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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.

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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.

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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.

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Shaping my bow with a rasp

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

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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

 

ThunderCrkSml

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.

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

YLCPyramid&Colonial

Reflection and Action: the 2014 North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference

December 3rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

by Kelly Sleight, Graduate Student and YLC Planning Team member

The sun appeared on November 7th for the first time in weeks to greet the leaders arriving to attend the 2014 North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference. For three days, North Cascades Institute, North Cascades National Park, and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest hosted the fifth annual North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference at North Cascades Institute. Over sixty inspirational high school and college-aged participants, who travelled from various parts of the Pacific Northwest, arrived to see old friends, make new connections, learn about community action and environmental service, define their educational and professional goals, and enhance their leadership skills. These students were alumni of Youth Leadership Adventures, Student Conservation Association, and Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities Program. The weekend would be packed full with hiking, learning, planning, dreaming, connecting, and inspiring!

 

 

YLCGroupHike
Students gather and take in some of the sights around North Cascades Institute

Once everyone arrived and oriented a bit to campus we gathered into our small groups to get out on the trails and get the weekend underway. Groups headed out on to different trails to get some fresh air, but also spent some time reflecting on what brought them to the conference and ways to start working toward their future goals now. One student reflected on how important it was to “be the butterfly” from Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. “When the man stepped on the butterfly in the past, the course of human history changed,” she said. “We are also butterflies, and our actions can change the future.” (See what I mean about inspiring?)

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Students gather to discuss goals and work on Action Plans

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Inspiring words from our keynote speaker Vanessa Torres

After a delicious dinner provided by the North Cascades Institute’s Chef Shelby, we heard from our keynote speaker, Vanessa Torres. Vanessa currently works as the Youth and Special Initiatives Coordinator for the National Park Service. She shared a beautiful and powerful story with us about finding her own connection to nature and the power of following your passion. Then as a community we gathered around for campfire before heading to bed. Saturday was sure to be packed with adventure and learning.

» Continue reading Reflection and Action: the 2014 North Cascades Youth Leadership Conference

2015 Classes & Family Getaways, Holiday Gift Certificates

December 1st, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

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North Cascades Institute is excited to announce new Winter and Spring Field Excursions just posted to our website and open for registration:

Dec 6: Salmon and Eagles of the Skagit with Libby Mills
Jan 17: Salmon on the Nooksack with Brady Green
Feb 8: Birding Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo with Joe Meche
Feb 21: Birding the Greater Skagit Delta with Libby Mills
Feb 22: Winter Tracking Snowshoe Excursion with David Moskowitz
April 3: Ross Lake: Exploring the Draw Down by Canoe with John Reidel

Class descriptions, pricing and registration at www.ncascades.org/get_outside or (360) 854-2599.

We’ve also posted and opened for registration Family Getaways 2015, earlier than ever before! Plan ahead and choose your weekend for an epic family adventure at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in the heart of North Cascades National Park.

July 3-5, 2015 July 17-19, 2015 | July 24-26, 2015 August 14-16, 2015 | August 28-30, 2015 

Information and registration at www.ncascades.org/family.

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Tis the season! Once again we are offering our annual Extended Value holiday gift certificate promotion, where you can purchase $100 value towards 2015 Institute programs for only $80! Purchase before Dec. 22 and we’ll include a package of our blank note cards featuring art from Molly Hashimoto, John Cole and other Northwest artists. It’s okay to gift yourself and there is no limit on how many gift certificates you can buy!

Purchase by calling (360) 854-2599 or emailing nci@ncascades.org.

Facing Climate Change – The Tinder People

Fires and floods: North Cascades federal lands prepare for climate change

November 20th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Hannah Hickey, University of Washington News and Information

In a country that boasts an awe-inspiring system of national parks, the Pacific Northwest may be especially lucky. But even remote parks and forests can’t escape the problem of human-induced climate change.

Future shifts could affect everything from how people access the parks to what activities are possible once they arrive – not to mention the plants and animals that call those places home.

For a report released this week, University of Washington scientists worked with federal agencies to pinpoint natural resources sensitive to a warmer climate in the North Cascades region, and outline detailed management responses to minimize the adverse impacts on land and in water.

The report, “Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the North Cascades region, Washington,” was led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Portland-based Pacific Northwest Research Station. It is the largest climate change adaptation effort on federal lands to date.

The partnership took a wide view for managing federal lands in the North Cascades. Participants in the North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership were the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the North Cascades National Park Complex and Mount Rainier National Park. The UW’s Climate Impacts Group provided scientific expertise.

“It‘s critical that we work across agency boundaries to ensure that techniques for responding to climate change are effective,” said editor David Peterson, a UW affiliate professor of environmental and forest science and a research biologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

In a region famous for its snowy peaks and lush greenery, the report emphasizes impacts related to hydrologic systems. Watersheds in the North Cascades are expected to become increasingly dominated by rain rather than snow. This will cause more fall and winter floods on much of the roughly 10,000 miles of roads in the North Cascades.

“Events like the floods of 2006 that closed Mount Rainier National Park for six months affect both access and infrastructure,” said Randy King, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park. “If there are techniques that can reduce the damage, we need to take a hard look at them.”

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» Continue reading Fires and floods: North Cascades federal lands prepare for climate change

CSLA_exploration

Concrete Summer Learning Adventure

November 17th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Tyler Chisolm, Graduate M.Ed. Student, Cohort 13

Time flies when you’re having fun… and learning? The Concrete Summer Learning Adventure (CSLA), which wrapped up on August 31st, was another huge success for the Concrete community helping to fight summer learning loss and hunger while promoting healthy habits, outdoor exploration, literacy, and, above all, fun! In the second year running, CSLA served 58 students ranging from incoming first graders to incoming sixth graders with the majority of students in the 6 to 8-year-old range. Here’s a peek at some of the fun that was had this summer:

Summer Learning Loss and Literacy

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Camper works on his literacy skills as he racks up reading minutes
 

Of the 58 students participating in CSLA, 88% either improved or maintained their reading level after participating in almost 36 hours of interactive literacy activities, including the ever popular Sight Word Animal Relays! Campers were even encouraged to read outside of camp with the promise of a bicycle-blended blueberry milkshake when reaching a cumulative total of 5,000 minutes of reading on the READ-O-METER. This 5,000-minute goal was accomplished (and then some) with help from Page Ahead [http://pageahead.org/], which donated enough books for each student to choose and keep four books at their own reading level. One camper showed her appreciation, and need, by saying “now I can read at home too!” The literacy education was supplemented by AWE [http://www.awelearning.com/], an interactive computer-based learning system, one of which is currently available at the Upper Skagit Library in Concrete [http://www.upperskagit.lib.wa.us/]. And speaking of the library, library director Brooke Pederson was a big hit when she came to camp to read books pertaining to each week’s theme.

Hunger and Healthy Habits

 

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Campers enjoyed trying new healthy foods!
 

» Continue reading Concrete Summer Learning Adventure

End of Mountain School

Seasons Change: Phenology and the end of Mountain School

November 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The changing seasons are a big deal in the North Cascades. 

This may seem like an obvious statement for an environmental learning center, but one in which I find more truth every day. As a person who spent so many formative years in the Middle East, a place where the changing seasons simply meant a change from “really hot” to “unbearably hot,” living in a place with four distinct, beautiful seasons brings a whole new set of knowledge.

As the new graduate student cohort (C14!), we spent our first few months at the ELC being introduced to this new, diverse ecosystem and the regular cast of characters around here. We learned the differences between fern types, how to tell a Mountain Hemlock apart from a Western Hemlock (it’s hard!), and all the types of ground cover we should try to avoid trampling in our excitement to explore. But we were also introduced to a concept still very much on our minds: phenology.

A quick internet search tells me that the definition of phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and how they are influenced by seasonal changes in climate, elevation, as well as changes from year to year. After a glorious late summer, it feels as if we’ve ramped up into phenological hyperdrive.

Sourdough Creek, which has been dry since our arrival at the ELC in late July, suddenly started flowing in late October, and it felt like a rite of passage for C14. Our first experience of the changing tides and our own evolution within this program. The waterfall at the top of the Sourdough Creek Trail which had slowed to a trickle with a dry stream bed over the summer now flows with a deafening roar. Suddenly we understand how avalanches and rock slides happen here. Green, leafy canopies that shaded us from the intense sun during our first grad school meetings gave way to picturesque golden walkways, then to skeletal brown arms that seem to reach for the sky in search of the elusive November sunlight. The pikas we once heard while passing talus slopes on campus have quieted down for the winter. Even Diablo Lake which greeted us in July with shades of turquoise, emerald, and serpentine now matches the color of the sky – a mix of blues and grays.

BusterBrownTrailNov14

Aside from these beautiful, and occasionally stark, phenological changes we’ve witnessed, another major change has taken place: the end of the fall season of Mountain School. Cohort 14 got the sink-or-swim introduction to grad school, moving without rest from a month-long field expedition to a two week fall training at the ELC, and then into six weeks of teaching hands-on science curriculum to over 900 of western Washington’s fifth graders.

Much has been written about Mountain School over the years in Chattermarks, and with good reason. Along with the flora and fauna at the ELC, these energetic 10 and 11 year olds bring such a sense of life and activity to this ecosystem. For six weeks we taught lessons on rocks, the water cycle, and different biotic elements of this area, and found our own lessons changing with the seasons. We marveled right along with our students at the first sight of snow on Pyramid and Colonial Peaks, and then at the lowering snowline or, as I put it, the inescapable advance of winter. Our teaching flow and our choice of group games changed as sunlight waned and temperatures dropped. Hikes to the waterfall became less frequent, often being replaced by indoor lessons accompanied by hot chocolate.

PyramidNov2014

Mountain School ended for the season on November 7th, the same day as the start of the Youth Leadership Conference. While the YLC deserves its own post, I will say that the theme of the conference – reflection and planning ahead – felt like a perfect way to mark the transition into the winter at the ELC. We too, staff and graduate students alike, are reflecting on the past weeks: lessons learned, experience gained, and goals for next season. We are planning for our own hibernation as programming at the ELC slows down and grad students turn our attention to non-profit management and curriculum design.

Very appropriately, just two days after the end of the Youth Leadership Conference and on the second day of the ongoing WildLinks Conference, we saw our first flakes of snow.

We are grateful for an amazing fall season of Mountain School, for the time to reflect and learn (indoors!) for the winter, and excited for the first 2015 session of Mountain School to begin which will, undoubtedly, carry with it a harbinger of spring.