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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.

 

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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.

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» 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.

CW cover Wild Nearby

The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby

November 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Editor’s note: The following essay is an excerpt from the new book The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby, published this fall by Braided River, a conservation imprint of the Mountaineers Books. Please join North Cascades Institute at one of our book launch celebrations in Mount Vernon or Bellingham this week (with related presentations happening in Twisp, Darrington and Seattle) — details at www.ncascades.org/wildnearby. Read a review of the book in the Everett Herald here and the Skagit Valley Herald here.

By William Dietrich

The North Cascades are surrounded by seven million people, crisscrossed by jetliners, and threaded by highways. Their retreating glaciers have become a barometer of climate change. At the same time, grizzly, wolf, wolverine, and eagle, once shot and trapped, are coming back. There is a new Environmental Learning Center across Diablo Dam, and new philosophies about forest fires, ecosystem management, and outdoor recreation. The North Cascades are exactly the same, and completely different.

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Life in the Pacific Northwest has accelerated. Microsoft and Amazon have supplanted resource-based companies such as Weyerhaeuser as economic drivers. Computers have globalized us. We’ve all become minutemen, with once-a-day mail delivery giving way to minute-by-minute email, Facebook posts, and Twitter feeds. An entire vocabulary of technical jargon has been mastered, society has become more diverse, and newcomers have injected their own take, deciding to call Puget Sound “the” Puget Sound, out of our inexplicable drive to complicate everything. Manual labor has given way to sedentary jobs, and in response camping and backpacking equipment has gone high-tech and recreational choices have exploded. We’re connected, busy, isolated, worldly, and stressed. Accordingly, the North Cascades represent escape and self-fulfillment. They beckon as last-stand glory, temple, and playground.

A woman ascends a rocky ridge in the South Picket Range, North Cascades National Park, Washington.

There is the reality of the mountains, that difficult terrain wracked by evolving change. “It is incredibly wild,” says Chip Jenkins, a former North Cascades National Park superintendent now serving as deputy regional director. “It is raw. It is physically and psychologically demanding.” And there is the ideal of the mountains, a place frozen into a calendar photo. The North Cascades are besieged and yet sacrosanct. They are eternal, and yet their purpose is constantly being reinvented in our minds.

Tucked into the fourth corner of the United States, these mountains were the last to be explored. They are still remote, jungle-dense on their western slopes, and relatively unknown. Fjord-narrow lakes wind into the mountain fastness; it is a fifty-five-mile boat trip from Chelan to the mountain hamlet of Stehekin in Lake Chelan National Recreation Area, at the southeastern edge of North Cascades National Park. The North Cascades Highway, opened in 1972, brings three-quarters of a million people through a corridor between the two halves of that park each summer season, but only twenty-six thousand walk far enough from their cars to enter the park proper. Gettysburg Battlefield gets more visitors in a busy weekend than the halfmillion- acre park gets in a year. It is deliberately roadless. You have to seek it.

Cars drive Highway 20 at night over Washington Pass, North Cascades Scenic Highway Corridor, Washington.

The park is also truncated. Because of political compromise, Mount Baker is outside the national park “complex” (which technically includes the park lands and adjacent national recreation areas). So is the other glaciated volcano in the range, Glacier Peak. There is a bewildering patchwork of land designations, a contentiously debated road network, and a consortium of agencies.

Which brings us to peril. Visionaries protected this range over many decades of political battle in the twentieth century. What one sees today from the summit of Mount Baker—craggy Mount Shuksan, the fanged Picket Range, the ice cream mound of Glacier—now needs a new generation of stewardship. How shall we manage these crags? Can their complex succession of ecosystems be sustained? Will salmon survive in the rivers? Will grizzlies, wolves, and wolverines roam? How can the North Cascades be resilient in the face of climate change? Since 1915, average air temperatures at Diablo Dam on the Skagit River have risen about 1 degree Fahrenheit, global warming shrinking the average snowpack. Can an alpine environment thrive if adjacent lowlands are paved over? Can we help native plants and organisms resist invasive species? How can a growing and aging urban population visit this landscape without overpowering it? What does wilderness mean when it abuts a megalopolis of thickening development that stretches from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Eugene, Oregon?

A hand rests on the trunk of an old-growth western redcedar (Thuja plicata) in Mount Baker National Forest, Washington.

In a frenzied world, the North Cascades are a refuge of calm. In a warming world, they are a remnant of the Ice Age. In a homogenous world, they remain exotic. In a crowded world, they are empty.

They are best befriended on foot.


 

Excerpted from The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby (Braided River, an imprint of Mountaineers Books, Sept. 2014). Mountains photo by Steph Abegg; climber, night photos and tree by Ethan Welty.

Forest by Molly Hashimoto

Encounters: a Creative Residency at the North Cascades Institute

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

by Ilona Popper, North Cascades Institute Writer in Residence, Summer 2014

I was lucky enough to enjoy a brief writer-in-residency at the North Cascades Institute in May 2014. I gave two talks: one about wolves from the book I am writing and a joint talk on creativity with artist Molly Hashimoto. I attended Molly’s print-making class and heard her speak about the “surprises” of wildlife encounters that she captures in her prints and paintings. That sense of wonder was a large part of my time at the Institute.

I felt part of my role as writer-in-residence was to talk about writing—and writing about nature—with anyone who had an interest. I had some wonderful conversations at dinner with adult seminar students, graduate students, naturalists, and Institute staff. One man spoke passionately about how to get started on writing his memoirs. He felt he could never write well enough, even to begin. I was struck, as I often am, by how critical and severe people can be in judging their first efforts, dismissing their ideas before they are formed or condemning their craftsmanship in first drafts.

People often talk of the self-discipline of writers. It’s true that writers practice self-discipline, first in just getting the words down on paper regularly, but even more in learning to reread one’s work with open curiosity about where it might be going. Trashing your own ideas, your own writing, especially in an early draft, is easy. Sticking with revision until you’ve fully developed an idea—that takes discipline.

The bulk of my time at the Institute was filled with writing, hiking, discovering the local ecosystem and wildlife and learning about what North Cascades Institute does. I was impressed with the way that the food, the laundry, the classrooms — everything about the Institute’s campus — is part of a larger curriculum and ethic that supports the wide array of eco-educational programs at the Institute.

I’m a naturalist and I live in a rich and beautiful place, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Part of the value in being at North Cascades Institute was to see how the Northern Cascades ecosystem is so different from and yet linked with the wild lands in which I reside. I recently heard Christina Eisenberg speak of “The Predator Way” (the title of her book): the long corridor of the Rockies, inhabited by predator and prey mammals since the earliest eras. Wolves, cougar, lynx, wolverine and bear traveled the mountains as they dispersed, looking for new homes.

Predators are returning to the North Cascades and spreading throughout Washington state. I was thrilled to hear that wolves had been seen in one of the drainages not terribly far from the Institute campus. [See my my recent article, “Wolves in Washington: Lessons from Yellowstone,” Mt. Baker Experience, fall 2014.]

» Continue reading Encounters: a Creative Residency at the North Cascades Institute

Wild Nearby book cover

The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby

October 15th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

We’re excited to introduce you to a new book that explores the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades in lyrical words, informative maps and awesome photographs: The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby, by Braided River, a conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books. We are celebrating with several book launch presentations in and around Cascadia: Seattle, the Methow Valley, Everett, Leavenworth, Bellingham and at the Learning Center, with more events to come over the fall and winter!

Dietrich Romano Martin

In its colorful pages, Pulitzer Prize–winning author William Dietrich takes an imaginary hike through the region, explaining the rich natural and cultural history of the region while also examining future challenges facing this remote yet accessible ecosystem; Christian Martin profiles local folks who live, paint, write, study, recreate and educate in the North Cascades, including Fred Beckey, Saul Weisberg, Libby Mills, Bill Gaines, Molly Hashimoto and Ana Maria Spagna; prolific guidebook author Craig Romano offers routes to getting out and exploring the region, detailing day hikes, bicycle rides, paddling expeditions, ski outings, and car-camping options on both sides of the border. Other elements of this one-of-a-kind book include excerpts from Gary Snyder’s 1957 fire lookout journal, an inspirational foreword by Richard Louv, essays on native peoples, early explorers and pioneers of the North Cascades, a detailed conservation timeline and bibliography, lots of maps and — last but certainly not least — inspiring color photographs by the likes of Steph Abegg, Paul Bannick, Benj Drummond, John Scurlock, Andy Porter, John D’Onofrio, Brett Baunton, Paul Bannick, Ethan Welty and Art Wolfe and many other leading nature photographers.

October 10: The Mountaineers Program Center, Magnuson Park, Seattle

October 11-12: North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, Diablo Lake

October 15: Henry M. Jackson Wilderness Auditorium, Everett Community College, Everett

November 4: Twisp River Pub, Methow Valley

November 5: Skagit Station, Mt. Vernon

November 6: Syre Center, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham

November 7: Wenatchee River Institute, Leavenworth


Ticket prices and times vary; please visit ncascades.org/wildnearby or call (360) 854-2599 for details.

CascadePass.KRenz6

Cascade Pass: Go. Now!

August 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

I have recommended the hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to countless visitors in search of a day’s worth of adventure while working this summer at the National Park Service Visitor’s Center in Newhalem. Yet I, myself, had yet to experience it beyond the National Geographic topo map spread two-dimensionally under glass beneath my uniformed arms. Tragic, no?

This was recently remedied. Some highlights:

CascadePass.KRenz2After climbing 3.7 miles of moderate switchbacks to Cascade Pass, skip though a glaciated valley another 28 miles to Stehekin. Backpacking is the only way to access this tiny village, aside from a 2.5 hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan.
CascadePass.KRenz10Though the hour-long drive up Cascade River Road, from Marblemount, can be a beautiful challenge, it is one of the few hikes in the Park where you are immediately close-up to glaciers upon hitting the trail.
   CascadePass.KRenz4Rocks ‘n’ flowers, rocks ‘n’ flowers. The contrast between hard and angular rocks, eroded through eons, and colorful subalpine blossoms, the essence of ephemeral, is a treat throughout the entire journey.
CascadePass.KRenz3A tenacious team: Fungi and algae pair up to form this unidentified crustose lichen, growing ever so slowly on a rock in the harsh conditions of the alpine environment.
CascadePass.KRenzTrampling heather and other high-elevation shrubs is a huge problem in the subalpine. This is especially easy to do, even by the well-intentioned, when such plants are still covered in snow. The “social trails” criss-crossing these regions, most notably here above Doubtful Lake, are testament to our tendency to wander.
CascadePass.KRenz5After a scramble for the last half-mile or so to the top of Sahale Arm and the base of Sahale Glacier, there was….a family of mountain goats! Seven of them, including two kids. Their goaty antics provided high-peaks entertainment for a solid 45 minutes. Though they were cute and exciting, it’s prudent to remember they are, indeed, wild animals. Here are some suggestions from Washington Trails Association on what to do if you encounter a mountain goal along the trail.
CascadePass.KRenz8Sahale. The Native American name supposedly means “high” or “heavenly”. Yep.
CascadePass.KRenz7The view looking east. Even with fires raging in the Okanogan, the tallest mountains are still visible through the haze.
  CascadePass.KRenz10 Lupines fancy up the subalpine meadows, poking out amidst green grass, pink heather and touches of white bistort. The entire flower, or inflorescence, is made up of several individual flowers. Once one is pollinated, the banner (the top, single petal) morphs from blue-violet to magenta, signaling to bees to not waste their time and instead to get to work pollinating yet untouched blossoms. Smart things, those lupine.
CascadePass.KRenz9Looking south. The North Cascades aren’t called a “sea of peaks” for nothin’.
 
Leading photo: Three from the mountain goat crew contemplate the void (or something like that) after frolicking at Sahale Glacier.
 
All photos by author.
 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She would like to remind you that yes, there are a few rather epic backcountry campsites up on Sahale, but that you have to get a backcountry permit from the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount ONLY (not the Visitor’s Center in Newhalem) before heading up there with a fully loaded overnight pack. Have fun!