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Encounters: a Creative Residency at the North Cascades Institute

October 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

by Ilona Popper, North Cascades Institute Writer in Residence, Summer 2014

I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief writer-in-residency at the North Cascades Institute in May 2014. I gave two talks: one about wolves from the book I am writing and a joint talk on creativity with artist Molly Hashimoto. I attended Molly’s print-making class and heard her speak about the “surprises” of wildlife encounters that she captures in her prints and paintings. That sense of wonder was a large part of my time at the Institute.

I felt part of my role as writer-in-residence was to talk about writing—and writing about nature—with anyone who had an interest. I had some wonderful conversations at dinner with adult seminar students, graduate students, naturalists, and Institute staff. One man spoke passionately about how to get started on writing his memoirs. He felt he could never write well enough, even to begin. I was struck, as I often am, by how critical and severe people can be in judging their first efforts, dismissing their ideas before they are formed or condemning their craftsmanship in first drafts.

People often talk of the self-discipline of writers. It’s true that writers practice self-discipline, first in just getting the words down on paper regularly, but even more in learning to reread one’s work with open curiosity about where it might be going. Trashing your own ideas, your own writing, especially in an early draft, is easy. Sticking with revision until you’ve fully developed an idea—that takes discipline.

The bulk of my time at the Institute was filled with writing, hiking, discovering the local ecosystem and wildlife and learning about what North Cascades Institute does. I was impressed with the way that the food, the laundry, the classrooms — everything about the Institute’s campus — is part of a larger curriculum and ethic that supports the wide array of eco-educational programs at the Institute.

I’m a naturalist and I live in a rich and beautiful place, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Part of the value in being at North Cascades Institute was to see how the Northern Cascades ecosystem is so different from and yet linked with the wild lands in which I reside. I recently heard Christina Eisenberg speak of “The Predator Way” (the title of her book): the long corridor of the Rockies, inhabited by predator and prey mammals since the earliest eras. Wolves, cougar, lynx, wolverine and bear traveled the mountains as they dispersed, looking for new homes.

Predators are returning to the North Cascades and spreading throughout Washington state. I was thrilled to hear that wolves had been seen in one of the drainages not terribly far from the Institute campus. [See my my recent article, “Wolves in Washington: Lessons from Yellowstone,” Mt. Baker Experience, fall 2014.]

Animal Mind

In the Institute’s Wild Ginger Library, I picked up David Abram’s Becoming Animal. Abrams wrote about his being guided by a shaman to enter the mind and body of a raven he was watching. Throughout his book he’s emphasized lived, nonverbal, non-human-language-based communication and openness to the wild world.

I wonder a lot about the differing ways we humans are in relation to wildlife—and about the best ways to be in relation to wildlife. Wildlife watching, particularly, is a delicate art. It involves something akin to spying because the animal may not particularly want you to be there or to observe them. Often, animals fear humans. At the same time, wildlife watching is an essential form of schooling—you are studying something so huge and yet so fundamental to all life, our lives. You can feel overwhelmed and overjoyed.

I want to understand the animals I watch. However, there’s a balance between gawping, stepping too close, chasing an animal for a great camera shot, and respecting the animal’s personal space, looking for natural communications from the animal, and learning about the animal’s behavior, at least so we might know if we are disturbing it.

Do we humans become “rude” about animals partly to mask our insecurities, or our real animal instincts about danger? You can feel vulnerable in the woods, especially around large animals. We humans might handle that feeling by checking out, objectifying, or making snap judgments about the creatures, the situation. We can deny that the animals even notice us. Unable to read the body language—and hearing no language—we humans may assume the animals we see are sort of blank, wandering around like people on vacation. Or, we can make the opposite mistake and assume that we know exactly what they are thinking, wanting, or doing.

We wildlife watchers, usually well-fed and with some free time, may forget the pressures on wildlife. Many animals may simply be driven to get enough food for the day or find the right food for the season, or to play out other pressing needs, like avoiding getting killed by other animals, or mating, or delivering a baby. Sometimes, creatures may be resting, seriously resting to save and digest calories and repair tissue damage. I feel sure that at times, animals may be daydreaming, ruminating on more than cud. But, as with people, it’s almost impossible to know what’s really going on.

I try not to impose my interpretation about what any animal (or plant or rock) is doing. Yet, I have begun wondering if I also ignore communications that an animal might be sending me? Instead of acting as though they are all fascinating aliens, how can I act as though I am member of the animal world and live by the limitations and realities life imposes?

» Continue reading Encounters: a Creative Residency at the North Cascades Institute

Baker Lake cleanup, by canoe!

October 8th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Join North Cascades Institute, RE Sources for Sustainable Communities North Sound Baykeeper Team and the United States Forest Service for an annual trash cleanup at Baker Lake on Sunday, October 12, from 9 am-5 pm.

Past cleanups have collected inflatable mattresses, beverage containers, busted lawn chairs, towels, coolers, fishing gear and poles.

“North Cascades Institute is supporting this event with volunteers and canoes because, as an environmental education organization, we value our public lands and our ability to bring people to places like Baker Lake for education and outdoor experiences. It’s our classroom! Stewardship is a powerful tool to connect folks to the natural world. A clean up like this has really tangible results and people can feel good about what they have done,” said Katie Roloson, Program Manager at the Institute.

Registration is required and a number of canoes will be supplied on a first come, first served basis. People who own canoes are encouraged to bring them and are also asked to register. No experience required.

Registration for Whatcom County residents: contact Lee First at RE Sources at leef@re-sources.org or (360) 733 8307.

Registration for Skagit County residents: contact Katie Roloson, North Cascades Institute, at katie_roloson@ncascades.org or (206-526-2564).

hemlock and doug fir

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

CascadePass.KRenz6

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