diverse, the better

2.) Provide for all their basic needs and no more

3.) Marinate in an atmosphere of wilderness and experienced staff

4.) Structure the days with meaningful work, challenges (nature usually takes care of most of that with rugged topography, weather, insects, wind, etc.) and the opportunity to talk to someone and be heard by all

Out of this relatively simple yet refined formula comes the most heartwarming stories of companionship, confidence, and insight — a backcountry utopia really. So many times we heard about some transformation that was incubating or starting to fledge. There were tears and laughter, questions and surprising answers. The unpredictability of the speeches was as refreshing as the environment, clean and pure — leaders in the making.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAProtecting wildlife, protecting their food! Participants become experts at hanging their food and any other scented items, an important responsibility in the backcountry.
Leading photo: Youth Leadership Adventures participants harnessing the ancient power of fire.
 
All photos by Carolyn Waters, Youth Leadership Adventures instructor.
 

Chattermarks gives a huge “thank you” to Sioux Towner, both for heading out to experience the backcountry with the student-participants and for being inspired to write her reflections.

 

 

 

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Prometheus in Paradise: Fires in the Methow Valley bring loss but reveal a committed community

August 13th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

The East side is burning. A certain degree of compartmentalization is required to brush away images of treasured places in flames, wildlife fleeing for their lives, and homes transformed into piles of blackened ash. At 270,312 acres as of this post, the Carlton Complex fire is the largest in Washington history. Over 2,000 firefighters representing 43 crews from all over the northwest have descended on the Methow Valley and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The firefighting resources of the West are being taxed by at least 16 major fires burning in both Washington and Oregon.

These events are enormous in scope. Mine is smaller story. Heavy smoke, closed roads, and fear are diverting visitors from the summer paradise of the Methow Valley and pummeling the small local businesses that depend on the short season for the bulk of their annual revenue. Restaurants, hotels, outfitters, and farmers are watching the summer slip by, waiting for the people to come.

Undeterred by smoke or fire, I planned a weekend visit to my beloved Methow Valley to drop as much of my scant play money on the local vendors as possible. My journey East began with a hike around Maple Pass Loop, a local favorite for stunning alpine vistas with only moderate exertion. The smoke was heavy, obscuring the grander scene of Glacier Peak and the numerous towering spires of the North Cascades. It filtered the sunlight a red-gold and put the color riot of summer foliage in soft focus. With the greater peaks and crags masked in filmy sheets, my attention was drawn to sights in shorter view. I found myself lingering in the cool sinks of sparkling snowmelt cascades where monkey-flower (Mimulus Lewisii) and false hellebore (Veratrum viride) gathered. I was rapt by the myriad of butterflies and fuzzy bumble bees sipping from pollen cups.

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Smoke obscures the greater mountain views, but draws attention to the smaller things.

This phenomenon of closer examination extended as I dipped down into Winthrop. After checking in at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel, I strolled to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery for dinner and a pint. The atmosphere was quite altered from my previous visits; there was no music on a Friday night, and families and fun-seekers were replaced by tanned and sooty folk in Carharts and T-shirts. Firefighters and Forest Service employees leaned on the bar, sipping well-earned cold beers at the end of a long shift. After a subdued meal, I strolled down to the banks of the Chewuch River. I passed a fire command post in an office building where people were busy on phones and radios, inspecting large maps tacked to the wall with silver push-pins. It was over 85 degrees at 8:30 PM with a thick grey sky. I wandered down to the irrigation canal and waded in up to my knees in the cold water. A cloud of tadpoles swam around my shins. A red squirrel scolded me endlessly as I invaded his watering hole.

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A Red Cross Disaster Relief volunteer purchases goods at the Methow Valley Farmers Market in Twisp, WA.

» Continue reading Prometheus in Paradise: Fires in the Methow Valley bring loss but reveal a committed community

Three trails to Maple Pass Viewpoint.SHale

Summertime Stewardship on Maple Pass — Join Us!

August 5th, 2014 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Washington is an amazing place. From the tide pools on the West Coast to the mountains in the heart of the state to the river gorges in the east, over one third of Washington is protected in one way or another. We have three National Parks, four National Recreation Areas and a mix of National Historic Sites, Parks, Reserves, Scenic Areas and Trails. We also have nine National Forests and a variety of capital-W Wilderness areas. One could say that the people of Washington treasure their land.

Of this protected land, 4.4% belongs to the realms of subalpine and alpine habitat. Normally, alpine habitats can be found at 10,000 feet or above; but in high latitudes like the North Cascades, alpine habitats start a little lower, between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. As visitors, we see alpine habitats as flower-filled, snow-ridden reaches that are the perfect spot for a day trip. But don’t let the beauty fool you: Alpine life is hard. The winters are long, summers are short and snowfall and wind levels are high. There is twice as much ultraviolet radiation and twenty-five percent more light than at sea level. Air at high elevations is thin and cold with temperatures ranging from -20°F in winter to 90°F in summer. With an average annual temperature of 37.5° F, alpine areas are ranked similarly to polar climates in that no month has a mean temperature higher than 50° F. In many alpine communities in the North Cascades, snow can be found on peaks year round, with some popular hikes not melting out until August. Come autumn, it will start snowing again before long, covering up the ground for another nine months. Weather can change very quickly and, since there are almost no places to hide, storms can be incredibly dangerous.

pasqueflowerkrenzImagine being a plant in the alpine. What adaptations would you need to the harsh conditions? Pictured here is a favorite species of the subalpine: Western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis), before it develops into its frizzled-haired fruit. Photo by Katherine Renz.

Now, imagine being a plant in the alpine. Rarely, if ever, does it rain, so you get your moisture from the long lasting snow packs. If the soil has not already blown away, it is nutrient-poor and makes it difficult to grow roots. The sun is hot and will burn new, tender leaves if you don’t figure out a way to adapt. The snow lasts quite a while, so you could only have two months to produce flowers and become pollinated before you are covered up by the white blanket again. Long lasting snow can be heavy and push you down; yet if you grow too tall, avalanches can knock you over. If you are lucky enough to survive all of that, you still have to avoid being eaten by an alpine herbivore.

Luckily, for alpine plants, they have a series of adaptions to help them survive such difficult life. Waxy, hair covered leaves help retain moisture. Long, strong taproots burrow deep into the rocky soil in search of hard to find nutrients. Anthocyanin, a reddish pigment acts to speed up photosynthesis and as a sunblock from the harsh sun. Instead of rushing through the reproductive season, plants extend the flower production and blooming process out over a few years to best maximize their short time uncovered by snow. Taproots and a short cushion-like shape help keep plants anchored to the ground in high winds and avalanches. It would seem as if alpine plants have it figured out. However, they still must contend with the challenges we humans rarely fail to offer.

 -1One of the many beautiful views from the Maple Loop trail with bountiful white and pink heather (Cassiope mertensiana and Phyllodoce empetriformis). Photo by author.

We come in with our heavy boots, sharp trekking poles and large numbers. We mean no harm, but to an alpine plant, too much tramping is the difference between life and death. I’ve been told that 12 steps on an alpine plant will kill it. Lush meadows and heather patches that once guarded the entrances to the alpine world now stand bare, opening up the precious soil to the elements. Social trails, campsites, lunch spots and viewpoints are all leading to the further degradation of alpine habitats.

So, this summer, my Leadership Track (a position I hold as part of my Graduate studies) is focused on working towards restoring alpine and subalpine habitats. We will be closing some social trails, rerouting the trail at some points, posting educational signs, and collecting seed and plant clippings. With those seeds and clippings we hope to grow them at the Marblemount Greenhouse to be planted at a later date. We collect them on site in order to preserve the genetic identity of the plants at Maple Pass, as well as to best support these plants in their bid to grow at high elevations.

MaplePassS.HaleLake Ann, as seen from the Maple Loop trail in between Heather and Maple Pass. Photo by author.

The work I am participating in will take place along the Maple Pass Loop. Thanks to its easy access and astounding beauty, it is one of the most heavily traveled trails along Highway 20. I’m sure many of you have hiked this trail, but if you haven’t, move it up higher on your ‘To Hike’ list this summer. Splitting off from the Rainy Lake trailhead, the trail ascends quickly through fir, spruce and hemlock stands. Huckleberry bushes fill in the understory and soon enough the wildflowers start to show their pretty blooms. At 1.3 miles you hit the trail for Lake Ann. Continuing on the loop, the subalpine world of heathers and low shrubs quickly come into view, as do the peaks and a view of Lake Ann. Depending on the time of year, snowfields will come into view at around 2.5 miles, soon after the split to Heather Pass. With the snowfields come more wildflowers; glacier lilies, paintbrush, penstemon and lupine among them. As you walk the rim and look down into Lake Ann, Maple Pass shows itself in the distance. At 3.5 miles and 6,600’ of elevation, you are at the pass itself. This is where I will be spending a good portion of my time and energy for the rest of the summer.

I am working in tandem with the Methow Valley Ranger District of the Okanagan-Wenatchee National Forest and the North Cascades National Park on a project called the Maple Pass Restoration Plan. This plan, funded in part by the National Forest Foundation, falls under the larger “Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences” Project. The goal of “Treasured Landscapes” is to ‘revitalize our forests and strengthen our natural connection’ through stewardship, restoration, building better community bonds to the natural world and education.

hiker.SHaleBecause even just our well-intentioned footsteps as we commune with nature can leave a big, destructive trace. Photo by author.

The Maple Pass Plan is not the only National Forest Funded restoration project in Washington. A group of projects, collectively called the ‘Majestic Methow’ are working towards goals of ecological restoration, aquatic habitat restoration, wildlife habitat restoration and better connections between science and action within our greater community. Many of these areas are considered backcountry and some even lie in Wilderness areas. A few however, like Maple Pass, are easily accessible, with trailheads located right off Highway 20.

This summer marks the first effort of this multi-year project. My job is to help coordinate our different visits to the site, advertise the work to the general public and bring in volunteers to assist with our work. We have over an acre of trails to replant, 2,000 feet of social trails to close and almost a mile of trail to reconstruct. My work in this project will end before the job is done, however. The restoration process, notably plant propagation, will continue for a few years. After the initial trail closings and plantings, the site will be monitored for a few years to assist with plant regrowth.

Hopefully, this effort will result in a vastly different looking Maple Pass in five years, and a healthier ecosystem overall. For now though, I must think smaller, and focus on re-potting all of the tiny huckleberry and heather that I love so much.

If you or someone you know is interested in volunteering along side of us this summer, please contact me at Samantha_hale@ncascades.org.

marmot.krenzWho knows? You may get lucky enough to see a marmot like this one as you replant baby subalpine heathers. Photo by Katherine Renz.
Leading photo: Three separate trails tri-sect the fragile heather community at the viewpoint to Maple Pass Loop. Braided trails such as these show just how numerous and intricate social trails can be. Over time, these trails lead to large bare dirt patches and soil erosion. Let’s see if we can work this summer to make it a single track.
 

Samantha Hale is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Once a self-professed ‘ocean only’ lover she is starting to see the merits of frolicking, Julie Andrews style, amongst alpine plants. You can find her, DSLR in one hand, hand-lens in another, walking the high ridges.

 

 

 

Citizen Science Bioblitzes!

July 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Field Excursions

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Join North Cascades Institute for fun, educational outings to engage in meaningful research in the North Cascades ecosystem. Your participation in our BioBlitzes will provide important contributions towards understanding complex ecosystems and how to best conserve them.

Dragonflies of the North Cascades
AUG 10- AUG 11

Maple Pass Plant Inventory
AUG 17 – AUG 18

Butterflies in the High Cascades
AUG 21- AUG 22

Snakes in North Cascades
SEP 14

Hawkwatching at Chelan Ridge
SEP 20- SEP 21

Information and registration at
www.ncascades.org/citizen-science
or (360) 854-2599

NCI BioBlitz Flier 2014