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Stinging Nettle 1

Two Burning Houses: A Natural History of Stinging Nettle

October 20th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

I clearly remember my introduction to the mystery and power of stinging nettle. On a late summer day, I found myself, alongside my graduate cohort, at the Northwest Indian College. Located on the Lummi Indian Reservation in Bellingham, Washington, the college caters exclusively to tribal members across the country and includes a number of programs focused on traditional skills and knowledge. Through their Traditional Plants and Foods program, instructors educate students on native medicine and healing foods. Vanessa Cooper, the program coordinator, spoke to us at length about the healing power of several native plants. I will never forget the transformation of Vanessa’s face when her talk turned to nettle. She became deeply serene and her eyes half-closed as she murmured, “Oh, I just love nettle. She reminds us to pay attention.”

What was it about this much-maligned plant that inspired such reverence in her? What power did this plant hold? I needed to find out.

» Continue reading Two Burning Houses: A Natural History of Stinging Nettle

Mtn School 2015 Rick Allen 2

Mountain School: Local students learn in the North Cascades

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

Only the hardiest of souls venture to North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, 2 hours east of Bellingham, in the winter. Highway 20 might be strewn with boulders or blanketed with snow or black ice. The Institute itself is eerily quiet during those months with no programs running, much of the staff gone and graduate students plugging away at seemingly-unending projects.

Visit during the fall or spring, however, and you’ll find the complete opposite. Set foot on any of the Institute’s nine miles of trails and I guarantee you’ll find yourself face to face with any number of smiling faces. These smiles belong to children, primarily fifth graders attending Mountain School, and you’ll find them hunting for mushrooms, teaching each other about native plants, going on the journey of a water molecule or carefully camouflaging themselves behind a fallen log.Mtn School 2015 Rick Allen 1

Mountain School is one of North Cascade Institute’s proudest accomplishments. Established in 1990 at Newhalem Campground in North Cascades National Park, the program has served over 26,000 students from all over Whatcom and Skagit counties, as far south as Seattle and Olympia and from Methow and Wenatchee to the east. Students from grades 4-12 come to us for three to five days and leave, we hope, with a deeper connection to their environment. In just four and a half months, three months in the spring and one-and-a-half in the fall, North Cascades Institute serves over 2,000 students and aims to inspire all of them.

» Continue reading Mountain School: Local students learn in the North Cascades


The Trifecta: C14’s Last Natural History Retreat

June 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

For the members of Cohort 14, everything is starting to come full circle. The Learning Center looks as it looked when we arrived last July: Pyramid’s faces are bare, Sourdough Creek has slowed to a trickle, the air is warm, and the winds are strong. Many things have changed in the intervening seasons. We taught two seasons of Mountain School, the latter of which ended just one week ago, completed final projects, and attended our last natural history retreat. As I have remarked in previous blog posts (and to anyone I talk to), these retreats have been one of the highlights of this graduate residency. They are a break from our hectic teaching schedule, a chance to reconnect as a cohort, and an opportunity to learn from passionate naturalists and scientists.

While our fall and winter retreats took us to the Methow Valley, we expanded our reach on our spring trip, traveling up to the Sinlahekin Valley. En route, we camped in Winthrop to hike up Tiffany Mountain. On Monday May 25th we hiked up about a mile before meeting large hail and stormy skies.
Foreboding skies over Tiffany.

Tiffany Hail
A sample of the hail

» Continue reading The Trifecta: C14’s Last Natural History Retreat

Uplift Group

Uplift: Youth in Action for the Colorado Plateau

May 17th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

One of the pillars of North Cascade Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. graduate program is a “sense of place.” This can be hard to define, but often includes an understanding of the natural landscape, knowledge of cultural history, and the feeling of community. Over the past nine months, the mountains of the North Cascades and the shore of Diablo Lake have become a second (or third, or fourth) home. There is another place that has always felt like home: the Colorado Plateau. The Colorado Plateau is a 130,000 square mile area that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. It is home to ten National Parks, 17 National Monuments, the Colorado River, and mountains standing up to 11,000 feet high.

The Colorado Plateau gave me my most rewarding employment and confirmed for me that I am destined for a life outdoors and many years of teaching. It was there that I first developed a deep connection with land and learned innumerable lessons about myself. So, I when I heard about the Grand Canyon Trust holding a conference in mid-April, I knew I had to go. With the blessing of all the staff at North Cascades Institute, I flew to Flagstaff, AZ on April 17th.

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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


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


Chasing Winter: A Natural History Retreat

February 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

One of the highlights of this my time in this graduate program so far (seven months!) has been our seasonal natural history retreats. In the fall, Cohort 14 went over to the Methow Valley, which is quickly becoming our favorite place, and spent a week camping outside of Winthrop. We hiked, explored, skinned deer at the start of hunting season with Katie Russell, learned about the Methow Beaver Project, and counted migratory raptors with Kent Woodruff of the Chelan Ridge Raptor Migration Project, part of Hawkwatch International.

From February 2nd through the 6th (or 8th, for some of us), we tucked ourselves away in the woods near Early Winters Campground in Mazama, WA, and ventured into the snow each day to learn new skills and enjoy one of the few places in the state where winter seemed to be in full swing.


Most of us don’t arrive until the evening. How cruel of a joke it seems to be that we drive for eight hours from Diablo… only to end up just 50 miles away from the Environmental Learning Center. We rejoiced, however, when we crossed Stevens Pass and saw snow for the first time in weeks. It gave us a taste of the winter wonderland that awaited us in the Methow Valley. But our restless legs were soothed by the sight of fat, fluffy snowflakes falling on a silent stretch of Highway 20 once we traveled west out of Twisp. The whole van fell silent: mesmerized by the calm.

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