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Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

August 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jihan Grettenberger, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

What do you love about the North Cascades and the Skagit Valley?

I love the burning feeling in my legs as I hike up the switchbacks on the trails that travel through thick forests of Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, and cedars. The sounds of the forest bring me bliss. The birds calling in the distances, the winds rushing over tree tops, and the buzz of bees pollinating plants. Most importantly I am in awe by the abundance of water. In the spring, the North Cascades fills with raging creeks from snowmelt and from lookout points I can see snow covered peaks. I know summer is coming when Diablo Lake changes from a greyish blue to a vibrant aquamarine color.

Diablo Dam with Pyramid Peak in the background. Photo courtesy of Jihan Grettenberger 

How important is water in the North Cascades?

The North Cascades is water rich and named after all of the cascades that flow through the landscape. In the winter, snow piles up on the mountaintops; in the spring the snowpack melts, supplying water to the streams; in the summer glacier melt feeds our alpine lakes and dam reservoirs. The rainy fall then replenishes our dry summer soils and increases the flows in our rivers.

Thanks to our abundant water supply and diverse ecosystems, the North Cascades and Skagit Valley have all five native Pacific salmon species. Eagles soar through the sky, ospreys hunt, and wolverines dig deep dens in the snow. When the supply and timing of water changes in the mountains, it also changes the watershed. People, agriculture, hydroelectric production, plants, and creatures, all depend on reliable water sources to thrive.

» Continue reading Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree

August 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Ash Kunz, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Ponderosa Pine. Illustration by Ash Kunz

The story of my life is the story of the land in which I am rooted. There have been more changes than are imaginable. It is a landscape that has been shaped by both natural forces and human hands. It is a ruggedly beautiful place – from the shrub steppe and dry forest ecosystem that descends 1000 meters to the once roiling river, now tamed and known as the Columbia. In times of warmth, my views are consumed with the iconic yellow and purple of balsamroot and lupine. In times of cold, the Earth is blanketed with a thick layer of pristine white snow. I have grown tall and broad and strong Chinese Teapots – fed by the soil and the water and the sun. I have seen humankind change. I have tasted fire and flood. I have heard the stories of glaciers and volcanoes; I have felt the Earth quake. I have heard axes and saws and machines. I have seen the young grow old. I have felt the change of time. My relationship with people, animals and plants is cyclic. Many beings have come and gone; they breed, live and pass.

» Continue reading Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree

A Natural and Cultural History Guide to the Blue House

August 3rd, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Angela Burlile, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

During our Place-Based Learning in the North Cascades course this past summer, I discovered the power of place and the role that place has on our sense of self and the development of our ecological identity. A sense of place can be developed when one purposefully considers their relationship to the landscape and builds meaningful and personal connections.

Throughout much of the summer, we examined a pedagogy of place, reinforced through experiential practice and supportive reading material. In David Gruenewald’s, “Foundations of Place: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Place-Conscious Education”, he states:

“A multidisciplinary analysis of place reveals the many ways that places are profoundly pedagogical. That is, as centers of experience, places teach us about how the world works and how our lives fit into the spaces we occupy. Further, places make us: as occupants of particular places with particular attributes, our identity and our possibilities are shaped.”

I carried Gruenewald’s words and the idea of purposeful examination and connection to land with me as I moved into my new graduate residence at the Blue House in August 2016. Purchased in 2015 by the North Cascades Institute, the Blue House provides residential housing space for graduate students and staff. It was built in 1912 and currently sits on 7.7 acres of land, along the confluence of Diobsud Creek and the Skagit River.

» Continue reading A Natural and Cultural History Guide to the Blue House

Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jenny O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. Read Part I – The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven here

Like human babies, ravens are highly curious of all objects upon first leaving the nest. Fearless, they get into everything that’s in front of them and, accompanied by parents who help steer them away from true danger, they are free to explore and learn. As an integral part of exploration, play is a big part of ravens’ lives. Though admittedly difficult to define, Heinrich states that according to most definitions of nonhuman play, it is a behavior that “seems purposeless but possibly just because the observer hasn’t figured out what the benefit is.” Ravens play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves. Education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about. They play with a full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, which Heinrich talks about in multiple chapters of his book:


Raven tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Through physical play ravens develop strong bodies and graceful movement, such as: hanging upside-down, digging in the dirt, playing tug-of-war, chasing each other, snow-bathing and sliding. Much of this physical play also involves some danger, referred to as “risky play.”

Through risky play ravens learn to manage fear and develop courage, such as pulling other animals’ tails and approaching carcasses that might be equally as appealing to stronger, more threatening animals. In risky play animals also must develop effective communication. Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist, describes effective communication in what he calls the “handicap principle.” Animals must learn first to have reliable signals between the communicators. In order for the receiver to know they’re reliable, they must be costly to make–attracting predators, for example. Heinrich relates two anecdotes of ravens effectively “warning” people of predators lurking, attracting attention to themselves, but also potentially providing themselves a meal if said predator attacks and kills! Through risky play, ravens have even learned to trick animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food.

» Continue reading Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

June 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Melissa Biggs, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Everyone, meet Chompers!  In October 2016, during the fall natural history trip, my cohort helped the Methow Beaver Project volunteers to release the last 3 beavers of the season.  So much fun! We carried the beavers for several miles and released them at Beaver Creek. When we opened the cage, Chompers went right into the water.  It was fascinating to watch the three beavers explore their new environment.  This summer, the Methow Beaver Project workers will locate Chompers and the other two beavers to record their journey since the fall. This experience made me more curious about beavers and their role in the ecosystem. As I did more research, I realized how awesome beavers are!

Beavers are so wonderful that they are known as environmental engineers.  Beavers are known as a “keystone” species because of their large effects on landscapes.  It only takes a few beavers to transform a watershed entirely.  Beavers, with the exception of human beings, do more to shape their landscape than any other Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets! Beavers are also a “foundation” species because their presence and their creations, such as dams, allow other plants and animals to exist.  

Beavers’ creations are essential to its environment for many reasons.  First, beaver dams are natural filters, as they capture and store much of the sediment.  Streams that have been shaped by beavers have 10 times greater purification capability than streams without beavers.  Also, beaver dams store water, thus leading to the increased size of wetlands. Beaver dams can help mitigate the effects of drought and the loss of wetland and riparian habitats due to their abilities to store shallow groundwater and retention of surface water behind dams.   This is important because almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands.  Also, freshwater wetlands have been rated as the world’s most valuable land-based ecosystem.  Beaver ponds increase both the water we can see on the surface and also what is stored beneath the pond.  This helps increase the riparian area and vegetative productivity.  Not only do beaver dams store water, they also help slow down the water flow, which is why they are known as ‘nature’s speed bumps.’  They reduce stream velocity and power, which helps reduce erosion rates and the amount of sediment carried downstream.  This effect across the upper watershed could provide more time for flood planning, protection and evacuation of high risk, residential areas.  Beaver ponds also help stabilize the water temperature both in the shallow and deeper areas – they help cool down streams, creating better conditions for fish, especially trout.  Last, but not last, beavers’ modification on watersheds help increase organic material, such as cut wood and flooded plants, sediment with nutrients attached and more water surface area for photosynthesis to occur, which results in more aquatic biodiversity and food for fish.  Without beavers and the role they play in watersheds, most of the biodiversity that are associated with wetland habitats would disappear.


Chompers in his cage right before he’s released! Image courtesy of Melissa Biggs

» Continue reading Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation

June 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Becky Moore, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

Nearly everyone is familiar with the image and idea of a bee. The black and yellow character from Honey Nut Cheerios perhaps, happily making honey in buzzing hives. However, what most people do not realize is that there is a vast, diverse and complicated world of bees outside the classic honeybee, most of which goes largely unnoticed. In fact, there are over 20,000 species of bees worldwide, over 4,000 of which are found in North America. About 600 native species can be found in the state of Washington.

Our honeybee friend is actually not among these; this domesticated species was introduced to North America from Europe in 1640. The majority of native bees in the US are small, solitary species, most of which do not fit any of the classic images people may think of.     

A beautiful metallic green bee (Augochloropsis metallica) visiting a flower. Image courtesy of WikiCommons

These bees have an average size of about 1cm long and live, nest, and feed completely on their own. Females forage to create enough provisions to feed their young, which they encase individually in carefully crafted cells. There are 5 major families of bees, each of which has their own methods of nesting. Some of these tiny solitary bees are miners, digging tunnels underground. Some are leafcutters, lining their nests with perfectly round leaf cutouts, some are masons, creating their nests out of mud and clay, and still others are carpenters, boring holes into wood to lay their eggs. Young bees hatch in the fall, hibernate over the winter, and emerge in spring to mate, begin foraging, and create their own nests, starting the cycle over. Many of these bee species are specialist feeders, meaning that they have co-evolved with specific species or families of flowers and are highly adapted to pollinate them the most effectively. Such plant species would not be able to survive without certain bee species.

» Continue reading Takin’ Care of Beesinus: United States Native Bee Facts, Threats and Conservation