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Growing Roots In The Mountain

November 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News


Guest post by Lauren Danner, historian and writer.

Lauren Danner

The North Cascades have been the focus of Lauren Danner’s research and writing for more than 15 years. While she knows the park intimately on paper and through the memories of those involved in its creation, the Environmental Learning Center creative residency allowed her an opportunity for in-depth exploration of the American Alps, creating a greater physical and emotional connection with the mountains that will resonate authentically in her forthcoming book, Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Parks, soon to be published by WSU Press. Lauren is a former college instructor, museum director, and field coordinator of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial in Washington. The following post has been taken from her website, wildernesswithinher.com, where she writes about the North Cascades, national parks, and wilderness. 

Today is my last full day in the North Cascades, where I’ve spent three weeks as a creative resident at the North Cascade Institute’s Environmental Learning Center (ELC). As I’ve written before, my plan was to hike, write, and soak in the North Cascades, which have been the focus of my research and writing for more than 15 years.

I am simultaneously content that I’ve accomplished my mission and a bit sad to be leaving this remarkable place.

Here’s what a typical day looked like.

I wake up in Diablo, a company town owned by Seattle City Light, which runs the Skagit Hydroelectric Project that provides 20 percent of Seattle’s electricity. The house I’m in is scheduled to be “deconstructed” (a more polite term than “demolished,” I guess) so it’s pretty bare bones.

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Company house in Diablo. Mine is the one on the far right, next to the water tower. Photo by Lauren Danner

In fact, if it weren’t for my housemates, there wouldn’t be much there but beds and a dining room table. But I’ve won the roommate lottery. I’m sharing with staff members Travis, a smiling 30-something uber-athlete and poetic free spirit who works as a naturalist, and Mike, a cerebral student of Marxist economic theory and Magic (the game, not the hobby) who applies his interest in food justice to his work in the ELC’s kitchen as a baker. He uses his sourdough starter to tasty effect, and we’ve enjoyed his bread — and his TV. My first night (and let’s face it, I wasn’t sure how these two would respond to a middle-aged historian being plunked into their midst) we watched Dead Poets Society, squished together on the ancient couch, and I figured everything would be all right.

Each morning, I either drive a few miles or walk to the ELC over the Diablo Dam trail, a short (1.5 miles) path that wakes me up better than coffee.

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Part of the incline railway visible from the Diablo Dam trail. The picture doesn’t do justice to the steep 34.2 degree grade. Photo by Lauren Danner

The first half is long, rocky switchbacks up the side of a low ridge on Sourdough Mountain, where Beat poet Gary Snyder worked as a fire lookout in the 1950s. (The trail to the top of the mountain is known as one of the hardest in in the park, gaining 5,000′ of elevation in five steep miles. Travis makes a point of hiking it once a week.)

» Continue reading Growing Roots In The Mountain

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2016 Northwest Leadership Youth Conference: Leaders In Action

November 20th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Fun activities. Good food. Hands-on learning. Passionate discussion. A surprise visit from Sally Jewell. The newly-named Northwest Youth Leadership Summit included all of this, and more.

This conference, now in its seventh year, is for young adults in the Pacific Northwest who have participated in at least one outdoor program and want to stay involved. This year brought a new name, length, and location: 200 people – students and adults – gathered at The Mountaineers in Seattle on October 22, 2016 for a day of making connections, learning new skills, and having fun. Students arrived representing over 15 organizations and came from hometowns all over western Washington and northern Oregon.

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Students gathered in Summit Groups to discuss goals for the day. Photo by Jodi Broughton

The change from a smaller, three-day event at the Environmental Learning Center to a larger, one-day event in Seattle was a collaborative effort with The Mountaineers, the National Park Service, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, and the North Cascades Institute to make broader connections between students in outdoor organizations across the Northwest. Hosting the summit in a more central location for a shorter time frame enabled many more students to participate.

The day was packed full with activities. After breakfast and a welcome from student emcees Thien and Logan, the students met in small Summit Groups to discuss their goals and plans for the Summit. Two Breakout Sessions – hour-long workshops on various topics– were held before lunch. Students learned basic rock climbing skills, received tips on writing resumes, and delved into complex climate issues. One student wrote, “[The supportive leader session] was the most valuable because I got to explore more formally what it means to be a servant leader. I identified myself as a servant leader, as well as found truth in my new formed opinion that a leader is not a good one unless they are a servant leader.” Another student appreciated some of the skills emphasized in the Breakout Sessions: “The resume session was the most valuable [to me] because I am beginning to think about college, so I will take any tips I can when it comes to applications and interviews.”

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Students learn the basics of rock climbing during a Breakout Session. Photo by Jodi Broughton
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Outside activities during a Breakout Session. Photo by Michael Telstad

» Continue reading 2016 Northwest Leadership Youth Conference: Leaders In Action

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Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

November 17th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program


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Hello everyone! We are moving towards the end of fall and the beginning of winter in the Skagit Valley.  The leaves are falling from the trees here at Lake Diablo. As the days march slowly towards December we see the seasons changing all around us. The sun rises later in the morning and disappears behind the mountains early in the afternoon. The maple trees are close to bare. The Skagit gorge is awash with new cascades bolstered with fall rain.

Phenology at the ELC
What is phenology? Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal changes in nature, especially in regards to climate, plants, and animals. At the Environmental Learning Center and the Marblemount NCI property (the Blue House) we have several phenology plots that grads and staff regularly observe.  We engage with phenology in the graduate program by conducting weekly plot checks on a weekly basis. Here are some notable changes that we have recorded in some of the plants at the ELC:

A Pacific Flowering Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) near Sourdough Creek displayed its dramatic transition with vibrant colors.
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» Continue reading Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

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Ecological Design: The Blue House Project

October 30th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Guest post by Faren Worthington and Oliver Osnoss. Faren and Oliver were participants of the North Cascades Institute Creative Residency program. Their residency lasted six weeks and in that time, they worked closely with the NCI community to create an ecological development plan for the Blue House property in Marblemount.

We came to NCI from Massachusetts where we both recently graduated from The Conway School, a graduate program in ecological design and planning. This creative residency was an opportunity for us to practice our craft in collaboration with an organization whose educational mission is well-aligned with our work. By working on an ecological landscape design, we learned about the region’s ecology and communities in a unique and powerful way.

There’s a housing shortage in the upper Skagit Valley where North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center is located. NCI tries to provide housing for many of their staff and students. In 2014, they purchased the Blue House in Marblemount to address the need for housing. Since then, the Blue House has been home to staff, students, a vegetable farm, and even some livestock. The 7.7-acre property is located at the confluence of Diobsud Creek and the Skagit River where it is also home to wildlife including osprey, salmon, and black bear. The confluence is a dynamic place that changes as creek and river flows fluctuate. Both people and animals are attracted to it. Strict restrictions on development throughout Skagit County (primarily the moratorium on drilling new wells or changing the use of existing wells) exacerbate the housing shortage in the area. These restrictions are driven in part by a need to conserve natural resources such as salmon habitat.

NCI is currently seeking funding to develop the Blue House property by constructing an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) to house five additional people. They are also considering future construction of a private developed campground for temporary housing. NCI needs a plan for ecological development that is consistent with their mission. The product of our creative residency was a pair of conceptual landscape designs published in a document titled Blue House Site Designs: Conceptual Plans for Ecological Development. The document summarizes the project and is intended to serve as a tool in NCI’s decision-making process. During the project, we gave a series of presentations, facilitated community meetings, and taught an Ecological Design Workshop to share our process and invite feedback on our work. A second, unanticipated outcome of this creative residency has been a community-building process. Many participating members of the NCI community have grown more knowledgeable and engaged in stewarding the development of the property.

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NCI staff and students practiced ecological design in a workshop held at the Blue House. Photo by Joshua Porter

The project started with a goals articulation process in which we met with members of NCI’s leadership to learn about the organization’s needs and interviewed many others about their vision for the future of the property. We distilled three project goals:

  1. Provide additional housing for NCI staff and students.
  2. Create community and educational spaces.
  3. Improve farm and garden workspaces.

» Continue reading Ecological Design: The Blue House Project

Mtn School Nat Geo Oct 2016

Mountain School in National Geographic magazine

October 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

We are thrilled to have been included in Tim Egan’s cover story for the October 2016 issue of National Geographic!

“In early fall I went to North Cascades National Park — the American Alps, chock-full of glaciers containing the frozen memories of wet winters past. A bundle of high peaks in Washington State, the park is one of the most remote places in the contiguous 48 states and also one of the least visited parks. But here, deep in the forested embrace of the upper Skagit River Valley, you can find the next two generations of Americans getting to know a national park. I heard hooting like owls and howling like wolves, coming from a circle of fifth graders and their wilderness instructors. The kids were from Birchwood Elementary in Bellingham, Washington, a school where almost half the students are nonwhite and most had never been in a national park. They were there for Mountain School, three days in outdoor immersion run by the North Cascades Institute. Their guides—staff naturalists, park rangers, graduate students—were all millennials. Without exception, the instructors thought the concern about their generation’s attachment to the land was valid, but overstated.

“It’s not like all of a sudden people are going to stop loving nature,” said Emma Ewert, who had gone to Mountain School and returned as an instructor. “But you do need the exposure, the fun of playing in the woods.” For that, perhaps, we should look to today’s parents, those afraid to let their children wander a little bit on their own.

The institute’s co-founder and executive director, Saul Weisberg, is a self-described Jewish kid from New York by way of Cleveland. He’s 62 now, wiry, with a bounce to his step. He learned to love the parks from his family, camping in a tent not unlike the one my folks used. He became a seasonal ranger at North Cascades and noticed a troubling pattern among visitors. “I don’t think I ever saw a person of color in the backcountry,” he said. He started Mountain School in 1990, partnering with the Park Service. About 3,000 students a year go through the program.

Though these kids lived only two hours or so away, this park was a strange new world for them. Many said it was the first time they’d been off the electronic leash of a family smartphone. “They have a very short attention span,” Ewert said.

At Mountain School, the instructors note changes in behavior over the few days the kids spend in the forest. They start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’ ” said Carolyn Hinshaw, a teacher at Birchwood.

The parks director, Jarvis, is a big fan of Mountain School and similar programs, like Nature Bridge, which brings 30,000 students every year to a half dozen national parks. But he cautions that one visit does not a park lover make. “Something clicks, a light goes on, just by having some exposure,” he said. “I think it takes three touches for someone to change. A great first impression, but no follow-through, is not enough.” What’s needed, he said, is a broad cultural shift—a return, of sorts, to a time when outdoor exposure was a basic nutrient of American life.”

Read the rest of “Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?” at www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/10/unplugging-the-selfie-generation-national-parks.

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Graduation 2016: C14’s Grand Finale

March 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Phenology, or the study of natural cycles, is a constant part of life at the North Cascades Institute. We dive deep into when the first buds appear on trees, what bird songs we can here in that season and the height of all of the flowing water in the area. This year two of the largest, and most celebrated, phenological events at the Institute were the capstones and graduation of the 14th graduate cohort obtaining their Master’s in Outdoor Environmental Education with certificates in Non-profit Leadership Administration and Northwest Natural History.

Back in the summer of 2014, Cohort 14 (or better known as C14!) was born. These individuals then spent a year at the Institute’s Environmental Learning Center located on Diablo Lake, WA learning and teaching about the natural landscape. They then finished their degrees at Western Washington University.

Each of the nine cohort members poured their passion into their studies and made a permanent impact at the Institute. Their grand finale was giving their capstone presentations from March 15th-March 17th where staff, professors, family and Cohort 15 gathered to listen to the wise words from C14.

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Kevin Sutton

Kevin Earhart Sutton gave his capstone on Perceptions in (Outdoor) Education: Using openness and vulnerability as learning tools. In his presentation he discussed the “masks” that we all wear and how outdoor education can be a tool to help empower people to take control of the masks they wear each day. Examples of masks include proficiency, extravertedness and stubbornness.

» Continue reading Graduation 2016: C14’s Grand Finale

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Celebrating 30 & 100 Years Birthdays!

March 9th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

As we ready for our 30th spring and summer of offering outdoor explorations and learning adventures in the North Cascades, we acknowledge another important anniversary too: the Centennial of the National Park Service! On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that created the agency that today stewards 410 units, of which 59 are national parks. We are fortunate in Washington State to have three of the best ones! Learn more at nps.gov/2016 and findyourpark.com.

We’ll be celebrating this important milestone this year by co-presenting Terry Tempest Williams reading from her new book The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks at the Mount Baker Theater on June 15 and hosting a free Anniversary Picnic at the Learning Center on July 17. North Cascades National Park has a slate of special offerings too, including a NatGeo Centennial BioBlitz May 20-21 and a Centennial Photo Scavenger Hunt; learn more on their website.

In other news, we just opened for registration two dozen more Learning Center classes and Field Excursions on our website, including Hart’s Pass Wildflowers, Backpacking for Women, Hawkwatching at Chelan Ridge, Ross Lake Canoe Adventure and several photography and geology classes. We are also signing folks up for Family Getaways, Base Camp (check out our new online calendar of available dates) and Skagit Tours. View the calendar below to see what’s coming up, visit ncascades.org/get_outside or call our friendly registrars at (360) 854-2599 for more information and to sign up.

2016 Learning Adventures: Now Registering!

April 22-24: Ross Lake Revealed: Exploring the Drawdown by Canoe
April 29-May 1: Skagit Canoe Adventure
May 7-8: Exploring Yellow and Jones Islands by Boat and Boot
May 8: Snakes and Amphibians of the Methow Valley
May 14-15: Exploring Sucia Island by Boat and Boot
May 20-22: Stewardship Weekend at the Learning Center
May 27-29: Blockprinting and Bookbinding
May 28: Sauk Mountain Wildflowers
June 3-5: Wild Edibles on Lopez Island
June 3-5: Spring Birding East and West of the Cascades
June 10-12: Watercolors in the North Cascades
June 10-12: Adventures NW Photography Workshop
June 18: Geology: Cinder Cones and Crater Lakes of Mt. Baker
June 24-26: The Artful Map
July 1-3: Fourth of July Family Getaway
July 8-10: Best Hikes of the Cascades I
July 8-10: Beaver Ecology in the Methow

Many more classes, pricing and registration at ncascades.org/get_outside >>

Teacher clock hours, scholarships, student and military discounts and academic credit may be available >>