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Local Students Explore their Backyard National Park

April 22nd, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

by Katie Griffith, Americorps VISTA, Youth Programs Outreach Specialist, North Cascades National Park/North Cascades Institute 

Mist shrouded Diablo Lake’s surrounding peaks as Concrete and Darrington’s school buses drove over Diablo Dam. The overcast weather did not dampen student excitement as fifth grade students from both local schools arrived at North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center to attend Mountain School within North Cascades National Park Complex. Sixty kids unloaded sleeping bags, backpacks, and boots, well prepared to spend three days exploring the ecosystems of the park.

The residential environmental education program teaches science concepts in an interactive, outdoor setting; glaciers, rivers, and forests surrounding the Learning Center make up the Mountain School classroom. The visiting students participated in the Ecosystems Exploration curriculum, in which students investigate the abiotic and biotic factors that make up North Cascades ecosystems.

“I love science and fishing and it was really cool looking at stuff we collected under a microscope!” said fifth grader Coho about the program.

“We went on a night hike to the dam and it was awesome!” said fifth grader Anya, while Kiawa said “the five mile hike to the waterfall with my friends was the best.”

The trip also included plenty of hiking, locally-sourced meals and a campfire with skits and games.

In 2015, Mountain School is celebrating its 25th birthday! But Mountain School didn’t always happen at the Learning Center on Diablo Lake; for the first fifteen years, Mountain School students camped in tents at Newhalem Campground, an experience some Concrete teachers may remember. In 2005, the North Cascades Institute was thrilled to build the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake as part of the terms of Seattle City Light’s federal hydroelectric license renewal. Since 2005, thousands of students from all over the region have benefited from programs based out of the Learning Center.

MSGroupGraduate student Chelsea Ernst makes observations about a tree with her students

Institute staff members and National Park Service rangers were excited to welcome the most local schools to Mountain School last week. “It was so inspiring to teach such an excited, inquisitive, and observant group of young learners,” said graduate student and Mountain School Instructor Chelsea Ernst. Both Darrington and Concrete Schools participated in the Skagit Watershed Education Project with the Institute from 1994-2004, but this is the first year since the ‘90’s that Concrete has attended Mountain School. Concrete was able to attend with support from Washington’s National Park Fund. Darrington’s fifth graders had never attended a full Mountain School program; they attended with support from North Counties Family Services. North Cascades Institute also prioritizes fundraising to subsidize participation for public schools.

It is “hugely important” for the Institute to work with its most local schools, says Christen Kiser, Mountain School Coordinator. “Connections between their home communities and their experience at Mountain School are much more evident and integrated into their daily lives than students who travel from further away to attend.”

Local students will integrate ecosystems concepts learned at Mountain School into their classes throughout the rest of the year.

For more information about Mountain School and other programs at North Cascades Institute, visit the website or call (360) 854-2599.

SAVE THE DATE! You’re invited to celebrate Mountain School’s 25th anniversary at a free BBQ picnic and open house at the North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on August 23. Details can be found here.

This article originally appeared in the Concrete Herald.


Behind the Scenes: A Visitor Day with Youth Leadership Adventures

April 20th, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Guest post by Matt Dolge

My morning started off at 4:30am on August 9th, 2014 with a 3-hour solo drive to Ross Lake in the North Cascades. I had a lot of time to think about the day ahead yet had no idea how much this day was going to change my life. A month earlier I had accepted the invitation to participate in a day trip with Youth Leadership Adventures, which I had no prior knowledge of. But the offer to hike the North Cascades and explore Ross Lake on a guided boat tour was a chance I couldn’t pass on—and I’m glad I didn’t.

By 7:30am the sun was rising over the mountains peaks, which made the lake, sparkle like diamonds. At the trailhead an energetic group of strangers prepared for a hike down to the lake. The strangers were just friends that I had not met and they warmly welcomed me into their group. We tightened our hiking boots, stretched out the legs, and began to make our way down to the “Mule.” The hike was an easy scenic stroll on well-kept switchbacks. We took our time to observe wildlife, take photographs, and learn about the history of North Cascades Institute.

Once we reached the dam we could see that the lake stretched all the way up to the Canadian border. Being an avid hiker who has hiked 4 out of the Mighty 5, Utah’s National Parks I thought I had seen all the colors that nature could provide, but Ross Lake’s naturally blue-green color is surreal and the water is so clear that fish can be seen 10 feet below the water’s surface. This protected land is so pure and raw it cannot be reproduced through photographs.

Before boarding the Mule, which is a more of a barge than a boat, we discussed the activities for the remainder of the day. Amy Brown from North Cascades Institute leads the conversation and let’s us in on why we are here. “YLA is a hands-on outdoor leadership program focused on mentoring students in field science, communications, and public speaking. It is our goal to listen, learn, and support them in their passion for conservation”.

After about an hour on the boat we arrive at the campsite the youth leaders have called home for the past ten days. Their campsite is primitive with no running water or restrooms, but has an incredible view, sitting on a bluff which overlooks the lake. I mentally add this as a place to camp to my bucket list. We pick up the group of students and return to the Mule to troll northward to a secluded shoal. This remote area is heavily shaded with overgrown trees and lichens are thriving. It’s lunchtime and we break into small groups to learn why the youth have chosen to participate in YLA. It is at this point that I learn why I made the three-hour drive…

An Institute Board member talks with a YLA student

These youth leaders felt empowered to take responsibility for the environment and hearing them speak about conservation, sustainable practices, and stewardship was truly awe-inspiring. Standing before us were the next stewards of the environment. What they needed from us is support, leadership, awareness, and access to resources. What they already had was the determination to protect the environment; they just needed to know how to do it. Thanks to Youth Leadership Adventures these passionate environmentalist now have the leadership skills to make an impact in their local communities. Environmental activism doesn’t begin behind a desk or closed doors it begins in the North Cascades being inspired by youth who have the passion to become stewards of the environment.

A YLA student shares her story with the visitor group

Visit Matt’s blog here, and learn more about Youth Leadership Adventures here


The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest

April 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

As part of our “Nature in Writing” series, Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict read from The Salish Sea, Thursday, April 16, 7 pm, in the Readings Gallery at Village Books in Bellingham. Free!

We paddle and sail on it, comb its beaches, stroll its shores. We are drawn to it for fishing, birdwatching, tidepooling, crabbing, sunset gazing and occasionally even swimming. The Salish Sea defines life in the Fourth Corner, providing not only livelihood and sustenance but also opportunities for relaxation, play, adventure and spiritual nourishment.

A new title from Sasquatch Books, written by the Chief Scientist for the SeaDoc Society and the founder of Cloud Ridge Naturalists, aims to educate Pacific Northwesterners about the intricate ecosystem of our inland sea. Joseph K. Gaydos and Audrey DeLella Benedict combine engaging science writing with an array of stunning photographs to produce The Salish Sea: Jewel of the Pacific Northwest.

Several local photographers provided images for the book, including Brett Baunton, John D’Onofrio, Jessica Newley, John Scurlock, Art Wolfe and the Whatcom Museum archives.

The idea for grouping together the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and Strait of Georgia under one moniker originally came from Bert Webber, a retired professor of environmental and marine science at Western Washington University. Thinking of the interconnected, transboundary waters as one cohesive whole — the Salish Sea — helps citizens to “think like a watershed” and better strategize international management of the ecosystem and its wealth of resources.

Wise management is crucial as approximately eight million people live in the Salish Sea ecosystem, with another million projected to settle here over the next ten years. The impacts from extensive human development of the shorelines and uplands are being felt throughout the region.

The Health of the Salish Sea Report, issued by the US Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Canada, gives our treasured inland sea mixed grades.

What they’ve found: 113 marine species and sub-species are formally listed as being at risk or vulnerable to extinction, including 56 birds, 37 fish, 15 mammals, three invertebrates and two reptiles. Also, marine-dissolved oxygen is in long-term decline, and the last few decades have seen steep declines in iconic orca whales and Chinook salmon. Ten of the 17 rivers studied show strongly significant decreasing summer flow trends due to lower snowpacks in the mountains, surface and groundwater withdrawals, and other issues.

On the positive side, air quality has been improving, freshwater quality is general holding steady, nearly 4,00 acres of previously closed shellfish beds in Puget Sound have re-opened due to improvements in water quality and levels of PCBs and PCBEs are declining in harbor seals.

This new book — which is divided into sections that explore different ecological niches like “Life at the Edges,” “Denizens of the Deep” and “Bizarre and Beautiful Fish” — takes the approach of saving the Salish Sea by educating people about it.

“Once people know a place…they become connected to it,” the authors write. “And once people connect to an ecosystem, it becomes personal and they want to protect and restore it.”

Through maps, charts, satellite imagery, nature photography and writing, Benedict and Gaydos concoct an engaging presentation of the natural history of our “jewel of the Pacific Northwest.”  Their mantra of “know, connect, protect and restore” is a hopeful way forward in to a challenging future.

Read the Health of the Salish Sea Report at


Cascade High School’s Carnivore Curriculum

April 11th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

While the majority of our Mountain School sessions focus on the Ecosystems Exploration curriculum, geared towards fifth graders, the grads and naturalists at the Environmental Learning Center also teach the Carnivore Curriculum.

In the Carnivore Curriculum, part of the Field Science and Leadership program,

Students study North Cascades carnivores and their habitat in surrounding forests near the Learning Center. On the first day, students gain an overview of North Cascades ecosystems and engage in hands-on lessons about field inquiry, plant identification and forest carnivores. On the second day, students investigate the habitat potential of the forest community surrounding the Learning Center for threatened and endangered forest carnivores by examining tree diversity and canopy cover, coarse woody debris and ground cover in forest transects. Working in small groups, students gather data at their field study site and then compile and analyze their data back in the classroom. On the final day of the program, students present their findings and make conclusions about their research in a symposium-style discussion with their peers, teachers and national park representatives.

Cascade High School students arrive under the watchful eye of Pyramid Peak

From March 23rd to 25th, high school students from Cascade High School in Everett joined us at the Learning Center for field investigations. My group, the Brown Bears, chose to study the mink: a small semi-aquatic weasel belonging to the Mustelidae family. The group learned how to use different scientific tools used by wildlife biologists to determine whether the mink’s preferred terrestrial habitat could be found around the Learning Center.

CCE1T1Students teach each other about North Cascades carnivores

» Continue reading Cascade High School’s Carnivore Curriculum


The Triumph of Seeds: An Excerpt

April 9th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from The Triumph of Seeds by Thor Hanson. It comes from Chapter Eight: By Tooth, Beak, and Gnaw.

By Thor Hanson

“Oh rats, rejoice!
The world is grown to one vast drysaltery!
So munch on, crunch on, take your nuncheon,
Breakfast, supper, dinner, luncheon!”

Robert Browning
The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842)

Appendix F of the International Building Code stipulates requirements for keeping rats and other rodents out of all habitable dwellings. These include two-inch (five-centimeter) slab foundations, steel kick-plates, and tempered wire or sheet-metal grating over any ground- level opening. Conditions for grain storage or industrial facilities can be even stricter, involving thicker concrete, more metal, and curtain walls buried two feet below grade. In spite of all this, rats and their relations still consume or contaminate between 5 and 25 percent of the world’s grain harvest, and regularly gnaw their way into important structures of all kinds. In 2013, a trespassing rodent shorted out the switchboard at Japan’s ill-fated Fukushima nuclear plant, sending temperatures in three cooling tanks soaring and nearly setting off a repeat of the 2011 meltdown. The story made headlines around the world, with journalists, bloggers, and TV commentators all wondering what makes rats so interested in electrical wires. But the real question isn’t about what rodents like to eat; it’s about how difficult it is to stop them. Why on earth should a rat be able to chew through concrete walls in the first place?

The name “rodent” comes from the Latin verb rodere, “to gnaw,” a reference both to the way rodents chew and to the massive incisors that help them do it so well. These teeth evolved in small mouse- or squirrel-like creatures approximately 60 million years ago. That’s approximately 60 million years before the invention of concrete, Plexiglas, sheet metal, or any of the other manmade materials that rats and mice now chew through. Experts still argue about the exact origin of rodents, but there is little doubt about what those big teeth were good for. While the family tree now includes oddballs like beavers, who chew wood, and naked mole rats, who use their teeth for digging, the vast majority of rodents still make much of their living the old-fashioned way: by gnawing seeds.


» Continue reading The Triumph of Seeds: An Excerpt

Colin-headshot-by-Martin Olslund

Colin Haley: Cascadian Climber

April 6th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascades Institute welcomes Colin Haley and his presentation “From Shuksan to Cerro Torre” to the Mountaineers Seattle Program Center April 10, 2015 at 7 pm as part of The Mountaineers BeWild Speaker Series. See bottom of the post for a special discount code!

Colin Haley was born in Seattle in 1984 and grew up on nearby Mercer Island. For as far back as he can remember, he’s been exploring the Cascades, hiking and skiing, always looking upward, drawn to the summits of the high peaks.

At the age of twelve, Haley ascended the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak in the North Cascades—named one of the “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”—with his father and older brother. It was the beginning of a new life.

“I had climbed Mount Hood the year before,” he remembers, “but Forbidden was my first technical climb. It had all the elements that make alpine climbing such a memorable pursuit: ascending a steep ridge that scared the crap out of me, rappeling the last several pitches down in the dark, getting back to camp completely exhausted. It was a taste of the physical and mental hardships that climbing mountains often puts you through and from then on, I was hooked. That’s all I wanted to do with my life.”

Alpine climbing became “by far the overriding focus” of Haley’s life, and once he got his driver’s license at age sixteen, he was in the mountains every chance he could get. Between the ages of sixteen and twenty, he figures he logged more days in the American Alps than any other climber.


“Everything I learned,” he says, “I learned in the North Cascades.”

» Continue reading Colin Haley: Cascadian Climber


Passing the Paddle: Cohort 13 Graduation

April 3rd, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Time has a variable quality when you live in the mountains. Spring can descend on you with no warning, like it happened overnight, but a day can stretch on eternally when staring at the umpteenth draft of a project. When I worked as a wilderness therapy guide, the students had a saying: “The days go by like weeks but the weeks go by like days.” So it is here, too, sometimes.

Somehow, without us noticing, the students of Cohort 14 have completed nearly nine of our thirteen month residency. An even bigger milestone hit; one that served as a reminder of our trajectory and where we’ll be in exactly one year: graduation.

In the two days leading up to graduation on March 19th, the members of Cohort 13 presented their capstone projects to an audience of friends, family, North Cascades Institute staff, and Cohort 14 students. These capstone projects focus on “a topic that has intrigued [the students] throughout their graduate school experience, connecting their experiences within environmental education, natural history, sense of place and the future of education” (quoted from

As a relatively new graduate students, and never having seen a capstone presentation before, I had no idea what to expect. Frankly, I still don’t. Cohort 13’s projects spanned an incredible range of presentation styles and topics. Due to a change in the schedule of the graduate program, and the flurry of activity that C13 was in the midst of when we arrived at the Environmental Learning Center last July, the two cohorts have had very little interaction. But these capstone presentations gave me excellent insight into each student’s passions and values.

Kaci Darsow’s Doing.Myself.Justice. felt like a true performance piece. One that intimately explored Kaci’s identity, sense of justice, and shifting perspective during their time in graduate school.

Katherine Renz’s No More Icebreakers: Environmental Education for the Rest of Us took us inside the walls of Phyte Club: a visionary bar with the goal of educating customers about the natural world through botanically infused libations and weekly events.

Phyte Club
Did I mention that Phyte Club also plays heavy metal?

» Continue reading Passing the Paddle: Cohort 13 Graduation