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Red Moons, Meteors and Mars! Oh My!

April 17th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Kaci Darsow

By one thirty in the morning, my beer was empty, my hands were numb and the dimly lit but distinctively red moon was sinking fast into the trees, making it difficult to view from my porch. Though the astronomical show would go until 2:30 am and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon had only played halfway through, I decided to call it a night. The others had made that decision nearly an hour ago. Maybe I should try to get at least some sleep this week. Goodnight, strange moon.

A full lunar eclipse is a wonderful production. First, the penumbra casts darkness across the face of the full bright moon. Within an hour, before your eyes the moon wanes from full to crescent. Then the umbra creeps in, staining the moon red. Paradoxically, this vibrant hue occurs while the moon is in the deepest part of Earth’s shadow. Light from the sun is refracted around the Earth through the atmosphere. The longest rays of visible light, which our eyes register as red, illuminate the moon in a mesmerizing shade of rust. Once again the penumbra slides across the moon, darkening the deep red and making it difficult to see. Eventually, the Earth’s shadow will move on, revealing a waxing crescent of bright yellow. Then, like a time-elapsed film, two weeks of moon phases will wax back to a full silvery orb in an hour. The whole show takes just under four hours.

If you missed Monday night’s performance, don’t worry. The entire process will happen again on October 8, 2014, and then twice more in 2015. You’ll have a total of three chances between now and September of next year to catch it.

How the full lunar eclipse works. Illustration by Greg Dindermann, courtesy of Sky and Telescope.

Full lunar eclipses are rare. The last once occurred in December of 2011. The elliptical planar orbit of the Earth must line up precisely with the position of the moon, and this must happen during a full moon in order for the full lunar eclipse to occur. These things must align on a clear night, making Pacific Northwest full lunar eclipses especially rare.

The night started very cloudy. There had been talk of midnight lunar-eclipse canoeing, but by 9:30 any plans for a late night paddle had been scrapped. Most folks surrendered to sleep, defeated by the promise of no visibility. But ten minutes into the show, the cloud curtain opened to share the performance. Just shy of midnight, I politely knocked on windows and doors, inviting a few night-owl friends to join me in watching the celestial spectacle. Everyone who had a light on got a knock.

Five nature nerds ventured into the cold, gusty night to stand and stare and wonder. As I watched the moon wane away before my eyes, I felt I simultaneously understood the moon as an object in space while also being completely baffled by it. It is depictions of scientific principles such as these that are both clear and exciting, but that I often struggle to explain. Scale makes it difficult to comprehend the position and movement of the sun, the moon and the Earth, but watching the lunar eclipse gave me a solid sense of those relationships. Watching the moon disappear was a bit unsettling, however. The time elapsed movie of moon phases did not compute in the contexts of sky with a background of stars. It was all very perplexing. It didn’t seem real. I felt like I could just pick it right out of the sky, like a rock off the beach. My brain kept trying to “fix” what I was seeing, filling back in the disappearing parts of the moon, later trying to blink away the strange hue that began to filter over the moon.

As we stood in the middle of the night, gazing into space, we tried to describe what we were seeing. First, came the naturalist jargon. Words like refraction, waxing and waning moon phases, planar orbit and umbra were tossed around with ease. But as the sight of the moon became more bizarre, our descriptions became more imaginative.

“Whoa, it looks like a huge floating eye. See the cornea and all the blood vessels?”

“The Eye of Sauron.”

“It looks like a cheese puff!”

“It looks like a giant popcorn kernel waiting to be popped!”

“The color is more like popcorn covered in nutritional yeast.”

“No, it’s darker than that.”

“Popcorn with nutritional yeast and Braggs?”

“Yeah, that’s it! It’s definitely the color of ultimate hippie popcorn.”

“You guys, the moon totally is the ultimate hippie popcorn.”

Although we had all gotten out of bed, taken a break from last minute taxes or put aside homework to come out and watch the eclipse, the moon was far from the only celestial body on display. A bright red object shone in the sky above and to the right of the moon. Could it be Mars? It almost seemed to big and bright to be our neighboring planet, but it certainly was not a star. None of us knew for sure. A quick Internet search revealed that we were not only right about this mysterious orb being the red planet, we were also inadvertently observing Mars from the nearest view we get from Earth: “at opposition”. This means the Earth is about to reach its farthest distance from the sun, while Mars is about to reach its closest, bringing our planets within 57 million miles of each other. mars-earth-comparison

From L to R: Our home, the Earth, compared to our neighboring planet, Mars. Photo courtesy of NASA.

So there we were, mesmerized by the moon’s best Mars impression, while the actual Mars was slowly creeping closer and closer, when suddenly…


One of the longest lasting meteors I’ve ever seen streaked across the sky, right down the middle of the whole scene. I mean, this meteor was so bright and lasted long enough for us to jump up and down, pointing and shouting, “Look! Look! A meteor,” before it dove below the horizon. The next time you see a shooting star, try getting six syllables out before its gone, and you’ll get a sense of just how epic this meteor was. More research revealed that mind-blowing meteor was a precursor to an annual meteor shower called the Lyrids. This shower will begin April 17th and intensify over the next few days, peaking on the 22nd (Earth Day!) when the rate of meteors will be around a dozen an hour. Look to the eastern sky in the predawn hours for your best chance to catch the show.

Red moons, meteors and Mars. All such celestial happenings are reminders for us Earthlings to look up, go outside in the night and stay out past our bedtimes every once in awhile. That we are not just part of the Earth — fight for and use it as we may — but of the entire unfathomable Cosmos. Lucky aliens, zooming through space. I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon. Cheers!

lyrid-meteor-shower-2014-1Now’s the time, the time is now! Stay up late, go outside, look up, have your mind blown! Photo courtesy of Logan Brumm Photography.
Leading photo: The “blood moon”. This is what a total lunar eclipse looks like. Catch the next on on October 8, 2014. Photo by Richard Tresch Fienberg, courtesy of Sky and Telescope.

Kaci Darsow is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Most nights Kaci can be found on their porch enjoying a good porter or stout and listening to Dark Side of the Moon, regardless of lunar activity.



Elk Xing

April 3rd, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

If you drive on State Route 20 between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete, you can participate in citizen science without even leaving your car.

Researchers at Western Washington University are studying elk crossings along this stretch of two-lane road, and they need your help. Their interest was prompted by the high incidence of collisions between vehicles and the 1,000-pound ungulates. Over 50 elk were reported killed by traffic in this zone in 2012, though it’s only a 20-mile stretch of highway. There were likely more fatalities that went undocumented. A year later, in 2013, reported elk roadkills fell to the low 30s. Since this was only the second year of concerted data collection for scientific study, it is impossible for researchers to discern any pattern.

Yet. Now scientists want to know: Exactly where and when are elk crossing the highway, and where and when are they killed? That’s where commuters, visitors and day-trippers come in. The observations of motorists and residents are an important component of their data gathering, so much so that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed an “App” that makes it easy for people using the Internet or mobile devices to upload their observations. For those of us who hear “app” and get excited about pre-dinner small plates, here’s the simple breakdown: Step one: Download the App. Step 2: Choose your device to open the map. Step 3: Mark your elk sighting on the map, adding to the database and furthering the scientific understanding of elk behavior.

There is also a hotline and email address to report observations. Researchers remind drivers to be safe and not try to use the App while driving – photos and information can be uploaded later upon arriving at one’s destination.

elk haagCan you see the elk? The typical habitat of the lower Skagit Valley, east of Interstate 5, where the North Cascades elk herd tends to hang out, to the chagrin of some and the joy of others. Photo by Jessica Haag.

Other methods being used to track elk movements include using GPS collars and monitoring specific elk trails where they cross the asphalt. The Washington Department of Transportation is installing new elk crossing signs and additional mile markers to make it easier for motorists to identify and report exactly where they see elk cross the highway.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the North Cascade elk herd is the smallest of ten herds currently residing throughout the state. The herd was reintroduced in 1946 and 1948 from eastern and western Washington populations. Their numbers reached a peak of around 1,700 animals in 1984, took a nose dive in the late 1990s with only about 300 individuals, then ramped back up to a herd of 1,200 to 1,400 that we see today throughout Skagit and Whatcom counties. This population roller coaster can be attributed to changes in local timber harvest and rates of both legal and illegal elk hunting.

Habitat changes caused by increased timber harvest should have been favorable for elk population growth because young stands of saplings that replace the larger trees and thicker forest provide the open spaces and new growth that elk prefer for forage. Yet increased human access and visibility may have resulted in the mortality in the late 1990s of this elk population. Christopher Danilson, a WDFW biologist for Whatcom and Skagit counties who has been working with the Skagit elk population for over a decade, wrote in an email to Chattermarks that another issue at that time was that the elk were causing significant agricultural damage and WDFW was permitting high levels of elk harvest in these areas. Danilson attributed the population rebound over the past several years to restricted elk hunting, forest road closures and the augmentation of elk from Mount St. Helens in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

But not everyone thinks this robust population is a good thing. In fact, the North Cascades elk herd is rather controversial, so much so that WDFW hired a “wildlife conflict specialist” to mediate between different stakeholders. There are the hunters, the farmers, the conservationists, the tribal subsistence hunters, the motorists and the transportation officials, all with various perspectives, concerns and generally competing interests. This controversy is not new news. In 2002 WDFW released a management plan with ten objectives for managing the herd and solving conflicts, which included goals that some might consider mutually exclusive, such as “minimize elk damage to private property” and “preserve and enhance critical elk use areas”.

Over a decade later, the elk issue remains a tricky one to negotiate, and still unresolved. In June 2013, WDFW moderated a meeting in Sedro-Woolley to gather community input to inform their revision of the elk management plan and discuss the formation of a North Cascades Elk Management Group. Last October, Senator Kirk Pearson (R), Natural Resources and Parks Committee chairman, led a meeting in Mount Vernon attended by 120 people. Thirty-four testimonies were given. This was in the wake of gunners contracted from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service who attempted to cull an elk herd near Sedro-Woolley that had been damaging fences and trampling hay and corn, according to an online article from Northwest Sportsman.

Danilson wrote that these meetings serve to inform what WDFW will outline for the next steps and the longer-term vision for the local elk herd: ”We are in the process of updating that herd plan which WDFW hopes to adopt by the end of this year. This process has involved considerable public input through a forum referred to as the North Cascades Elk Management Work Group, which has met regularly since last August.”

Given the diversity of concerned parties, a collaborative effort is challenging but vital. Public safety is a huge part of this complex puzzle, and that’s where the work of the researchers at Western becomes so relevant to this ongoing issue. Nathan Rice, an Environmental Studies graduate student spearheading the project, started monitoring elk crossings last summer. His research is funded by the Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes. A number of other tribes and agencies are also involved, including the Upper Skagit tribe, the WDFW, the Washington Department of Transportation, Washington State Patrol and the Skagit County Sheriff. Additionally, Rice stressed the importance of motorist and resident participation. “This local knowledge is a great resource,” he said.

To download the App so that you can participate in this study, go to here.

elk 2 haag An elk watering hole near Sedro-Woolley. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Leading photo: Several elk crossing signs, many equipped with flashing amber-colored lights, are common along the stretch of Highway 20 between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Writing this post couldn’t help but prompt the question, “Why did the elk cross the road?”. Talk amongst yourselves.




Gorging the Senses on Gorge Lake

March 21st, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Though I moved to the Environmental Learning Center last August, I had visited many times before during my first summer while living in Bellingham as a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Each time I drove by Gorge Lake, I marveled at the huge sand banks with gigantic tree trunks, remnants from before the dam was constructed and the gorge was flooded. One of three manmade reservoirs on the Skagit River, Gorge Lake is part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Built in 1921, it makes up one third of a three-part system that helps power the city of Seattle. The two other parts of that system are Diablo and Ross Dams, with their consequent lakes.

During the warmer summer and fall seasons, the utility company, Seattle City Light, keeps the Gorge Lake water level relatively low, making the lake bed look like a vast expanse on a foreign planet. Not long after I moved up to the Environmental Learning Center in September, Seattle City Light raised the water level in Gorge Lake. The Skagit River in winter, without the addition of glacial flour scoured from the mountains above, is a dark emerald green that begs for exploration.

tylerdrygorgelake.HaleGraduate student Tyler Chisholm explored the cracked surface of the de-watered Gorge Lake last fall, looking for signs of a moose who some encountered visiting the town of Diablo. Photo by author.

I recently had the opportunity to canoe the lake with some friends, and though it was a drizzly day, the company was warm and light. We started in the town of Diablo, close to the bottom of the Diablo Dam. Two in our company, Dylan and Max, were advanced paddlers, which made for an easy learning experience for the rest of us who all came with varying degrees of canoeing know-how. Starting close to the dam was a wonderful idea as it gave us a new perspective of the small, company town as we floated by. The Diablo Power House, built into the rock wall, seemed so much more impressive on water than it did on land.

As we floated down lake, we came to a small section of white water where Stettatle Creek meets with the mighty Skagit. My canoe partner, Max, gave me a few quick pointers before we entered the waves and we floated down easily without much duress, bumping and tossing as the flow pushed us here and there. As we shot out the other end, Max and I let out a WHOOP! It was a short bit of rapids, enough to keep us on our toes and to be a ton of fun. We watched as Dylan, Annabel and Kristi expertly navigated the waves before paddling on toward where Highway 20 crosses the lake. On the other side of the massive bridge, we slowed down and meandered through stumps and sandbars that momentarily sit above the water line. We could see far through the deep green water, with visibility at ten or so feet. The sand bars above and below the water line had deep cracks in them, presumably due to the shifting level of the lake. The remainders of the stumps that we could see were old, large and teeming with new life. It is remarkable how quickly nature reclaims that which has been disturbed.

powerhouse.KristiKlinestekerGraduate student Samantha Hale and Seasonal Naturalist Max Thomas paddle past the Diablo Power House. Despite its grey, concrete exterior, the inside is quite fancy, complete with marble and granite flooring, an art deco water fountain, and a tiled goldfish pool. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
submergedtree.KristiKlinestekerStumps of old trees poke through the green waters of Gorge Lake, like 100-year-old ghosts lending paddlers an idea of what the landscape looked like before the dam and reservoir were constructed. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

As we continued on our journey, we stopped here and there to explore the many waterfalls that feed into the lake. By this point, the drizzle had turned to full-blown rain, swelling the cascades around us, giving an even better idea at the amount of water coming off the land. No wonder they call this place the North Cascades. To make the occasion all the more special, it was Kristi’s birthday weekend, so we took our time meandering around some lakeside caves and waterfalls of all sizes and shapes. We continued on much farther than we had originally planned, finally coming to rest at the point where the Gorge Falls meets its namesake lake. The falls are impressive from the roadside, and even more so from the base. Climb as we did, it was too damp to get higher for a full view of the falls. However, there were many waterfalls closer to the lake that were equally as impressive and easier to access.

canoeinggorgelake.KristiKlinestekerChasing waterfalls: Thomas and Hale canoe past one cascade after another, meandering toward Gorge Dam up ahead. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

After a bit of playing in the snow and taking a plethora of pictures and “selfies”, we were on the water again. Before heading up lake we stopped to touch the massive 300 foot dam on our way back. I can now say I have seen and touched all three dams on the Skagit. On our return journey we hugged close to the opposite shore, investigating an equal number of waterfalls as well as avalanches and rock slides. Rain or shine, the day was exquisite, and I can’t wait to return to the Gorge Falls on a sunnier day. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone, but would suggest going when the water level is higher as it makes for a more relaxed journey.

Enjoy your weekends and get out exploring, my friends!


We made it to the Gorge Falls!  From L to R: Kristi & Dylan Klinesteker, Samantha Hale, Annabel Connelly, and Max Thomas. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
Leading photo: The trip began in the shadow of Diablo Dam. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.


Samantha Hale is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She has a background in marine mammal research and is ever in search, via canoe, of Diablo Lake’s elusive porca.


YLA.CM.inchworm NCI archives

Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades

February 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Five pairs of fifth graders are scattered on the Buster Brown Trail. In each pair, one is blindfolded with a colorful bandana, being carefully – the teacher hopes — led in a circuitous route by their partner.

“Remember, when you start to head off the trail toward your tree, make sure to not step where other people are stepping, and try hard to avoid the plants!” This is what I, or another Mountain School instructor, will inevitably say, loving this lesson but feeling the nagging omnipotence of the leave-no-trace ethic.

The students are mindful, taking care to not crunch the Mahonia and Salal understory. The blindfolded student is led to a tree. Maybe it’s a Doug fir, with its thick “bacon” bark (or akin to the cracked top of a pan of brownies, for the vegetarians). Other naturalists tell me bats can roost in there, when the tree is old and the bark is deeply furrowed, though I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter that yet. Perhaps the student is escorted to a paper birch, its thin, peeling bark being a telltale give-away of its arboreal identity. There’s always the vine maple, as well, dressed in moss and reaching from the mid-story canopy with its flexible, green branches.

peeling bark K. RenzCould you tell this tree with your eyes closed? Photo by Katherine Renz.

“Okay, start heading back to the trail!” After five or ten minutes, the students reconvene briefly to trade bandanas and head out a second more time. I enjoy watching them “meet a tree”, as this exercise is called. They use only touch, smell, taste and hearing – and these last two are arguable since, respectively, I don’t encourage students to eat unidentified plants, and the trees aren’t usually feeling loquacious. Can you find your tree? It’s a fantastic lesson in sensory awareness, considering it activates four of most peoples’ less dominant senses. What does your tree feel like? What about the plants at the base of the trunk? If you hug it, can your hands connect? Is there a smell if you scrape at the bark a little or crunch the leaves? If you knock on the trunk, does it make a notable sound? What did the ground feel like beneath your feet as you were led, without sight, through the fallen logs and leaf litter of the understory?

We come back together in a circle, everyone’s eyes open, and “debrief” the details the students relied upon to find or, sometimes, not find, their tree. This is one of my favorite lessons, and the students tend to recall it fondly as well. On the evaluation sheets their classroom teachers fill out at the end of the three days, they usually rave about it, saying it helps open their students up to a deeper level of observation, care, and empathy for the natural world.

» Continue reading Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades

Fresh tracks in the snow of Sourdough Mountain.

Fresh Tracks of the Sun Chaser

January 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

The glow begins as it would, blanching the sky to make invisible the cosmos. Black becomes cornflower and a fiery fuchsia lights the very highest tips of the frosted peaks. The sky will grow brighter, but many cups of tea will be consumed before the sun’s winter-warm rays make their way to Diablo, Washington. At 9:48 AM, the first beams flash from behind Colonial Peak. Only two hours remain before they dip behind Pyramid Peak and Diablo’s brief flow of Vitamin D is capped for another day. This all assumes that we are not immersed in a saturating and seemingly endless cloud for days on end, the winter weather most expected in the North Cascades.

On a morning free of obligation, when the rising light stirs me from sleep and the moon drifts pale in the western sky, I really have no choice but to run. I gulp down a power smoothie, take my tea to go, and throw my 10 essentials in a pack before finding a trail that will undoubtedly make my quadriceps burn and my knees wish for a quicker death.

Sourdough trail ElissaRace of the Day: The sun rides a snowy ridge two miles up the Sourdough Mountain Trail.

It should be noted that prior to my departure I would also check the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) website, NOAA and take other precautions that would undoubtedly be considered tedious by most readers but essential by people like our Operations Director, Kristofer, and my mother. Suffice it to say that I am not reckless, and avalanche danger, weather and trail conditions should all be evaluated prior to any backcountry trip. It is also prudent to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. There you are, Mom and Kristofer, safety for all.

Sunset ElissaSoon to be Sunset: Late afternoon colors the Skagit Valley.

The sun chasing often begins a few hundred paces from my front door up Sourdough Mountain. This beast of a trail gains 3,000 feet in the first two miles by way of a series of utterly relentless switchbacks. I am spurred on by the glow of sunlight on the trees above me and rejoice at the two-mile mark where the forest opens, the mountains are in view and I (had I the time) could watch the earth turn beneath the sun until it painted the sky in pale pinks as it dove into the valley. Here, however, the snow is deep, the wind blows icy cold, and light can fade quickly in the deep woods of the descent. Best to sigh, accept gracefully the few extra radiant hours, and go before the going becomes perilous.

Fresh powder ElissaBlazing fresh powder on Sourdough Mountain.

The next time I ascend Sourdough, I take my best asset: a friend. We went further than I had previously, through four-foot drifts of fresh powder. I let him blaze the trail. We did not choose a clear day. On the contrary, we left on a day that promised snow and wherein thick clouds moved swiftly exposing only the faintest breaks of blue from time to time. Several hours in, on a steep slope, slogging through deep powder and tiring quickly, we paused. At that very moment, when turning back seemed the only option, the sky opened up revealing a heavenly blue. The sun illuminated the once hidden peaks and set the frosty trees aglow. We reveled in the surprising warmth, took copious photos and headed back down the mountain just as fresh flakes began to fall.

Trees aglowThe sun “peaks” out to set the trees aglow on Sourdough Mountain.

The presence of a good friend and a rare mid-week day for play prompted a longer journey to Artist Point. This well-travelled route near Mount Baker is popular in all seasons for hikers and snowshoers alike. On that glorious Tuesday, however, the mountain was ours for exploration and (not a little) make believe.The ski lifts were silent, the parking lot was all but empty, and we made our way up the slopes as though we were trudging through uncharted wilderness. White upon white, the snowy mounds blended into one another as we scaled the snowfields, trying to keep our eyes on some semblance of trail. Suddenly, as breath came quickly and muscles burned, Mount Baker revealed itself, gloriously adorned in thick, creamy drifts and glowing in the low southern light. Mount Shuksan dominated the eastward view, covered in luminous glacial blue. The southern sky provided views of Whitehorse Peak and many others in a sea of salmon-orange with thin bright silver strips of cloud strewn about. We posed heroically before the mighty panorama before finding our way down then on to Bellingham for well-earned sushi and beer.

Mount Baker ElissaMount Baker from Artist Point.
Mount Shuksan ElissaMount Shuksan from Artist Point.

Thus is the life of the Sun Chaser, ever leaving blinds cracked to observe the morning skies from a cozy bed; ready to either jump up to meet the sun or pull flannel sheets lazily over a sleepy head. Squares of ever-present frost live in the northern shadows of the houses in Diablo, fixed and never free to chase the fleeting rays of these mountain winter days.

Lead Photo: Fresh tracks in the snow near the National Park Boundary on the Sourdough Mountain Trail. All photos by the author, Elissa Kobrin.


Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.



lichen close up Katherine

A-Hunting for the Details

January 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Today I went on a hike looking for wildflowers. I failed, miserably. But this was accounted for in the strategic plan, a given before I’d even cinched my shoelaces or threw on a daypack.

You see, it’s the middle of winter in the North Cascades. What else would one expect? But as an amateur naturalist with a penchant for all things botanical, the landscape can be a little — dare I say it? — boring. Emerald is pretty, and serves a photosynthetic purpose, and brown ground holds the nutrients to support the whole thing. But recollections of the summer’s subalpine petal-rainbow are haunting. Perhaps this admits a shallowness on my part, a doltish attraction to the obvious, a stubborn attachment to the reproductive parts and advertising wiles of plants, commonly known as flowers.

monkshood with bee KatherineMonkshood (Aconitum spp) and pollinator engaged in nature’s busy dance as seen on the Rainbow Lake Trail last August. This genus contains some of the most poisonous plants known to humans, containing an alkaloid that paralyzes the nerves and can fatally lower body and blood temperatures.

Last season was hardly so harsh: the fall brought mushrooms, which, though of a different kingdom, were close enough. But this new year, even the characteristic mega-fungi have melted back from whence they sprung. Twig ID, a tradition around these parts, is just not gonna cut it; lichen and moss are fascinating, but only do it for so long. Does anyone really want to read a blog post musing on the dozen different shades of Oregon grape?

cranberry scone fungiFall offered all sorts of intriguing decomposers, like this toasted marshmallow mass of mushroom, commonly called “bleeding tooth fungus” (Hydnellum peckii), which smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. Seriously.

The problem is the solution, as permaculturalists say, so what’s the remedy? Not too long ago while living in a dynamic though often ridiculous city, I grew into an expert at glimpsing the tiny things ignored by most: the swollen poppy growing solo next to a street tree near the 101 overpass, October’s spiders weaving webs in the monster trumpet vines, the aloe vera growing, appropriately, outside the tattoo shop. I needed to return to the details, big and small, of the North Cascades. I decided to stroll up the familiar trail to Sourdough’s waterfall.

It worked. An afternoon of re-kindled love, demonstrated by bounding back to the Environmental Learning Center with camera in hand, all smiles, as though returning home from a successful hunt on the savannah. Some samplings:

cedar reflection KatherineReflections on the seasonal cedar swamp near the Pi Shelter. Notice the animal signs on the trunk on the right.
lichen "roots" KatherineMembranous dog-lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Check out the orange apothecia, which are the fruiting bodies from the lichen’s fungal partner and will eventually release spores. Also of note, the quarter inch rhizines, which do not help in water or nutrient absorption like plant roots do, but do serve to anchor the lichen to its substrate. It’s a fascinating little world, eh?
fungi on fungi KatherineFungi on fungi! I’d been paying attention to this shelf fungi on an old snag since coming to the Environmental Learning Center in late August: It always looked and felt very solid and unchanging. Add enough rain and time, and even the toughest decomposers start to get decomposed, too.
hanging roots KatherineLike a sleeping sloth of the Pacific Northwest, dangling roots and dirt clods invite the imagine against a backdrop of Doug fir forest.
Oregon grape KatherineOne of several manifestations of Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), with a pale strand of fructose lichen caught in its spiky leaves. The primary understory species in the forest on the way to the waterfall, Mahonia provides most of the non-green hue in the wintertime forest up to the waterfall. The leaves can burst a crimson hue, spontaneously and randomly, after the plant is a couple years old.
lichen rock fall KatherineA miniature world of lichen and moss tumbled down with some mini-boulders from the perennial rock fall along the trail. Linger at your own risk.
de-barked KatherineAnother animal sign? A strip of bark harvested to make a traditional Salish basket? A weather-induced injury?
"lake"reflection KatherineYes, that is blue sky! As seen from the surface of the seasonal puddle-pond at the junction of the Sourdough Creek and East Diablo trails.
cedar disintegration Katherine Even giants disintegrate: The vermillion spire-snag of an old cedar crumbles slowly but surely onto the trail.
rattlesnake plantain KatherineEvidence of flowers — hallelujah! The bright green, basal rosettes of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia ) on the banks of Fawn Creek offer a rare instance of soft, living leaves in January. Come late spring, stems of small, cream-colored flowers that look like tiny orchids will grow on a tall spike emerging from the center. Early settlers believed that this plant could be used to treat rattlesnake bites because the markings on the leaves resemble that species’ scaly skin.
witches butter KatherineA candidate for the “Brightest Organism in the Winter Forest”, witches’ butter glows like fungal gold. Note its neighbor on this alder twig, a species of avocado-green crustose lichen — a combination reminiscent of 1970′s kitchen appliances.
ELC with sun KatherineA small piece of Sourdough Ridge gets illuminated beyond a lodge at the Environmental Learning Center.
Leading photo: False pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea), a type of club lichen found on open sites, grows its upright “clubs” for reproductive purposes — notice the powdery, pale green grains (aka soredia) on the cup’s edge, awaiting to be dispersed by rain or wind. This one was found on that dry and rocky south-facing slope as one starts the immediate climb to the waterfall.

All photos by Katherine Renz

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. This is her official call to all fellow botanizing freaks to the North Cascades this coming spring. Maybe we can start a club?


“Imaging the Arctic: Climate Science Through Art” at Whatcom Museum, Jan 11

January 8th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Join North Cascades Institute and the Whatcom Museum on January 11, 2 pm, for the Vanishing Ice Speaker Series! This final presentation in the four-part series will feature Expeditionary Artist Maria Coryell-Martin and marine mammal biologist Dr. Kristin Laidre presenting their project, “Imaging the Arctic: Communicating Climate Science through Art.” This free event is made possible with a grant from Humanities Washington and is part of  the Whatcom Museum’s Saturdays on Ice program that also includes reduced admission to the Vanishing Ice exhibit at the Lightcatcher Museum, family activities and workshops covering art, science, history and exploration.


In Spring 2013, Maria Coryell-Martin accompanied scientist Dr. Kristin Laidre onto the pack ice of Baffin Bay, based out of West Greenland. Dr. Laidre and colleagues were investigating the effects of sea ice loss on narwhals and polar bears, iconic species that are highly adapted to the extreme Arctic environment and vulnerable to climate change.

“The Arctic is a remarkable and stunning environment that is rapidly changing,” explains Coryell-Martin. “Collaborating with Kristin has given me the opportunity to witness and help illustrate this region that so few people can access. Her research brings deeper meaning to my sketches and paintings as they go beyond being just environmental portraits, to having a story within a scientific context. Working together, we can use art as a hook for scientific outreach and to inspire appreciation and stewardship for the Arctic.”


Coryell-Martin worked alongside the scientists as they recorded data on the health and movements of narwhals and polar bears, creating ink and watercolor sketches, as well as multimedia recordings. Following the tradition of artists working with early explorers, her fieldwork complements the science, and is being developed into a collection of stories and imagery to illustrate stories of climate change. Learn more at

 Read more:

“Painting the Arctic in a different hue” in The Arctic Journal

“Bringing Art To Narwhal Research In The Arctic” on KUOW

the shack 1

The Shack

January 6th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

I’m a nerd, always have been. I’ve never been one to shy away from that. I’m a music nerd, a book nerd, a Doctor Who nerd…and growing up with parents who are all about “the nature,” I’m also a nature nerd.

One of my favorite books is Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. I first read it in sixth grade, and then again as an assignment during my first summer of graduate school. I love the way this book is written, like you’re reading someone’s nature journal. I love the stories he tells and the images they conjure up in my mind. I loved reading about this far away ecosystem, so different from the only one I’ve ever really experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.

Last winter I received an invitation to my cousin’s wedding in Madison, Wisconsin. Hmm, Wisconsin. Never been there. But something went off in my brain. On a whim, I googled Aldo Leopold and realized why my brain had jumped—his shack, the geographic location of A Sand County Almanac, was about 45 minutes northwest of Madison. I called my dad. “We should go,” I said. “Come on, when will we get another chance to see Leopold’s shack?” He didn’t need much convincing. “Let’s keep this in mind so we can plan our flights around it,” was his response.

Fast forward to the end of August. My mom, my dad, and I are driving to a little Wisconsin town called Baraboo. We’re on our way to the Aldo Leopold Foundation. It’s hot outside. Our rental car has fancy air conditioning and we’re all glad for it. Us Pacific Northwesterners aren’t used to this weather.

Arriving at the Aldo Leopold Foundation campus, we walk around the native vegetation and an outdoor classroom building, then head into the office. The woman at the front desk gives us a map and explains how to get to the nearby Leopold property. I see a picture of Estella Leopold, Aldo’s youngest child and the only one still living, and wonder what it must be like to be Aldo Leopold’s offspring. Estella lives in Seattle and I was fortunate enough to meet her once at a gathering of the Natural History Network.

inside the leopold foundation buildingThere’s a small museum with writings and artifacts from the Leopold family. Photo by the author
bench with plaquePlaque by the entrance to the Leopold Foundation building reads:
Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm
has been designated a
National Historic Landmark
This property possesses national significance as the outdoor laboratory for Aldo Leopold’s pioneering work from 1935-1948 in wildlife management and ecological restoration, and as the inspiration for his seminal work, “A Sand County Almanac.”
National Park Service
United States Department of the Interior

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Cold Showing

December 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Cold is the colour of crystal the snowlight
That falls from the heavenly skies

– Annie Lennox, “Cold”

The first successive days of sub-freezing temperatures have transformed the landscape on scales both minute and grand. An early morning walk revealed the ironically soft and whimsical designs pulled forth by the first hard frost.

Weeks of rain have provided a canvas for hoarfrost, and it’s made many things its muse. Ground cover plants, giant fallen maple leaves, and clusters of tiny mushrooms now wear sparkling crowns of white. The most mundane objects become magical in moonlight when glazed: concrete, rocks, weeds, grass and windshields. All are the fuel of fairytale when covered with diamond dust.

4hoarfrostleafA Big Leaf Maple leaf covered in hoarfrost.
1hoarfrostgroundcoverHoarfrost decorates the ground cover at the Environmental Learning Center.
3hoarfrostmushroomHoarfrost creates sparking crowns on a cluster of mushrooms.

Frost is not nature’s only medium. The cold has created complex sculptures of ice on the north-facing rock wall of Diablo Dam Road. There, water seeps readily and consistently through cracks in the rock, and the dripping water has created its own vast exhibition. On one of my more dangerous self-imposed photo assignments, I stood on a steep, narrow, and winding road under huge daggers of ice on roadway that was more like a skating rink. Only the rusty metal guardrail stopped me from falling as I moved to avoid a Seattle City Light maintenance truck as it cruised down to the dam. It was worth the risk.

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The Last Days in the Rain Shadow

December 3rd, 2013 | Posted by in Adventures

The weight of a winter storm has whisked away the opportunity to further my exploration of the Methow Valley for another season. The fragile thread of concrete that is Highway 20 has crumbled under the piles of snow and biting wind, cutting me off from the expansiveness of this high desert refuge. There, the strange arid landscapes spread out thin and dry from the rain shadow of the North Cascades. Abundance lines the banks of the Methow River: fresh produce, fine wineries, excellent coffee and recreation aplenty. I have found it challenging to move myself beyond the borders of this Nirvana, but recently my curiosity was sufficiently piqued.

As one who called Oregon home for many years prior to my arrival in Washington, I had always claimed the Columbia River by right as an Oregonian. I have explored its reaches from every vantage on the Oregon side. Upon meaningful examination of a map, however, I had to admit that it was much more a Washington river, which did not alter my adoration. I set out to find the Columbia Plateau: my river beyond the Oregon border bend.

Upon my exploration of the flood lands to the East I embarked. The Columbia carved its mighty way, reflective and deep through the sagebrush-spotted hills of brown grass and exposed rock. Bighorn sheep leapt along the upper reaches of its banks, darting with ease over the steep slopes and loose terrain. Once a glacial lake at the southernmost edge of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the Columbia River’s geologic origins held a dramatic history that starkly contrasted its now tranquil presentation.

IMG_1793A male bighorn sheep amongst the rocks near the Rock Island Dam on the Columbia River in eastern Washington.
IMG_1831Once the largest waterfall in the world, Dry Falls remains a dramatic monument to its turbulent past.

I had entered the Channelled Scablands, and it felt like Oz. I was in disbelief that I was still in the state of Washington. Between 14,000 and 20,000 years in the past, the landscape had been repeatedly rocked by cataclysmic floods. Ice up to 4,000 feet high scored deep channels into the landscape which would fill with water. The water would become trapped behind enormous walls of ice until the colossal pressure shattered them and sent inconceivable torrents though the valley. It would have been like Armageddon around every dozen years or so.

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