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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

bird fest 1

Fourth Annual Migratory Bird Festival at Whidbey Island

May 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Saturday, April 27th marked the fourth annual Migratory Bird Festival, a day that brought together 113 people of all ages at Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island. This celebration of spring and migrating birds was hosted by North Cascades Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the International District Housing Alliance, and the Mount Vernon Police Department. Despite overcast weather, the day turned out to be a huge success filled with games, exploration, and learning about the cultural and natural history of the area.

bird fest 2Youth Leadership Adventure students joined the International District group for a fun game about migration

One group consisted of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino elders from the International District in Seattle accompanied by youth who assisted by translating what was being said. The second group was Kulshan Creek, a group of enthusiastic kids from Mount Vernon who are primarily Hispanic and range from age 8-16 years old. The third group included high school students who will participate in North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures this summer.

bird fest 3The group circles up to learn about migratory birds in the Pacific Northwest

» Continue reading Fourth Annual Migratory Bird Festival at Whidbey Island

Poetic Reflections on the Nature of Meditation

December 22nd, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Over a crisp October weekend, the Learning Center was host to a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Taught by Zen teacher and author, Kurt Hoelting, and writing teacher and poet, Holly Hughes, participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center with Institute naturalists and graduate students.


 Above two photos: Participants getting comfortable for a writing session in the classroom. Photo by Holly Hughes
Cohort 11 graduate student, Erin Soper, leading a naturalist walk through the woods. Photo by Holly Hughes

Following, are some pieces that came out of the class:

Bob Hicks

The bell’s clang
births a precise circle,
multiplying instantly into brassy rings
that spread out,
imitating the round wake
of a drop plunged through pond surface.

The bell washes
around tree trunks, birdbaths and homes,
over yards, asphalt, hills and water.
Then at some unknown point
the metallic circles retreat,
receding incrementally,
and collapsing
to that infinitesimal single speck
at which all things disappear.


» Continue reading Poetic Reflections on the Nature of Meditation

Journey through the Arctic with Debbie Miller

October 16th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

North Cascades Institute presents “Journey through the Arctic with Debbie Miller:” A multimedia presentation and book release party
Wed, October 17: Walton Theatre at the Mount Baker Theatre, Bellingham, 7pm
Thurs, October 18: Skagit Transit Hub, Mount Vernon, 7 pm
No advanced tickets required; donations accepted at door. Details at

Debbie Miller is on a mission.

Having spent considerable time in the far reaches of Arctic Alaska, she’s found a wilderness wonderland that most of us have never heard of. It is a landscape of superlative natural riches — the largest herd of caribou in America, the highest concentration of grizzly bears in the Arctic, millions of nesting migratory birds, beluga whales, polar bears, walruses, salmon, spotted seals, the list goes on and on. It is, like most untouched places, under threat of resource extraction and industrialization, and that is where Miller’s mission comes in to focus: spreading the gospel about this unspoiled terrain that belongs to each and every American.

So, why haven’t most of us heard about this special place? Call it bad branding.

“The National Petroleum Reserve” is not a name that inspires wonder and awe. It sounds like the place you’d stop to fill up the gas tank on your way to the much more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which lies to the east.

And yet, this reserve — larger than the state of Maine, ten times as big as Yellowstone National Park — is the largest unit of public lands in the US. Its 23 million acres are home to the largest river (Colville) and lake (Teshekpuk) in Arctic Alaska, the aforementioned riches of wildlife and migratory bird habitat, the most prolific site of dinosaur fossils of any polar region on earth and more than 10,000 years of native inhabitation and history.

It also, not surprisingly, holds oil and natural gas resources, and neighbors the 1000-square-mile industrial oil-field development of Prudhoe Bay and other North Slope complexes.

While there are designated “special areas” within the Reserve  — denoting exceptional wildlife, recreational, subsistence, historical and scenic values — not a single acre has permanent protection.

Miller’s new book On Arctic Ground: Tracking Time Through Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve aims to change that. She is traveling around the country giving multimedia presentations that combine photography, soundscapes, scientific findings and storytelling, bringing her journeys through the Reserve to life.

She hopes to win over the hearts and minds of Americans, introduce them to this hidden gem and inspire actions towards protecting the best, most profound places within the Reserve.

» Continue reading Journey through the Arctic with Debbie Miller

Butterflies and Bee Bowls – Citizen Science in the North Cascades

October 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Now that it is autumn, I find myself reflecting on all of the incredible Citizen Science opportunities of this past summer season. I remember that with summer came the presence of some of the most beautiful creatures – butterflies! The Cascades Butterfly Project is just one of North Cascades Institute’s numerous Citizen Science projects that are presented in conjunction with North Cascades National Park Complex (NOCA) for individuals interested in assisting in valuable scientific research and giving back to their public lands through volunteer work.

During the height of this past summer, Cascades Butterfly Project volunteers participated in a free training that focused on identification and introduced them to the most common species of butterflies found in the North Cascades. After the initial training, everyone went outside to test some of the field research techniques in order to get comfortable with the process. Then, throughout the summer, happy volunteers were out walking transect lines to collect data at various locations throughout NOCA and Mount Rainier National Park (MORA).

In early August, I had the chance to participate in one of these butterfly field days at Cascade Pass. It just happened to be one of those days in the North Cascades that turns out to be absolutely perfect! Great weather, sunshine, low wind, and, to top it all off, really awesome people. The process of identifying butterflies while they are “on the wing” is actually quite fun, and the butterfly researchers from the Park were able to do it with no problem. There were two groups of us walking a transect line that follows the Sahale Arm Trail, butterfly nets in hand, making an entertaining spectacle of ourselves for fellow hikers! The first group saw 18 butterflies and the second group found 23! Most of them were only identified to species, but that alone can tell us so much.

» Continue reading Butterflies and Bee Bowls – Citizen Science in the North Cascades

Bird Migrations at Ebey’s Landing

April 29th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

This past Earth Day Weekend, the North Cascades Institute hosted the 3rd Anuual Migratory Bird Festival! The event was sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and brought people together from across western Washington for a day to explore the natural history of migratory birds and the cultural heritage of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

Students and elders from Seattle’s International District, Mt. Vernon’s Kulshan Creek Neighborhood, and North Cascade Institute’s NC Wild 2012 program joined together to celebrate and learn about birds by migrating through four different educational stations.

Participants dined on a multicultural feast featuring Chinese food from Seattle’s International District and homemade Mexican tamales and sopes from Yolanda Zamora of Mt. Vernon. Delicious!

The first station was the Sea Lab, where students and elders could see, touch, and learn about some of the marine invertebrates that help fuel the birds’ migratory journeys along the Pacific flyway. This hands-on lesson covered the basics of the ecology and dynamic interplay between Puget Sound’s marine life and the migratory birds that utilize northwest marine ecosystems in order to complete part of their journey.

Graduate student Jacob Belsher teaches students all about the joys of being a moonsnail.

» Continue reading Bird Migrations at Ebey’s Landing

Following the Snowy Owls

March 19th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Since first moving to the Environmental Learning Center last August, many people have told me, “You must go see the snowy owls!” This advice has been on my radar since migratory birds began returning to their winter feeding grounds in the Skagit Valley. Who are these snowy owls that everybody speaks of? After doing some research, I learned that not only were these birds magnificent and beautiful creatures, but that this was an unusual year for the North American Snowy Owl. This year is known as an “irruption” year. An irruption is caused by a shortage in the Artic lemming population in the Arctic Tundra of Canada. As a result, snowy owls, whose primary food source are lemmings, must travel in search of additional food and can be found as far south as the United States. This event occurs every four to seven years as predator-prey dynamics change, and in those years snowy owls can be found in hospitable places like Boundary Bay Park in southern British Columbia and occasionally along the Skagit Flats in Washington. The owls are expected to return north sometime this month.

In anticipation of their departure, I knew a trip over the border to Boundary Bay had to be made. The snowy owls were also spotted just north of Bellingham at Sandy Point, but the word on the birder streets was that it was possible to see 20 to 30 of them at once in British Columbia. So we chose to cross over, and the adventure was well worth it.

Here are some pictures from our wondrous day with the snowy owls.

Just off of 72nd Street in Delta, BC, we were lucky enough to witness about 25 snowy owls hanging out along the dyke path in Boundary Bay Park.
These large owls breed in the Artic Tundra, and as you can tell by their unmistakable white plumage they probably blend in very well up there. Females and juveniles are more heavily marked than males. Adult males can be almost pure white.

» Continue reading Following the Snowy Owls