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Giving a “Dam”: A Natural History of Beavers

February 8th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Liz Blackman, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

As I slide over the edge of the raceway and landed knee-deep in water I can barely see the almond-colored nose of the buoyant beaver as he floats beneath his cinderblock temporary home behind a large pile of aspen cuttings. He seems minimally threated by my presence, exhibiting none of the displays one would expect from a recently captured wild animal. No tailslapping or aggressive presentations as I slop through the water toward him, awkward and weighed down by the oversized boots and waders protecting me from the cool water. The closer I get the more aware I become of just how gentle this creature must be. We make eye contact before he dips his torpedo-shaped head beneath the water and begins to swim smoothly away from me toward the wall of the raceway. His waffle-pattered leathery tail is smaller than I expect and moves both vertically and horizontally as he alternately propels and rudders himself through the water. It takes only a few minutes of following Chuck around the raceway for him to swim directly into the cage being held in the water ahead of him. No wonder these animals were trapped nearly to extinction. In less than five minutes and with no struggle whatsoever the young male is securely caged and ready to give some third-graders an unrivaled first-hand experience with the country’s largest rodent. The musky smell of castor is unmistakable in the morning air and although entirely new to me, the scent quickly becomes familiar. I am hooked.

Beavers are nature’s most misunderstood rodents. Docile, diligent, tidy and familiar, Castor Canadensis does more to shape waterways and landscapes than any of their mammalian relatives and plays an integral role in the delicate riparian balance of Washington’s diverse ecosystems. Beavers have an ancient history with damns dating back over 10 million years and there are estimates of more than two hundred million beavers historically residing in the continental US. Indigenous American stories describe the beaver as co-creator of the land and sea alongside Great Sprit. Beaver appears in countless ancestral stories of Eastern Washington including the Confederated Tribes of the Coleville Reservation Upper Columbia River Book of Legends. Published in March 2007, the Coleville Book of Legends is full of references to the Beaver Tribe. Beaver is credited with a variety of great feats including stealing fire from the Sky People and bringing firewood to the tribes (How Beaver Stole the Fire) as well as marrying Coyote at Kettle Falls on the Columbia River and becoming the salmon chief (Why Coyote Changed the Course of the Columbia River).

Liz holding beaver

Liz holding a beaver at the Methow Beaver Project.

» Continue reading Giving a “Dam”: A Natural History of Beavers

Jack and Crater Mountain with flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

February 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort. This is part two of Lauren’s natural history project. Find part one here.

The Biome: Subalpine to Alpine
The alpine lifezone or biome is most often described as the area above or near treeline on mountaintops. In the North Cascades, the elevation range of the alpine zone is from about 6,400ft to about 8,530ft (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). The subalpine biome often shares many characteristics with alpine plant and animal communities as the boundaries between the two lifezones are rather indistinct (Billings, 1974). The varying topography blends these two biomes, making the assignment of plant communities highly subjective. Among the main features that designate an area as subalpine are the discontinuation of the forest and the formation of “scattered tree clumps in a meadow mosaic” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p.4). These tree clumps are pioneers in harsh soil and growth conditions and “are normally short, with spreading branches, but [they still] retain definite crowns and do not develop the dense, low, thicketlike growth form known as krummholz” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p. 5-6). Krummholz is generally found on higher slopes and marks the beginning of the alpine zone (Taylor & Douglas, 1995). It would be much easier to assign general characteristics to these biomes if the mountain were flat ground with consistent weather patterns. However, nature provides large doses of interest and variety in vegetation patterns through vastly different slope aspects, substrate conditions, and extreme daily ranges in temperature, wind speeds, solar radiation, and water availability.

The combination of these abiotic factors creates many different habitats with microclimates and vegetation stripe communities occurring within those habitats. Fellfields are most common in the alpine biome, and are “characterized by rocky ground and dry soil, and are typically less than half covered by vegetation…Plants that grow here must be short in stature or they will be desiccated by freezing wind in winter and blasted by wind-driven sand in summer” (Visalli, 2014b, p.3). The constant frost action and avalanche potential acting on the slopes causes the soil to be unstable, poorly developed, and easily eroded as well, and pioneering plants must act quickly to establish roots when possible (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). Vegetation stripes can occur in the talus and scree slopes of fell- and boulder-fields, where soil and moisture has found a path of least resistance to percolate through or flow down and created a pocket of nutrients for plants to capitalize on (Douglas & Bliss, 1977).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

Conversation at Curriculum for the Bioregion 2016

Down Valley Conference Adventure: A Grad’s Perspective

February 1st, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Living at the Environmental Learning Center near Diablo, WA changes how we approach everyday decisions. Little trips, for instance, turn into a three day down valley adventure! This last weekend the 15th graduate cohort (along with a few from the 14th) traveled to two conferences in three days: Storming the Sound and Curriculum for the Bioregion.

Our first leg of the journey had us hit the road at 6 am from Diablo. After so many wilderness journeys with my cohort it was strange to see what “gear” changed and what didn’t with this adventure into civilization. No tents. No trekking poles. But some still packed in their hiking backpacks! After a few hours travel along SR 20, we arrived in La Conner.

First Leg Labled

First leg of our three day trip. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.

Storming the Sound is an “annual conference for environmental educators in the north Pudget Sound region.” Since 2000 in Padilla Bay Reserve, the event has brought environmental organizations, teachers and students together to not only learn from one another but to better connect the environmental education field in the Puget Sound region. There were thirty one sponsor organizations this year which gave us graduate students a great view of how strong the environmental education presence is in this region. This year’s event was held in Maple Hall in La Conner, WA.

» Continue reading Down Valley Conference Adventure: A Grad’s Perspective

sunrise flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

January 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

Nothing can quite prepare the hiker for the beauty of a subalpine meadow in full bloom. The contrast of the delicate flowers’ vibrant colors splashed across a backdrop of jagged peaks provides a moment for reflection and appreciation for the stark beauty of Cascadia. As the other senses kick in and notice is taken of fragrance on the breeze and a buzzing at the feet, the connections between plant, animal, insect, soil, water, and air become all too clear. Those relationships observed between plant and pollinator have been shaped by innumerable abiotic factors over millions of years. Wandering through a high mountain meadow provides a brief glimpse into the fascinating evolutionary history of wildflowers and their pollinators.

A Brief History of Plant Evolution
While observing the beautiful complexity of a wildflower, it can be hard to imagine the selection process that led from a single-celled photosynthetic organism living in a vast, watery world to a flower living high on the flanks of a mountain. Constantly changing environments guided the expansion of the plant kingdom and resulted in the development of vascular systems, seeds, and flowers (Visalli, 2014b). The green algal common ancestor found success over time in the colonization of land through embryo protection and the growth of a more solid tissue system. This tissue system, or vascular system, transports water and nutrients throughout a plant, and is a more recent evolutionary development that allows for survival in harsher, drier environments.

History of plants

This cladogram of plant evolution shows the development of plant systems and the diversification of the plant kingdom over time (Guertin et al., 2015).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

Front

Echoes from the Dam

January 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Imagine yourself standing atop of Diablo Dam in the early morning of a crisp, winter day. Behind you five ravens are circling near a patch of trees lining Diablo Lake. One of the Seattle City Light boats speeds on in the distance quickly becoming quieter and softer. As you open your mouth to let the cool mountain air fill your lungs time seems to slow. When you finally expel the air out you hear this:

Mountain Call

Earlier last week Hannah Newell and I, both students at the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate Program, went atop of Diablo Dam to study how sounds move throughout our mountain corridor. The valley that the Skagit river made over thousands of years is very drastic in our neck of the woods. Toward the mouth of the river the Skagit is met by mostly flat land. As you venture towards the headwaters the surrounding slopes become more and more drastic with hundreds of feet of elevation difference over a very short distance.

Diablo Dam Echoes

Skagit River Valley at Diablo Dam. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.

This topography makes for extreme echoes when done in the correct spots. Diablo Dam provides the perfect height and distance from each side so that when the sound moves down valley it has the most room to exist. After experimenting at different spots on and around Diablo Lake, I found the middle outcrop of the dam was the perfect spot for echo calling.

» Continue reading Echoes from the Dam

Censored Cover

Dear Mountain School,

January 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Dear Mountain School,

Thank you for the fun hikes and delicious food. I loved looking at pieces of the forest in the microscope lab.

Sincerely,

Student

It is rare to hear first hand from students what they remember the most from their educational experiences. Whenever it happens it is one of the best gifts an educator can receive. Early this week Whatcom Hills Waldorf School sent the Mountain School staff letters about their time spent last fall season in the mountains of the North Cascades.

Each letter was filled not only with thankfulness but depictions of some of the best teaching spots during Mountain School. All of the names have been censored for the students’ protection.

Censored Stream

» Continue reading Dear Mountain School,

Copper Peak And Glacier Peak, Looking To The Southwest

Hope Within Wildness

January 18th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Written as an essay for the Conservation Psychology class at Western Washington University.

“In wildness lies the hope of the world.” John Muir

Today, our world faces many problems that can seem overwhelming and almost too much to bear. In a world facing issues such as climate change, terrorism, racism, poverty, hunger, etc it is easy to become distraught. When we are exposed to multiple media sources each day and countless advertisements we start to lose the ability to cope and think for ourselves. Far more dangerous than any social or environmental issue are the issues of ignorance and apathy plaguing society. In the world of environmental work the weight of these issues can become overbearing and lead to anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness that prevents us from doing our work effectively. It is important in times like these that we do not lose hope. Hope is the antidote to apathy, and when apathy is eliminated ignorance can be as well.

In this paper I will discuss how hope might be our greatest weapon to defeating our world’s problems today and how we can prevent a sense of hopelessness when society tells us there is none remaining. I will discuss how we must look to wildness for inspiration and how in wildness some of our hope can be restored. Spending time in nature and preserving our wild areas can foster hope in a seemingly hopeless world. It is important that people in environmental work are able to find success stories and sources of inspiration to restore their hope so they can in turn fight apathy and ignorance and restore hope within others.

Unfortunately, studies indicate that learning about global problems can trigger profound feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness (Eckersley, 1999; Hicks & Bord, 2001; Holden, 2007; Searle & Gow, 2010; Taber & Taylor, 2009; Tucci, Mitchell, & Goddard, 2007). It is important then that we seek out sources of hope and inspiration to help guide us and keep us motivated in challenging times. It can be difficult to find these sources, especially in environmental work. “Conservationists live with a high degree of negative emotional experience as part of their daily awareness of the problems that ensue from human degradation of the natural environment…Prophecies of a doomed planet may not only miss their intended audience but may also cause extreme emotional distress among those working in environmental advocacy” (Fraser et al, 2013).

According to Cheryl Hall, “ Gloom and doom foster despair and resistance, they worry instead of hope and motivate to change” (Hall, 2013). Stress in environmental work is rooted in knowledge and beliefs, specifically with environmental loss (Clayton & Myers, 2009). It is important then that people in environmental work find some stories of environmental gain and success to rekindle hope. Finding success stories that they can grasp on to and keep them motivated is vital to eliminate feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Even in bleak times such as these, stories and symbols of hope do exist. Success stories associated with the endangered species act and the preservation of wilderness are stories that, when looked at correctly, can rekindle our sense of hope to keep us motivated amongst the doom and gloom.

» Continue reading Hope Within Wildness