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Place-based Learning Course: Paddling the Skagit River

October 16th, 2017 | Posted by in Field Excursions

In August, my cohort and I began our 7-quarter educational journey of earning our Master of Education degree. We are the 17th Cohort of students in the Graduate M.Ed Residency program through the North Cascades Institute and the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.

Before beginning our year-long residency at the Learning Center, we engage with the natural and cultural histories of the North Cascades region through field excursions. This intensive six-week course includes canoeing on the Skagit River, learning about local communities and sustainable agriculture, hiking in alpine areas, cohort community formation and a culminating 10-day wilderness backpacking experience. 

Below are pictures from the paddling portion of our Place-based Learning Field Course, along with excerpts from our group journal. Enjoy!

Big Canoe and Community August 9, 2017:

“With a little less smoke in the sky, Cohort 17 loaded into the Salish Dancer for a paddling orientation to Diablo Lake and the surrounding area. Before the canoe left the dock, we heard and saw two peregrine falcons – the fastest member of the animal kingdom – amongst the rocky cliffs of Sourdough Mountain.

The Cohort paddled through the Strait of Juan de P’orca up to the Skagit Gorge, stopping at Hidden Cove for lunch and a quick swim. Upon return to the boom around 1pm, the notorious afternoon winds picked up. Joshua described the winds as the mountains breathing.” – Rachael Grasso

Canoe Training on Diablo – August 16, 2017

“Today was a kind of grab bag, starting with some canoe training on Diablo Lake. Towards the end, it turned a bit dicey as the wind whipped up and caused quite the commotion on the water.” – Tanner Johnson

Learning how to properly carry canoes.

Day One on the Skagit – August 17, 2017

All smiles the first day!

“This afternoon we started our paddle down the Skagit River. After some last minute skills and safety instruction, we set off from the Blue House in Marblemount. Four hours later, we made it 12 miles down river and came to rest at Rockport. Along the way, we learned to eddy out, we traversed several sets of 1 and 2 rapids, and saw an amazing variety of wildlife.

Despite some valiant efforts, no one tipped over. Our chance to practice technique rescues will have to wait for another day.”

Day Two – August 19, 2017

Teamwork makes the dream work!

“The day was spent on the river floating (aka hard paddling!) down to Rasar State Park. It was inspiring to see our entire cohort working so hard even when our bodies were aching. In total, we paddled 22 miles!!! Along the way we saw a great many wonderful sights: a bald eagle eating a dead salmon, an osprey diving into the river on a hunt, many animal tracks in the mud (mink, river otter).” – Charlee Corra

Day Three – August 20, 2017

“Nested within the Skagit’s current, we travel as if a migration of waterfowl; calling to one another in formation and in floundering. What once began of the narrowly formed channel of our new home has opened expansively as valley, field and flood plain. Today’s mileage: 24.” – Zoe Wadkins

Day Four – August 23, 2017

“Today was our fourth day paddling on the Skagit, and our mileage count has now reached roughly 75 miles. Early in the day a juvenile bald eagle circled overhead of our canoes, which some people took as a good omen for the day. We noticed a “Sun-dog” encircling the sun, this phenomena appears as a perfect circular rainbow around the sun, and according to Dan (Dubie – Cohort 16) signifies there are ice crystals high up in the atmosphere.”

Launching off a gravel bar into the river.

“Along with flattening landscape came more clear signs of human development. We passed under I5 and heard the thundering sounds of cars traveling 70 miles per hour… A salmon so large jumped out of the water that Kira was convinced it was a shark. Soon we entered agricultural land; tonight we are camped at Viva Farms.” – Nate Tranche

Day Five – August 26, 2017

“Traveling the extent of a river by canoe was a spiritual and gentle way of moving. It allowed us to really see the landscape and experience such an incredibly diverse region. Along this journey, we also got to know the landscape of our cohort, all the tears and giggles, along with the acknowledgement of what is still to come. I have so much confidence in our group and look forward to understanding more about what Larry Campbell means by dig deep.” – Ashley Hill

Cohort 17 standing shin-deep in the Salish Sea after 80+ miles of paddling from freshwater to saltwater!
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Wildlife Encounters In The Methow: A Natural History Intensive

November 8th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Chompers and Lewisa, the new beaver residents of Beaver Creek, quickly became much more active as their wire cages were placed in the cold creek, splashing about and looking to explore. The beavers looked on disdainfully as we humans created a small dam in the creek, to give them a suggestion of where to build their new home. We then opened their cages and they immediately swam out, eagerly exploring their new territory.

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The NCI graduate cohort was on our Fall Natural History Intensive. We spent a week in the Methow Valley, observing classes at Classroom in Bloom (a community garden that works in conjunction with the Methow Public Schools) visiting salmon restoration sites, printmaking, and continuing our coursework. On this day, we had the opportunity to help out with the Methow Beaver Project. We had started the day at the Winthrop Hatchery, where beavers from the Methow Valley Restoration Project were held in the time between being removed from problematic areas (areas where beaver dams would flood homes or buildings) and being moved to new homes where the ponds they create would benefit the entire ecosystem. Beaver ponds not only create vital open habitat that increase biodiversity, they also act as a storage area for fresh water, decreasing flood possibility, decreasing erosion, and recharging water aquifers.

» Continue reading Wildlife Encounters In The Methow: A Natural History Intensive

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Snakes, Amphibians and a whole lot of learning!

May 23rd, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Editor’s Note: Do not attempt to capture any wildlife, especially snakes. This class was done with trained professionals who kept all participants safe with decades of experience.

As a graduate student at the North Cascades Institute, most of my experience in environmental education over the past year has been teaching fifth graders in Mountain School and graduate natural history retreat classes. Earlier this month I got to experience a whole new side to environmental education at the institute: adult field classes.

Designed to get students of all ages (10-110) into the outdoors, these excursions happen all over the greater North Cascades bio-region. On Mother’s Day I went over to the Methow Valley to help John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin, district biologists, with the Snakes and Amphibians of the Methow Valley class.

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John Rohrer, District Biologist for Methow Valley Ranger District in National Forest.

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Scott Fitkin, District Wildlife Biologist for Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

» Continue reading Snakes, Amphibians and a whole lot of learning!

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Listening to Coyote

May 13th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Emily Ford, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

After a rainy and dark winter, I’ve started to recognize the North Cascades as I remember them when I arrived last summer. Pyramid Mountain’s East wing is shaking off the snow, reminding me of summer as if it were an old friend. Soon again, Pyramid will be the snowless, chiseled, gray spire that taunted my stout climbing heart, and proved to me that its summit remains sacred beyond tired muscles, novice skills and terminal daylight. It is no longer capped by cornices like ice cream cone swirls that soften its thrust into the clouds. Pyramid stands out along the Diablo Lake skyline once more, and reminds me how deeply at home I have become.

Ok I got a little carried away. This blog is not about the North Cascades. In fact, I desperately needed to leave. I needed to go back to the desert, where I’ve returned to backpack and guide river trips for many years. When water has been scorned in the Northwest for being too much, the water in the desert is praised – and as Edward Abbey notes – exactly the right amount. Which is hilarious because it was 90 degrees in Seattle, but it rained every day, and even hailed, during my spring break trip in the Canyonlands.

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Eating dinner in a slickrock alcove, I watched a storm approach at sunset.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Shadows danced among the spires creating quite the dinner theater.

» Continue reading Listening to Coyote

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Cascadian Farm: It all started in the Skagit!

May 10th, 2016 | Posted by in Field Excursions

While shopping around your local grocery store, you might have seen projects in the organic section with the brand title “Cascaidan Farm Organic: Founded in the Skagit Valley, WA since 1972.” The products can be found in stores nation wide. Last week, however, I took a bicycling adventure to the Roadside Stand of the farm. It serves not only as a great place to get snacks on a long road trip, but also serves as an environmental education tool in the valley.

I’ll let them tell their founding story:

The story of Cascadian Farm begins with the story of our founder, Gene Kahn. 40 years ago, Gene was an idealistic 24-year old grad-school dropout from Chicago, who just wanted to make a difference in the world. He recognized the delicate balance between nature and humans. Inspired by reading “Silent Spring” and “Diet For A Small Planet”, Gene wanted to go back to the land and farm in a way that would not harm the natural beauty of the earth or her inhabitants. So he set out to farm organically on a little stretch of land next to the Skagit River in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. –Cascadian Farm

That farm grew and grew over the years into the powerhouse it is today. You can take a virtual tour of their whole farm to see how they work in and with the landscape.

My little excursion started last Saturday in the bright, sunny afternoon. Biking about eight miles from the Blue House Farm, I reminisced on my first experience with stand; last summer within the first few weeks of my graduate residency. Since it is closed during the winter months, I peddled with great anticipation to experience Cascadian Farm again.

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Blue Berries not quite ready to be picked.

» Continue reading Cascadian Farm: It all started in the Skagit!

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Creating Tradition: Sixth Annual Migratory Bird Festival

May 7th, 2016 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Any cool event can happen once. Maybe twice. After so many years the “just a cool idea” starts to be folded into the fabric of a community. Hosted by the U.S. Forest Service at Ebey’s Landing National Historical Park with support from all the following partners, the Migratory Bird Festival is becoming one of the newest traditions in the Northwest Region.

Partners of the Migratory Bird Festival
National Park Service
International District Housing Alliance
Mount Vernon Police Department
Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington
North Cascades Institute

Three groups of learners ranging in ages of 5 to 85 descended on Fort Casey at Ebey’s Landing National Reserve near Coupleville, WA for two days of learning, service and fun on April 30, 2016.

The Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program is a year-round educational program that engages young people ages 5 to 18 from two Skagit Valley neighborhoods in a series of monthly field trips to explore the outdoors and learn about our local watersheds.
Outdoor Opportunities is an outdoor expedition program designed to expose multi-ethnic teens (ages: 14-19) to environmental education, urban conservation and stewardship in the Seattle area.
InterIm Wilderness Inner-City Leadership Development (WILD) is a youth leadership program that provides opportunities for wilderness and inner city environmental education and leadership skills development.

Joining the youth were parents of the Kulshan Creek students and elders of the InterIm WILD community.

» Continue reading Creating Tradition: Sixth Annual Migratory Bird Festival

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Sharing Home: Three days of adventure in Washington

May 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Having moved into the North Cascades Eco-region in July for the graduate residency program, these mountains are finally starting to feel like home. Month after month I have been engaged in the cycle of the seasons, the habits of natural neighbors and the rhythms of the Skagit. So when I knew my family was coming for only a three day visit, I panicked. How can I show them all that I have learned about this amazing place in only three days? I couldn’t, and I didn’t, but we crammed as much as we could and went to four main locations for an amazing adventure: around the Environmental Learning Center, the Methow Valley, the Salish Sea and the City of Seattle.

While my family feels at home in the outdoors, Washington is a completely different beast than our wilderness. Coming all the way from Pittsburgh, PA my parents (Kurt and Pam) and older sister (Abby) reminded me of my general first reaction when I arrived: “Washington is just like Pennsylvania, except exaggerated. The mountains are higher, the rivers purer and the trees much, much taller.” My mother even remarked that it was as if I was living in a fairy tale, the scenery taken right out of a book.

Our first stop on this fairy tale adventure was a place I don’t even notice anymore. On my daily commute to work I drive past the Gorge Creek Falls, an amazing 242 ft. cascade. Since I see it every day, it fell into the backdrop of the commute. Only when my family was seeing it with new eyes, did I stop and remember how beautiful of a place I get to study in.

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Dad enjoying the view at Gorge Creek Falls.

» Continue reading Sharing Home: Three days of adventure in Washington