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A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

June 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Come every fall, winter and spring quarter, the graduate students in residency at the Environmental Learning Center leave for a long weekend dubbed the “Natural History Retreat.” It is a chance to explore a novel, neighboring ecosystem beyond the North Cascades we teach about and love on a daily basis. Last autumn, in the midst of a government shutdown, we quickly cavorted to the Methow Valley; in winter, we slept, to the extent we were able, in hard-earned snow shelters on Mt. Rainier’s Paradise. This mid-June, we headed for the one Washington national park we had yet to discover: Olympic.

But backup for a sec. Before it seems grad school is all fun ‘n’ games, it’s essential to clarify that the term “retreat” is a bit of a misnomer. Try “concentrated, highly efficient learning experience” instead. There were no hot tubs nor Swedish massages. Rather, like wolverines — those elusive weasels capable of covering six miles per hour whether traversing rivers, flatlands, or the steepest vertical relief — we were on a mission to cover as much territory in as little an amount of time as possible. In three days, we traveled from the Environmental Learning Center to Port Townsend, and eventually to the Hoh Rainforest, pit-stopping along the way to engage in multiple natural and cultural activities.

wooden boats pt townsend K. RenzInside Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. Smells so good, like wood and varnish and salt. Photo by author.

After a four-hour long end-of-season Mountain School debrief, we zoomed to sea level to catch the ferry out of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Before we knew it, we were attired in orange dry suits and talking like pirates on a long boat in Port Townsend. We sailed and rowed around Port Townsend Bay, captained by Kelley Watson, former commercial salmon fisherman and organizer of the Girls Boat Project, and assisted by Chandlery Associate Alicia Dominguez. The quick trip was a success, and our tiny craft failed to collide with the giant ferries or picturesque sailboats in the midst of their weekly Friday night race. A graduate student in education herself, Watson told us Port Townsend had recently passed the “Maritime Discovery School Initiative.” As part of the community’s commitment to place-based education, all students would get a first-hand exposure to the maritime trades. Our collective graduate cohort eyebrows raised in unison as we heave-hoed through the salty sea: Jobs?

wooden boats III pt townsend K. RenzDown from the mountains, on the sea: From L to R: Katie Komorowski, Sarah Stephens, Elissa Kobrin, Samantha Hale, Joshua Porter, and Alicia Dominguez. Photo by author.

» Continue reading A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

Jennifer Hahn from website

Wild Eats! Forage on Lopez Island with Jennifer Hahn

May 29th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Wild Eats From Land to Sea in the San Juan Islands
Saturday, June 14, 8:00am to Sunday, June 15, 5:00pm
Lopez Island, WA

Imagine fulfilling your desires for eating local food, learning cool new things, becoming more self-sufficient and connecting with nature. Now imagine doing all of them simultaneously.

Really?! Yes, I know, how could so much good stuff happen all at once? But it’s not a too-good-to-be-true proposition.

Jennifer Hahn, an a expert on wild food foraging and an adjunct professor in Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, is leading an adult field class on Lopez Island through the North Cascades Institute in mid-June. [Jaw-drop here]. As she tempts us in her book, Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine (Skipstone Press, 2010): “Imagine for a moment one long feast table spanning from the islands of Yakutat Bay in southwest Alaska to Point Conception, California, and beyond, rising from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades crest.” [Begin salivating here.] Part cookbook, part bioregional natural history escapade, Pacific Feast reveals that nearly 180 different species were once central to the food traditions of the West Coast indigenous people, and offers 65 recipes celebrating them. [Dig in, here.]

“Ever try nettle pesto, rose petal truffles, ginger-sesame seaweed salad, kelp-wrapped BBQ salmon or Douglas-fir sorbet?” –

Hahn does not write up a standard itinerary for the weekend program in advance, saying instead that she likes to “keep it wide open,” which makes sense considering nature is always changing. “I wait and see what is blooming/growing/sprouting/flagging my wild attention, then I plan the two days around that,” she wrote to Chattermarks in a recent email. The trip is timed to take advantage of both the abundance of spring and extreme low tide so nutrient-packed sea veggies are easily harvestable.

The schedule includes a daily afternoon feast, preparation and cooking, practice in plant identification and learning foraging ethics. Was the daily afternoon feast mentioned?

dandelions k. renz
A sampling of foraged foods. What an interesting shift to consider ingredients as species rather than just products from the grocery store that you have to eat before they spoil in your fridge! Photo from Hahn’s website.

Basecamp for the program is Group Camp Three in Spencer Spit State Park. Lopez Farm Cottages is an available option if the cute indoors are personally preferable to tentin’ it.

The weekend is not only about tasty treats but also about sharpening a sense of connection and reciprocity with the natural world. Hahn is attentive to her “Sustainable Foraging Guidelines” in her 6-fold laminated “Pacific Coast Foraging Guide” (Mountaineers Books, 2010), and will teach participants what to be of mindful of while harvesting. Her “Stewardship” guidelines are not only on-the-mark but are clever, too:

Sustain native wild populations.

Tread lightly.

Educate yourself.

Waste nothing.

Assume the attitude of a caretaker.

Regulations and laws – follow them.

Don’t harvest what you can’t ID.

Share with wildlife.

Harvest from healthy populations and sites.

Indigenous people’s traditional harvest sites deserve respect.

Pause and offer gratitude before you pick.

Pacific Feast has plenty of impressive foodie recipes, distinct from a dish from an Alice Waters cookbook by the foraged focal point and Pacific Northwest bent (e.g. “Oyster Mushroom Pizza with White Truffe Aioli” by Peter Jones of Arcata, CA, or “Huckleberry and Port Wine Sorbet” by Bellingham’s Lynn Berman). But in this blog post I wanted to provide something easily accessible to everyone, a product with few ingredients that was quick to make, delicious and empowering.

Thus, get ready for a pre-trip teaser of “Dandelion Syrup.” As a non-native weed, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have a pretty negative reputation. But once one knows how to harvest and prepare them – the roots, leaves and flowers are all edible and good for you – stepping outside is akin to going to the Co-op. Wild dandelion greens are wildly more nutritious than the domesticated greens from the store, and they’re free (perhaps you could even get paid for weeding them from a neighbors garden?). With their toothy leaves and sunshiny flowers, dandelions are one of the most recognizable species. Unlike various wild plants that have look-alike, fatally toxic relatives (think wild carrots and poison hemlock), dandelions have no poisonous dopple-gangers. The following recipe uses their bright yellow petals for a simple addition to your kitchen.

Dandelion Syrup

By Jennifer Hahn

(As seen in Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine (Skipstone Press, 2010)

The taste of dandelion syrup reminds me of tangy lemongrass with honey. It’s a delicious treat drizzled on waffles, pancakes, berries, or baklava. Stir it into tea for a nutritious sweetener, or mix it with warm water until dissolved and add ice for a refreshing dande-lemonade. I’ve made this syrup with sugar and agave nectar. The latter gives the syrup a haylike overtone, reminiscent of a summer day lying in a field chewing on a spring of grass. Sugar gives the syrup a yanglike zing.

Yield: 1 ½ cups syrup


4 cups dandelion petals

4 cups water

½ organic lemon

2 cups sugar or agave nectar


In a medium stockpot bring the dandelion petals and water to a boil. Turn of the heat immediately. Let steep covered 8 hours or overnight.


Pour dandelion tea through a strainer to remove the petals. Press the pulp into the sieve with the back of a spoon or your hand – or ball up the mash like you are making a snowball and squeeze the last liquid out.


Measure the remaining dandelion tea. Add water if it is less than 4 cups and pour into a clean stockpot.


Slice lemon into rounds and remove seeds. Add lemon rounds and 2 cups of sweetener to stockpot. Stir well to dissolve sweetener. Simmer uncovered over low heat for 1 hour. As evaporation lowers the liquid level, lower the heat for a constant simmer. (A sugar-sweetened syrup will thicken faster than syrup sweetened with agave). After 1 hour, check the consistency by spooning a bit onto a plate and cooling it in the fridge for a few minutes. The syrup thickens as it cools, and it is ready if it beads up. If you like thinner syrup, reduce the cooking time; if you like a thick, honey-like consistency, cook 15 to 30 minutes more.


While it is still hot, strain the syrup through a fine sieve into jars. Set aside the “candied lemon wheels” on a plate to dry. Add them to hot tea or ice cream. Dandelion syrup will deep for six months or more in the fridge.


Get inspired with this 2:25 minute sample of what it’s like to forage with Jennifer Hahn.

Find more information on how to sign up for Wild Eats here.

foraged food Jennifer Hahn's websiteEat me. Photo by author.
Leading photo: Foragers become one with their chosen plants. Jennifer Hahn and broad-leaved foliage. Photo from Jennifer Hahn’s website.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Like a true nature’s child, she was born, born to be wild.


Migratory Birds Erica Keene

Taking Flight at the Migratory Bird Festival

May 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Field Excursions

By Erica Keene

Smiles, laughter and flapping arms – I mean, wings. Yes, wings. These were the best parts of a sun-filled weekend spent learning about migratory bird species during the fifth annual Migratory Bird Festival at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. On Saturday, April 26, over 120 participants took on the role of migratory birds to learn about the difficulties they face during their winged travels. Their goal? Get safely to their next stop along the migration route.

The first round was easy, no obstacles. In the second round, a hunter was introduced. With each successive round, migration became harder and harder. Habitats began to disappear. Predators started increasing and catching larger numbers of birds. Elders, teens and little ones alike all participated in this lively, competitive game to learn just how many challenges birds face when migrating long distances.

Migratory bird Erica KeeneYouth from Seattle Parks & Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities Program and the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program attempt to migrate safely to their next location while facing challenging obstacles such as hunters and habitat loss. Photo by author.

Groups rotated through three stations where they learned bird identification techniques, discovered ways to help conserve birds at home and participated in the ever-popular migration game. Each group adopted a bird for the day and spent time at each station learning fun facts about the Mallard, Rufous Hummingbird or the Killdeer. Some participants were even able to spot their bird during the bird identification station.

The day ended with students writing and decorating a postcard to be mailed to them in a few weeks’ time and with presentations on their adopted birds. Groups led interactive presentations on the Killdeer’s broken-wing display and the Rufous Hummingbird’s flight patterns while others absorbed the sunshine and listened.

eldersElders and youth from InterIm Community Development Association learn about migratory bird conservation. Photo by: Jim Chu, USFS.
Migratory Birds Erica KeeneOver 120 participants gathered on Saturday in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day at Camp Casey. Coupeville, WA. Photo by author.

A handful of regional community and environmental organizations participated in this event in celebration of International Migratory Bird Day, including Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities Program (O2), InterIm Community Development Association, North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures and the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program.

On Saturday evening, 23 youth from Seattle Parks & Recreation’s O2 program and InterIm Wilderness Inner-city Leadership Development (WILD) stayed the night at Camp Casey on Whidbey Island in anticipation of a Sunday stewardship project. Pacific Northwest Trail Association Intern, Noah Pylvainen, took students on a walk along the Pacific Northwest Trail and introduced students to the idea of long-distance backpacking.

Migratory bird fest AnekaYouth Leadership Adventures students showing off their migratory bird postcards. Photo by Aneka Singlaub.

The next morning, students loaded onto the bus for a short trip to Fort Ebey State Park. Upon arrival, Operations Manager Craig Holmquist from the National Park Service introduced them to Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve. Students were given a demonstration on how to use a weed wrench and learned to identify Scotch broom: a tall, quick-to-spread invasive weed. Their task? Pull as much Scotch broom as possible out of the ground in just under three hours. Many youth had been to this event the previous year and were eager to get started. They looked at the area they cleared last year and when they realized none of it had grown back, huge smiles spread across their faces as the impact they were making started to seem more of a reality. This year, inn less than three hours, 23 youth and their adult leaders cleared nearly an acre of the invasive, yellow-flowered plant, an act of stewardship that will be appreciated by native plant aficionados to come.

migratory bird Erica KeeneZheonte Payne, 15, and Seth Wendzel from O2 share a high five in celebration of removing a particularly large Scotch Broom plant.
migratory bird Erica KeeneAfter nearly three hours of grueling effort, youth celebrate the two trailer loads of Scotch Broom they removed from Fort Ebey State Park. Photo by author.
migratory bird Erica Keene Lewen Chen, 17, from InterIm WILD loads Scotch Broom into a trailer to be removed from Fort Ebey State Park.

Thank you to the US Forest Service, Ebey’s National Historical Reserve, Ebey’s Trust Board, National Park Service, Skagit Audubon Society, Whidbey Audubon Society and all other staff and volunteers who helped make this event possible. We could not have done it without you!

Leading photo: Ximena Beccera, age 9, from the Kulshan Creek Program, learns how to use a spotting scope for the first time at the bird identification station. 

Erica Keene is the Youth and Community Engagement Coordinator of the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.





Ready? Set? Go! Autumn!

October 25th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Signs of fall tend to be subtle around the Environmental Learning Center, in the plant world, at least: We live in a dense coniferous forest, so the landscape remains mostly a swath of green. But the traditional seasonal hues awaited Graduate Cohort 13 on the east side of the peaks during our recent tri-annual Natural History Retreat. This year’s Retreat was a tad abridged due to….politics such as, um, a government shut-down. We rerouted, replanned, and still managed to re-treat ourselves to the explosive rainbow of the dry side. Stoplight shades of red, yellow, and green were most prominent, punctuated by flaming peach from the turning leaves of Spirea and faded indigo from the last elderberries drooping on roadside canes (the berries were gone a month ago here in the wet west). A sampling of nature’s floral palette? Sure!


snow budAn unidentified twig with soft carmine growth buds pokes through the snow on Cutthroat Pass Trail.


IMG_6161These rose hips, a.k.a. the fruit of the rose flower, were some of the biggest, roundest, and reddest hips I’d ever seen. Notably high in vitamin C, the hips are dried and consumed in everything from puddings to tea to candy.

» Continue reading Ready? Set? Go! Autumn!

thirtymile memorial

The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology

October 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Terror surged silently through my viscera as I watched the swirling inferno twist red and merciless up the talus in the smoke-blackened darkness of night.

Trapped on a rocky, steep slope in a canyon without exit; that is how I would have perished had I been forced to make the same decision faced by five wildland firefighters in 2001. I had to control my breathing and disconnect myself from the story being read by our professor, Dr. John Miles, at the Thirtymile Fire Memorial up the Chewuch River Valley in Okanogan National Forest. Four of the five firefighters lost their lives in ways I dared not ponder while fleeing a storm of fire fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, and extreme drought. At the memorial, their faces stared smiling and youthful from the stone wall adorned with emblems, mementos and the remnants of weathered paper notes tucked under rocks of granite.

As graduate students, we were on our annual Fall Natural History Retreat, and this year found us traveling east to the Methow Valley to study both the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology. Before reading from John Maclean’s book, The Thirtymile Fire, Dr. Miles asked us what we would have done: taken cover in the stream or climbed high into the rocks? I chose the rocks, thinking that I would have been able to find a hole with enough depth in which to take refuge and preserve my life. I would have been wrong.

thirtymile memorialA patch from Whatcom County firefighters at the memorial site, weighted by two chunks of granite.

Fire: Prometheus’ great offering to humankind. Stolen from the gods and placed in our fragile hands of flesh and bone. Who knew what a frenemy we would find in the gift for which he paid such an eternal price? Our fear and fascination have persisted throughout time immemorial. Yet finding a balance between protection of property and fire’s greater purpose still mires our management practices.

Thirtymile exemplified a forest fire’s ability to be both a harbinger of deadly destruction and one of cleansing renewal. Charcoal and bone, the remnants of a once verdant forest protruded like skeletal fingers from the earth. The valley itself, however, was smeared with lime, gold, burgundy, rust and canary. Nature’s intrinsic instrumentation was evident. Fire swept away the abundant, dry understory. It ridded the land of pests and pestilence such as mountain pine beetle and laminated root rot. It held the key to unlock the serotinous cones of the lodgepole pine.

Then, from the ash, came Nature’s healers: lupine, fireweed and alder to fix nitrogen back into the soil and make way for the forest’s rebirth. The earth erupted in a symphony of color, drawing butterflies and hummingbirds. Dead tree trunks provided homes for invertebrates that became tasty snacks for woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Aspen, wild rose and other sun-loving species burst from the desolation, and among them began growing stout little conifers to begin the forest anew.

red barkRegeneration after fire: Aspen trees come in to a disturbed ecosystem early on and help fix nitrogen for the rest of the plant community, as well as offer important browse food for animals.

» Continue reading The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology


Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest

September 30th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Upcoming events:

North Cascades Institute’s Birds of Bellingham Bay outing on the Snow Goose; Oct. 5, 8 am-5 pm, $125. Info and registration at or (360) 854-2599

Sarah Swanson and Max Smith presentation at Village Books in Bellingham; Oct 2, 7 pm, free. Info at

Sarah Swanson and Max Smith, passionate birders living in Portland, have created a fantastic new natural history guidebook with Timber Press called Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest. Unlike other guides, Must-See Birds doesn’t attempt to describe every winged creature in our region but instead hones in on 85 species that provide a rich cross-section of the avian riches unique to Washington and Orgeon. Divided in to sections like “Beach Birds,” “Big Birds,” “Tree Trunk Birds” and “Urban Birds,” their tome tells the stories of each species, illustrated by sumptuous photographs and, most helpful, where to find them. It closes with eight distinct weekend birding trip itineraries, including “Nesting Season on the Central Oregon Coast,” “The Canyon Country of Central Washington” and “The Salish Sea in Winter.”

Swanson and Smith will bring their book to life when they join local bird authority Joe Meche to lead a day-long “Avifauna Afloat” exploration of Bellingham Bay aboard the Snow Goose with North Cascades Institute on October 5. We talked with them about Must-See Birds ahead of their visit.

Christian Martin:  How did you determine what birds in the Northwest are “must see”?

Sarah Swanson: The 85 birds in the book are ones that should excite birders and ones that they should be able to find and identify without too much trouble. We included species with interesting plumage and behavior and excluded ones that are too rare (Snowy Owl) or hard to identify for beginners (Pacific-slope Flycatcher).

CM: What is the larger goal of creating this guide?

SS: We want to get more people out birding and to help them expand their birding horizons geographically and taxonomically. The more that people enjoy birds and birding, the more they will do what they can to help protect birds and their habitats.

CM: What is unique about birds in our region?

» Continue reading Must-See Birds of the Pacific Northwest


Order of the Odonata

August 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

August 2nd through 4th, 16 participants, three Institute staff, and one instructor spent a wonderful weekend exploring the order of the Odonata. Due to cold and cloudy weather, we were unable to catch dragonflies and damselflies on Friday as planned. Instead, the class sat down for a presentation on these carnivorous insects given by instructor Dennis Paulson, who gave most of the Odonates their common names.

common spreadwing damselflyCommon Spreadwing Damselfly (Lestes disjunctus)
northern bluet damselflyNorthern Bluet Damselfly (Enallagma annexum)

» Continue reading Order of the Odonata