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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!

Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

October 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Hanna Davis, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

There are various facets to graduate life at North Cascades Institute: taking classes, a teaching practicum, work study positions. And throughout every aspect, nearly every assignment of my residency this past year, a common theme has appeared: climate change. Specifically, how do we, as environmental educators, talk about climate change? It’s a topic that comes up so continuously in my work here that hardly a day goes by that I’m not talking about how to talk about climate change. So naturally, my natural history project is all about how we can improve climate literacy, specifically here at NCI.

If you’ve gotten a chance to look at NCI’s new Strategic Plan, you may have noticed the goal to “Strengthen the Institute’s impact and meet the needs of diverse communities by pursuing new opportunities for programs, partners and audiences [by]…integrating and expanding climate literacy throughout Institute programs.” Now, a strategic plan may seem like a mundane obligatory document, but if you can get past the admittedly dry language, you’ll find the heart of NCI: these are the values we believe in, the goals we strive for. So by including climate change literacy in this plan, we are saying: this work is crucial.

» Continue reading Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

September 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Sarah Clement, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Transference is a concept that often comes up in discussion among environmental educators. How do we, as educators, help our students make connections between their experiences with us in “nature” and their daily lives? We teach out students about the North Cascades ecosystem, but we want them to make connections between what they learn about the mountains to what they already know about their homes. We want them to understand that an ecosystem functions in the North Cascades in the same way that ecosystems in and around their home communities function. Above all, we want our students to understand that even though they traveled hours to reach Mountain School, they don’t have to do so to find the importance and wonder of natural spaces.

As human population growth continues to explode around the world, more people are migrating to urban areas. Over 80% of the population of the United States already lives in urban areas, and the influx of people to cities continues to grow. Washington State is no exception to these trends. As of 2016, our population has grown to well over seven million people. Most of the increase comes from people migrating from out of state to large urban areas along the Interstate 5 corridor in the western half of the state. With this population growth comes increased urbanization: more land is being converted to urban infrastructure. Wild habitats are being fragmented or drastically altered in the process.

» Continue reading Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

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

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

What is a Leadership Track?

May 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

As a current graduate student in the M.Ed. residency program at North Cascades Institute, I and the rest of my cohort, will soon celebrate the end of our spring quarter here in the North Cascades. Our residency at NCI has engaged us deeply with the natural and cultural history of the area through place-based and experiential learning courses and quarterly field studies in the Methow Valley. We have had room to grow as educators, designing curriculum and instructing Mountain School to elementary, middle and high school students across the state. We have learned the inner workings of nonprofit administration under the guidance of Executive Director, Saul Weisberg, and various NCI staff members. With these four quarters completed, the final stage of our time here in the North Cascades is our Leadership Track.

What is a Leadership Track?
Leadership Tracks are the culminating residency experience, serving as an avenue for practicing leadership skills in a professional setting. These summer internships generally fall in a content area that students are interested in pursuing beyond the graduate program. Content areas currently include curriculum and/or program design and implementation, administrative duties, outdoor and environmental education, food sustainability, stewardship projects, and youth mentorship. A $2,500 leadership fellowship is awarded upon completion of the final quarter of the residency portion of the program.

Last year, the 15th graduate cohort filled Leadership Track positions all over the Cascade region. While most of our graduate work throughout the year focuses on programming here at NCI, our Leadership Track position offers us the opportunity to work with different agencies and organizations in the local area. They also allow graduate students to engage with diverse participant audiences or groups that they may wish to pursue working with in the future.

» Continue reading What is a Leadership Track?