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Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”

October 6th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Ana Maria Spagna; an excerpt from the Prologue “The Low Ground” to Reclaimers, (UW Press 2015)

Spagna reads from her new book at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

When I started telling friends about my interest in reclamation, everyone had a story. Did I know about High Line Park in New York City on a reclaimed elevated freight rail? How about Seattle’s plan to reclaim wasted heat from data centers, the so-called Cloud, to power nearby neighborhoods? Reclaiming appeared everywhere, out of nowhere; it seemed to be, in some ways, the backdrop of our time. Nearly every major American city has a re-store where would-be remodelers can buy lumber and hardware salvaged from demolished buildings. Most watersheds have seen restoration, and some—the Hudson, the Cuyahoga—have been nothing short of miraculous. Even small-scale dam removal, it turns out, was nothing new. The nonprofit river advocacy group American Rivers estimates that in the past century 925 dams have been removed from rivers.
Then there were Native Americans. If reclamation—at least the way it interested me—had to do with land and water, the original inhabitants were the ones with the most at stake. For the past fifty years, I’d learn, all across the country Indian tribes have been taking back what’s been stolen from them: the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the Menominee in Wisconsin, the Passamaquoddy in Maine, the Colville in Washington.
At the beginning, I didn’t know any of this. I wouldn’t until I left home.

So I did. I took a long solo trip—or more precisely a series of them—spurred by curiosity and hemmed by my own geography and finances. Over three years, I’d yo-yo up and down the west edge of the continent on either side of the long strip of mountains—Panamints, Sierras, Cascades—that have defined my adult life and alongside rivers that have, in literal ways, sustained me—the Feather, the Columbia, the Stehekin—in an aging Buick along a zigzagging dot-to-dot route that loosely connects where I grew up in a desert suburb of Los Angeles to where I’ve landed in the North Cascades. I’d walk over sand dunes past lime green mesquite and follow game trails among dormant oaks, watch steelhead through glass and befriend a single red fox. I’d talk to elders and activists, bureaucrats and lawyers and small town mechanics. I’d tell everyone my three part theory of reclaiming, and if their eyes occasionally glazed over at “taking back” and “making right”—weary perhaps of the eternal moral tug-of-war—by the time I got to “make useful” they had some things to say. And I tried to listen.



The sign approaching Death Valley that names it “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone”

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”

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Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident

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

Ana Maria Spagna reads from her new book Reclaimers at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free! Read a book review by our communications coordinator Christian Martin at

Like many people who choose to live in the North Cascades, Ana Maria Spagna has patched together jobs, passions, and pursuits that inform and inspire each other. Through perseverance and pluck, she has created a life and livelihood in one of the more remote communities in America: Stehekin, a village of fewer than one hundred year-round residents that is accessible only by float plane, a three-hour boat ride, or a long hike over the mountains.

Spagna grew up in Riverside, California, but a camping trip to Oregon as a teenager connected her with the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. “I loved the green forests and the blue sky and even the rain,” she remembers, “and I swore that if I ever made it back, I’d never leave.”

After graduating from college, she spent a summer volunteering with the Student Conservation Association in Canyonlands National Park, which led her to apply for jobs in other parks around the West. She landed in Stehekin in 1990 at age twenty-two to work for the North Cascades National Park.

“I had never been there, didn’t know you had to take a boat to get there,” she admits. “I arrived and saw those mountains and was completely wowed!”

The community of Stehekin sits at the northwest end of Lake Chelan, a fifty-five-mile-long fjord-like lake carved by glaciers, the third deepest lake in the country. The village is surrounded by steep mountains rising seven thousand feet above the valley floor. There are no shopping malls or Starbucks, though the internet and a few phones connect inhabitants to the outside world. Cabins are scattered for nine miles up the valley along the meandering Stehekin River. Summertime temperatures can be upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while winters bring long periods of snow and subfreezing temperatures. It is a place for people who like solitude and living close to nature.

Spagna was first assigned a desk job, but she spent every weekend exploring the mountains, eventually joining a trail crew. The transitory nature of trail work had her stationed in Marblemount for a couple of years and then out of Darrington, working in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, for a few more.

She cleared trails with chainsaw, brush whips, and loppers, maintained bridges, worked on tread with a pulaski, and cleared rockslides with explosives. She would often camp in the woods for eight days at a time, putting in ten-hour days with a crew of four or five people, mostly men.

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident


Poetry: Rhythm and Reflection in the North Cascades

September 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes



Fingers of smoke from wildfires
reach down Big Beaver and Pierce Creek valleys
and cover the deep blue of Ross Lake
like a quilt.

The drift mingles with other smokestreams
from Ruby and Thunder creeks,
where mountains, too,
have been touched by the sky.

Smoke clouds curl around Sourdough Mountain,
where I sit in the clear blue center
of this gesture: mudra
of the mountain Buddhas.

Waft of incense from a world renewed,
forests / meadows
rained into soil.
The teachings come round again.

Tim McNulty, from Through High Still Air: A Season at Sourdough Mountain



The cries of migrating swans
stitch the clouds together,
white on white.

Rain yesterday,
sun this afternoon,
cold trees shedding leaves.

In the brown reeds
a red-winged blackbird
remembers his summer song.

Each stroke of my paddle
brings me closer
to those I love.

— Saul Weisberg, from Headwaters: Poems & Field Notes

Join Institute founder and executive director Saul Weisberg and poet & essayist Tim McNulty September 25-27 for a fall weekend in the North Cascades exploring poetry and the outdoors; registration includes instruction, organic meals and overnight accommodations on Diablo Lake. Details at…/programs/poetry-with-tim-and-saul and (360) 854-2599.

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“Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle

September 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by David B. Williams

Williams’ reads from his new book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography at Village Books in Bellingham on September 16 at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

More so than most cities, Seattle has shaped itself to suit its needs. The citizens of Seattle have dug up, dug into, dumped upon, and carted away its original topography as few other cities have. They eliminated hills, cut canals, killed rivers, replumbed lakes, and built islands, in the process completely reshaping many parts of the landscape. And they did most of this within 75 years of the settlers’ landing. Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography explores these unprecedented engineering projects by weaving together history, geology, and on the ground exploration.

As Michael Upchurch wrote in a Seattle Times review: “Williams does a marvelous job of evoking the cityscape that used to be. He clues us in to the spirit of civic ambition that drove Seattle’s geographical transformations. He methodically chronicles the stages by which its regrade, canal and landfill projects were accomplished. And he’s meticulous about placing his readers on present-day street corners where they can, with some sleight of mind, glimpse the hills, lake shores and tide flats that vanished. (Maps, illustrations and archival photographs help.)”

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Building Seattle – A few tidbits on interest discussed in Too High and Too Steep.

  • Filling in the tideflats of the Duwamish River created approximately 2,500 acres of new land.
  • No dirt from Denny Hill went into making Harbor Island.
  • The largest single hill regrading took place around Jackson Street when 56 blocks were regraded between 1907 and 1909.
  • Nearby was the Dearborn Street regrade, which created the valley now spanned by the Jose Rizal Bridge on Twelfth Avenue.
  • When Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet with the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, it led to the loss of 90 percent of the lake’s wetlands.
  • Building the locks and canal resulted in the establishment of one of the final whaling fleets in the United States, which overwintered in Meydenbauer Bay.
  • Total dirt moved during the city’s various engineering projects was at least 75 million cubic yards.
  • The regrades were paid for by people who lived in the regrades, not by the city.
  • One failed project called for a canal through Beacon Hill to connect Elliott Bay with Lake Washington.
  • Seattle’s first big tunnel under the city, which runs for a mile, was cut by hand and completed on time.
  • When the Alaskan Way Viaduct was completed, the Seattle P-I labeled it the “royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest.”

» Continue reading “Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle


Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 2)

September 10th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Mike Rosekrans

The grizzly has been a part of the North American continent for fifty thousand years. Grizzlies are part of the Brown Bear family that originated in Eurasia and crossed the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. For nearly 10,000 years grizzlies and humans coexisted in North America. Many first nations and indigenous tribes revered the great bear and honored it in ceremony. Many Native American legends even include the grizzly in creation stories.

North America once held as many as 100,000 grizzly bears in a range extending from the northernmost tip of Alaska, across the Yukon, down through the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges of Washington, Oregon, and California; down the entire stretch of the Rocky Mountains; into the great plains as far east as Minnesota and down to Mexico’s Sierra Madre.


Today the grizzly bear inhabits a mere 2% of its former range in the contiguous United States.

How did an animal as great as the grizzly, a top predator in the ecosystems it inhabited, nearly reach the point of extermination?

To answer this question we need only look to one of America’s proudest accomplishments: the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The grizzly bear has been an animal surrounded by myth and has been associated with trepidation and animosity since the Lewis and Clark Expedition first came across the large bruin in 1804. Journals from the expedition described the grizzly as a “monster bear and a most terrible enemy.” The killing and eradication began with this expedition where they were said to have killed about 40 grizzlies.

» Continue reading Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 2)

YLC (1 of 1)

Youth Leadership Conference 2015 in the North Cascades; now accepting applications

September 3rd, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

Applications for our 2015 Youth Leadership Conference are now being accepted! The conference is held at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center November 6-8 and is open to students ages 14-22 who are alumni of our youth programs, including Youth Leadership Adventures, Mountain School, Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth, and Concrete Summer Learning Adventure.

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Information and application at Due date is Friday, October 2nd!

2012 YLC ©Jess Newley (2 of 5)

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North Cascades Institute open for business; Fall 2015 programs

September 3rd, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

It has been quite a wild ride over the past two weeks with the Goodell Fire in the North Cascades and resulting evacuation of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, the arrival of fire crews to set up resource protection around our campus, and then the torrential rains that came just in the nick of time as the fire was approximately one mile (as the raven flies) away.

After a few days of catching our breath, moving back in to the Learning Center and getting everything back up and running, we’re very pleased to be able to offer our many Fall Programs as scheduled. We have a ton of things coming up, both here on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park, as well as in the field (Chelan Ridge, Methow Valley, Bellingham Bay, Baker Lake) and in bookstores around Cascadia (Bellingham, Darrington, Guemes Island, Seattle, Sedro-Woolley).

Below you’ll find a listing of our many different offerings coming up over the next couple of months, with links to more information and registration. You can also visit our website and Facebook page, call our front desk team at (360) 854-2599 or shoot us an email with any questions to

We’re grateful for each of you for your continued outpouring of support and for our partners in the National Park Service, Seattle City Light and US Forest Service and for the firefighters, first responders, National Guard, U.S. Army servicemen and women and others working on the wildfires across Washington State.

We’ve been made stronger by this crisis and are happy to report that North Cascades Institute is OPEN FOR BUSINESS!

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute open for business; Fall 2015 programs