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Nature Notes: Winter in the North Cascades

February 16th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

by Chelsea Ernst, M.Ed. Graduate Student

The west side of the North Cascades is experiencing a fairly warm winter, sending the snow line higher than usual for this time of year. Snow down in the Skagit valley has melted completely, reminding staff and grads at the Learning Center of the carpet of green moss that lines the lowland forest floor.

On January 3rd, when a few graduate students returned to Diablo Lake after winter break, 10 inches of fresh snow fell. The layer of new, fluffy snow lent itself to easy snow tracking, and several ungulate and small mammal tracks were sighted on the Diablo East trail. The following day, the melt began and more students and staff steadily returned to their mountain home and workplace. Here are some of their observations from January and February.

January

SnowBridgeFrozen surface of a pond on Thunder Knob Trail
  • Jan. 4th: above freezing temperatures and rain at the Learning Center turned snow piled high on steep roofs into roofalanches.
  • Jan. 9th: a juvenile and an adult bald eagle dove at each other mid-air near Cook Road in Sedro-Woolley.
  • Jan. 11th: snow geese still gathering in wet fields near Sedro-Woolley and Concrete.
  • Jan. 12th: a pileated woodpecker was heard at the Learning Center.
  • Jan. 15th: the sounds of Deer Creek became softer as less water from higher elevations makes its way down into the valley.
  • Jan. 20th: the sun was out at Diablo Lake!
  • Jan. 21st: the surface of a pond on Thunder Knob trail was frozen.
  • Jan. 25th: with the sun out and temperatures in the 50s, staff and graduate students paddled out on Diablo lake. They saw an American dipper, buffleheads, and common goldeneyes.

February

ThunderKnobPondSnow bridge over Early Winters Creek near Mazama, WA
  • Feb. 1st-8th: graduate students traveled to the Methow Valley and naturalize on the notably colder and snowier east side of the North Cascades.
  • Feb. 10th: three female elk were spotted near Concrete.
  • Feb. 11th: two harlequin ducks floated on Diablo Lake.
*All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
LittleRedRidingHood

Howling to be Heard: Wolf Folklore

February 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student

“My grandmother what big teeth you have.”
“The better to eat you with, my dear!”

Myths and legends, both positive and negative, have surrounded the wolf for centuries. This is without a doubt where many of our opinions and general notions of wolves originated. Most cultures throughout history have held the wolf as a revered, distinguished animal. In fact, most Native American tribes saw the wolf as an animal closely related to humans and a carrier of strong medicine. Native Americans viewed the wolf as courageous, strong, loyal, and a successful hunter. Even some of our Northwestern tribes such as the Quileute and Kwakiutl included the wolf in their stories of origin where their first ancestors were transformed from wolves into men. European history and mythology, which has its origins in Rome, also has a positive connotation of the wolf. Many people are familiar with the story of how Romulus and Remus, sons of the war god Ares, came to found the city of Rome after being orphaned and raised by a female wolf.

Why then has the wolf been portrayed in such a negative light for past several centuries? Why is an animal that was so revered in indigenous cultures put on trial in a quick turn of events? Why do we never hear these stories with the wolf as the hero? To answer these questions we must look at the time period in which these negative myths and legends began to surface. It was during the Middle Ages when Europeans started moving out into the countryside to raise crops and domesticate animals.

The first image most people today have of the wolf is from the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, where a wolf cunningly disguises itself in order to eat a helpless little girl. The wolf is then killed by the heroic hunter who slices open the wolf’s belly, saving Little Red Riding Hood. In our western society we have created an image of the wolf as an evil, bloodthirsty and voracious killer. In Norse Mythology, the god Odin had two wolves named Geri and Freki, both meaning “the ravenous” or “greedy one.” But where and how did these stories enter into our culture? For the answer, let’s take a trip back in time to the Middle Ages: a time when the human species started cultivating crops and raising domestic livestock; a time when the Catholic Church exerted the greatest influence on how people thought and acted.

As man entered into a new age, a new way of thinking and living emerged. Civilization and cultivated land became the norm and way of Christian living. Man began demonstrating dominance over the natural world by clearing the forest, cultivating the land, and raising domestic livestock. It was thought that it was God’s will for man to have dominion over all the earth and anything that stood in the way of that was evil. If something went awry, humans needed some sort of scapegoat for their own faults and shortcomings. They quickly turned to an animal that was highly intelligent, shared the same social structure, and hunted as humans did. An animal living in close proximity to them that remained wild and untamed: the wolf.

» Continue reading Howling to be Heard: Wolf Folklore

Mushroom

Nature Notes: Phenology of the North Cascades Ecosystem

January 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute’s resident graduate students have the unique opportunity to live at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for the majority of the Environmental Education graduate program. Living in North Cascades National Park has more than a few perks. The backcountry is just a few steps outside of our back door and thousands of plant species and a diversity of wildlife are our neighbors. Living here also allows us to experience first hand the phenology of the surrounding ecosystem. As part of our graduate work, we take note of these environmental changes as we experience them. It may not be possible to accurately convey the magic of this experience, but we combined a brief list of our observations from autumn 2014 in an attempt to do so.

September

LarchNeedle

Larch needles beginning to turn on Maple Pass
  • In mid September, the vine maple leaves at the Learning Center began turning.
  • On the 21st a pika was seen dragging a false hellebore stem across Heather Pass trail.
  • Among the talus slopes near Heather Pass, a Northern flicker was heard and later sighted. Larches at Heather/Maple Pass were just on the brink of turning.
  • On the 27th black bear tracks were observed in the snowfield below Colonial Glacier.

October

Hydnellumpeckii

Hydnellum peckii mushroom, certainly one of the most striking we’ve seen!
  • First week of October: the area around the Learning Center received record rainfall.
  • Early October: Summer Chinook salmon observed spawning in the Methow River.
  • Oct. 20th: pikas observed in talus slope below Cascade Pass.
  • Oct. 22nd: Sourdough Creek started flowing into Diablo Lake.
  • Mid to late October: the upper Skagit Valley’s array of fungal species were in full display.
  • Oct. 25th: the Oregon grape plants around the Learning Center trails no longer had berries.
  • Oct. 27th: black bear was seen on the Learning Center campus.
  • Oct. 28th: three mule deer (two does and one yearling) seen on the Learning Center campus.

November

  • Throughout the month: snow geese observed migrating down the Skagit Valley.
  • Nov. 11th: snow goose mates and goslings seen during a paddle on Diablo Lake, and black bear tracks were seen at Sourdough Camp.
  • Nov. 14th: a pika peeped at Heather Pass, and big leaf maple leaves crunch under feet at the Learning Center.
  • Nov. 22nd: bald eagle seen circling Ladder Creek Falls area in Newhalem.
  • Nov. 23rd: Highway 20 closes access to Washington Pass due to several slides and heavy snow.
  • Nov. 26th: first snow at the Learning Center (1200 feet).

December

IceandSnow

Iced over roads by Buster Brown field
  • Dec. 2nd: multiple mammal tracks observed in the snow and mud on Diablo East trail: rabbit, possibly mink or fox, and deer.
  • Dec. 5th: almost stepped on a Douglas squirrel frantically running across path by the library at the Learning Center.
  • Dec. 12th: a windstorm and increased risk for landslides in the Skagit gorge caused graduate non-profit class to be dismissed early, and grads headed down valley for winter break.
All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
Wolf2

Howling to be Heard: An Introduction to Wolves

January 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

by Mike Rosekrans, M.Ed. Graduate Student

One winter afternoon in 2009 I was driving on a state highway through central Wisconsin on my way back to school in Southeastern Minnesota. Fresh snow blanketed the beautiful hardwood forests in the surrounding area as I cruised along at 60 mph. Suddenly, about a quarter mile ahead, a large animal slowly crossed the highway. I had lived in the Midwest for 23 years and until that moment I had never seen any animal like this cross a road. This was not a deer, bear, or a raccoon. It was too big to be a domestic dog. Having no idea what it was I slowed my Buick down to 10mph, scanning the forest alongside the highway. As I neared the point where the animal had crossed I saw, standing at the edge of the forest, methodically and majestically, a massive timber wolf.

I immediately stopped my car to admire the spectacular creature. There it stood about 50 feet from my vehicle. I had never seen an animal so beautiful, so majestic, and so wild. It was as if the spirit of the wild was summoning me to the forest. As I stared into its yellow eyes, and it back at me, I made a connection with a species that has captivated me ever since.

Wolf1

Wolves are a fascinating species that has simultaneously fascinated and unnerved the human imagination since the dawn of time. For thousands of years we lived side by side these intriguing animals. Throughout our history we formed myths, legends, symbols, and opinions around wolves. The wolf has been a symbol in mythology since the dawn of western civilization. Throughout its existence no species has undergone more study, persecution, and government regulation than the wolf.

Since that day in college my keen interest in wolves has only grown. I studied their history, I learned about their survival techniques and behaviors, and I was saddened when I first discovered that many people demonize the wolf. To some, wolves represent the spirit of the wilderness while to others they are bloodthirsty killers. In reality, wolves are wild animals that serve a vital role.  Through their behavior and adaptations they keep their ecosystem healthy and maintain a balance among native species.

In my exploration of the world of wolves and I found that wherever wolves travel, controversy travels with them. Whether you love them or hate them, support their recovery efforts or think they hold no place in the world, this series of weekly blogs will provide you with some fascinating information you may not have known about the relative of man’s best friend. In the upcoming weeks I will explore the history of wolves, their role in ecosystems as keystone species, and the wolf/human relationship. If you are a wolf supporter or if you would just like to know a little more about this enthralling animal, check my weekly blog post and I’m sure you will learn some valuable information. So join me each week and take a trip on this fascinating journey into the intriguing world of wolves.

All photos taken by Mike Rosekrans at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota
ThunderCrkSml

Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator

December 6th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Sharon Birzer, artist and natural history illustrator

My Creative Residency journal  @ North Cascades Learning Center, Diablo Lake, July 11-18, 2014

July 11-13

The first three days I interacted with a class held at North Cascades Institute’s Learning Center on lichens: “Frog’s Pelt, Pixie Cup and Old Man’s Beard: Lichens of the North Cascades.” Taught by Daphne Stone, the weekend was rich with lectures, hikes and lichen identification. The class hiked to Rainy Lake and Washington Pass. We also took a hike up a service road to Buster Brown, a rocky outcropping covered in lichens.
This is a group that I brought back to look at under the dissecting scope and draw. This group has two lichens- Cladonia cervicornus with the double cup and Cladonia bellidiflora, and 2 mosses–Racomitrium elongatum and Polytrichum piliferum.

 

UmbrellLichenBIRZER

ClassNCI2

July 14 Thunder Creek

Today is hot, in the 90’s. I hiked up Thunder Creek and spent time in the cool shade of an old cedar and Douglas fir forest. A cool breeze wafts down from the mountains and everywhere are ferns, lichens, fungus, and life.
July 15 Sauk Mountain

Hiked up Sauk Mountain today, 4.2 miles, 5537 elevation. Annabelle told me it would be beautiful. Wow. Alpine meadows. Wildflowers abound. Ice fields at the top and glacier lilies and avalanche lilies (finishing) and many others species of wildflowers in full bloom everywhere. Afterwards I was dusty and hot so I dipped into Diablo Lake before working on lichen illustrations.

OldGrowthSml

» Continue reading Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator

Facing Climate Change – The Tinder People

Fires and floods: North Cascades federal lands prepare for climate change

November 20th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Hannah Hickey, University of Washington News and Information

In a country that boasts an awe-inspiring system of national parks, the Pacific Northwest may be especially lucky. But even remote parks and forests can’t escape the problem of human-induced climate change.

Future shifts could affect everything from how people access the parks to what activities are possible once they arrive – not to mention the plants and animals that call those places home.

For a report released this week, University of Washington scientists worked with federal agencies to pinpoint natural resources sensitive to a warmer climate in the North Cascades region, and outline detailed management responses to minimize the adverse impacts on land and in water.

The report, “Climate change vulnerability and adaptation in the North Cascades region, Washington,” was led by the U.S. Forest Service’s Portland-based Pacific Northwest Research Station. It is the largest climate change adaptation effort on federal lands to date.

The partnership took a wide view for managing federal lands in the North Cascades. Participants in the North Cascadia Adaptation Partnership were the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, the North Cascades National Park Complex and Mount Rainier National Park. The UW’s Climate Impacts Group provided scientific expertise.

“It‘s critical that we work across agency boundaries to ensure that techniques for responding to climate change are effective,” said editor David Peterson, a UW affiliate professor of environmental and forest science and a research biologist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station.

In a region famous for its snowy peaks and lush greenery, the report emphasizes impacts related to hydrologic systems. Watersheds in the North Cascades are expected to become increasingly dominated by rain rather than snow. This will cause more fall and winter floods on much of the roughly 10,000 miles of roads in the North Cascades.

“Events like the floods of 2006 that closed Mount Rainier National Park for six months affect both access and infrastructure,” said Randy King, superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park. “If there are techniques that can reduce the damage, we need to take a hard look at them.”

MtRainierRoad

» Continue reading Fires and floods: North Cascades federal lands prepare for climate change

End of Mountain School

Seasons Change: Phenology and the end of Mountain School

November 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The changing seasons are a big deal in the North Cascades. 

This may seem like an obvious statement for an environmental learning center, but one in which I find more truth every day. As a person who spent so many formative years in the Middle East, a place where the changing seasons simply meant a change from “really hot” to “unbearably hot,” living in a place with four distinct, beautiful seasons brings a whole new set of knowledge.

As the new graduate student cohort (C14!), we spent our first few months at the ELC being introduced to this new, diverse ecosystem and the regular cast of characters around here. We learned the differences between fern types, how to tell a Mountain Hemlock apart from a Western Hemlock (it’s hard!), and all the types of ground cover we should try to avoid trampling in our excitement to explore. But we were also introduced to a concept still very much on our minds: phenology.

A quick internet search tells me that the definition of phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and how they are influenced by seasonal changes in climate, elevation, as well as changes from year to year. After a glorious late summer, it feels as if we’ve ramped up into phenological hyperdrive.

Sourdough Creek, which has been dry since our arrival at the ELC in late July, suddenly started flowing in late October, and it felt like a rite of passage for C14. Our first experience of the changing tides and our own evolution within this program. The waterfall at the top of the Sourdough Creek Trail which had slowed to a trickle with a dry stream bed over the summer now flows with a deafening roar. Suddenly we understand how avalanches and rock slides happen here. Green, leafy canopies that shaded us from the intense sun during our first grad school meetings gave way to picturesque golden walkways, then to skeletal brown arms that seem to reach for the sky in search of the elusive November sunlight. The pikas we once heard while passing talus slopes on campus have quieted down for the winter. Even Diablo Lake which greeted us in July with shades of turquoise, emerald, and serpentine now matches the color of the sky – a mix of blues and grays.

BusterBrownTrailNov14

Aside from these beautiful, and occasionally stark, phenological changes we’ve witnessed, another major change has taken place: the end of the fall season of Mountain School. Cohort 14 got the sink-or-swim introduction to grad school, moving without rest from a month-long field expedition to a two week fall training at the ELC, and then into six weeks of teaching hands-on science curriculum to over 900 of western Washington’s fifth graders.

Much has been written about Mountain School over the years in Chattermarks, and with good reason. Along with the flora and fauna at the ELC, these energetic 10 and 11 year olds bring such a sense of life and activity to this ecosystem. For six weeks we taught lessons on rocks, the water cycle, and different biotic elements of this area, and found our own lessons changing with the seasons. We marveled right along with our students at the first sight of snow on Pyramid and Colonial Peaks, and then at the lowering snowline or, as I put it, the inescapable advance of winter. Our teaching flow and our choice of group games changed as sunlight waned and temperatures dropped. Hikes to the waterfall became less frequent, often being replaced by indoor lessons accompanied by hot chocolate.

PyramidNov2014

Mountain School ended for the season on November 7th, the same day as the start of the Youth Leadership Conference. While the YLC deserves its own post, I will say that the theme of the conference – reflection and planning ahead – felt like a perfect way to mark the transition into the winter at the ELC. We too, staff and graduate students alike, are reflecting on the past weeks: lessons learned, experience gained, and goals for next season. We are planning for our own hibernation as programming at the ELC slows down and grad students turn our attention to non-profit management and curriculum design.

Very appropriately, just two days after the end of the Youth Leadership Conference and on the second day of the ongoing WildLinks Conference, we saw our first flakes of snow.

We are grateful for an amazing fall season of Mountain School, for the time to reflect and learn (indoors!) for the winter, and excited for the first 2015 session of Mountain School to begin which will, undoubtedly, carry with it a harbinger of spring.