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When the Skagit Floods and Diablo Turns Green

December 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

In the photo above, WSDOT contractor crews replace washed out riprap to protect and repair State Route 20 along the Skagit River east of Rockport.

WSDOT Word of the Day:

 rip·rap
/ˈriprap/
North American
noun
noun: rip-rap
1. loose stone used to form a foundation for a breakwater or other structure.

Have you noticed the washout near Cascadian Farm?

Or the unusual color of Diablo Lake?

Last week the Skagit River rose to a high of 34.69 feet, according to the U.S. Geological Survey gauge in Concrete. The highest levels of flooding since 2006, according to the National Weather Service. Flood level is 28 feet.

What was originally forecasted to be minor flooding became major flooding throughout Skagit County, causing significant property damage and road closures.

» Continue reading When the Skagit Floods and Diablo Turns Green

Plight of the Pollinators

November 30th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Kay Gallagher, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Imagine yourself walking down to the local summer farmer’s market down by the town square. It’s the first warm day and you cannot wait to make a large juicy bowl of fruit salad for lunch. Summer time in the valley is your favorite, all winter you have eagerly anticipated the first fruits of the season. With your list in hand that you scribbled down this morning, juicy red tomatoes, green zucchini, bright yellow summer squash, perfectly round peaches, you set Chinese Teapots.


Produce from the local Twisp Farmers Market. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

After a short walk, you arrive at the farmers’ market, ready to fill your basket to the brim. You walk around and notice the usual vendors. The local bakery selling loaves of freshly made artisan bread, the various craftsmen selling their woolen blankets and knit scarves, the goat farmers selling their savory cheeses and assorted dairy products. Then you notice there are no fruit stands. No vegetable stands. There isn’t so much as a rogue berry in sight. Where are the fruits of summer you have been dreaming about since that first warm day of spring? It’s almost as if they have vanished overnight. They’re not there.


The colorful mosaic landscape of Patterson Mountain. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

You leave the farmer’s market quite perplexed, and decide to hike your favorite summer trail instead. On your drive to the trailhead you can picture the lush mountain sides and vast fields full of a colorful array of wildflowers from last summer, you can visualize the river coursing its way through the landscape in the valley below, with animal life whirring and scattered about. You arrive at the trailhead, and hop out of the car, eager for your adventure in the colorful mosaic. As you begin to hike, you notice that things aren’t as colorful as they used to be. There aren’t nearly as many wildflowers, the earth seems dry and crumbly with serious signs of erosion along the river bank below. The landscape is made up of various shades of brown. The air is noticeably quieter, without the hums and whizzing of winged insects flying about. The chatter of birds is absent, and the silence seems a little eerie. It’s a little too quiet. Something is missing, and then you realize …” Where have all the pollinators gone?”

» Continue reading Plight of the Pollinators

Better with Beavers: How partnerships with a rodent are helping restore watersheds in the Pacific Northwest

October 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Rob Rich

“In the beginning, there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline,” says the oral tradition of the Nuxalk, the coastal people who have lived for millennia near present-day Bella Coola, British Columbia. As the last ice age waned 12,000 years ago, their ancestors found home in that fertile rim of land and sea. And as temperatures rose, the once-frozen land must have churned in a vast soupy spillage, learning with ice-melt the forms we now call river, stream, pond. In this great thaw, when the earth emerged soaked and naked and surging to green, I trust a beaver knew what to do. I trust beavers were there, and also farther south in present-day Whatcom County, Washington, where I live. Before the county – and the creek, town, and lake – took the Whatcom name, I trust beavers were near the creek mouth and fish camp the Nooksack people dubbed Xwótqwem after the sound of water dripping, fast and hard.

» Continue reading Better with Beavers: How partnerships with a rodent are helping restore watersheds in the Pacific Northwest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

September 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Written by Master of Education graduate Sasha Savoian

Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop are two of the most heavily-visited trails off Highway 20 in the North Cascades range, offering access to the unique subalpine ecosystem blanketed in blooming heather in the late summer months.

On the eastern flank of the mountains, the trail to Blue Lake winds through engelmann spruce forest singing with golden crowned kinglets and dark-eyed juncos, into a meadow thick with clustered white valerian, dangling meadow rue, purple lupine, and bell-shaped jacob’s-ladder. It then crests above treeline with spectacular views of Liberty Bell Mountain, Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain toward the northwest. As altitude-loving larch trees appear, pink and white mountain heather pierce the edges of rocks along the trail leading to the aptly-named Blue Lake, where mountain goats are often spotted grazing on subalpine foliage 6,200 feet above sea level, a mere 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

Maple Pass in the North Cascades. Photo by Sasha Savoian

Maple-Heather Pass Loop travels 7 miles from the trailhead and back again through a shady forest of subalpine fir and spruce trees. Pacific wrens sing to an open with talus fields catering to furry hoary marmots and peeking pika. Grey crowned rosy finch and clark’s nutcracker songs slide through larch trees above while hearty heather beckons below, filling gaps between rocks among dotted saxifrage, bugle-shaped penstemon, splayed phlox and deep red indian paintbrush atop 6,600-foot rocky Maple Pass–one of the best views of the North Cascades.

But this dynamic alpine ecosystem is fragile! With their woody stems and short growing season, heather is easily crushed. It takes only 50 booted steps to destroy plants that take upwards of 1,000-5,000 years to establish as a successful colony. Heather plants stabilize soil, prevent wind and water erosion, trap nutrients and control temperature in the soil to promote growth of other alpine vegetation.

Restoration projects on Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop began in 2012 when the Methow Valley was chosen as one of 14 designated sites as part of the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences established to connect people and their communities to their forests and watersheds through community engagement and collaboration.

» Continue reading Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

Reflections of Diobsud Creek

September 6th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Story and art by Alexei Desmarais, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

What is natural history? Why do we engage in this practice? And what can it teach us about the world in which we live? And about our relationship with this world?

These questions prompted the line of inquiry that became my natural history project, sending me deep into the verdant forests of the Diobsud Creek drainage, digging through the literature, and searching the inner reaches of my personal landscape for resonance with this marvelous external landscape. A landscape which shapes and grounds my being.

What follows are a number of small excerpts from my project, the full booklet of which can be found in the Wild Ginger library at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

What is trustworthy in our lives?

Soil, Air, Light, Water.

The world is full. Each individual being exudes its own light. Face to face with rock, strewn with countless varieties of lichen and moss—feathery boa-like strands, cups, lettuce-like leaves—I feel diffuse heavenly light round the globe and spill through void and cloud and tree to reflect back into my retina. To spill over into my visual field. I reflect back out into the world…


Wren by Alexei Desmarais

The song of the white-crowned sparrow is not merely repetition. Not the unconscious manifestation of something encoded deep within the bird’s DNA. Not merely its heritage. Each song is unique. Each is a thing of inexplicable beauty—the spontaneous burgeoning forth of a lyrical expression wholly individual. A moment of immanence, in which sparrow, vibrating air, listeners (vibrating eardrums), and earth are wrapped into one common experience. Curled tightly into a song. This song is each time a unique expression of being in the world—a moment of creation inseparable (though also wholly distinct) from the artist’s grasp of stylus, brush, or bow. Each time an enactment of that mysterious event long ago, from which burst forth this miraculous world we inhabit.

» Continue reading Reflections of Diobsud Creek

In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History

August 26th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Why Orcas

Growing up, I have always been fascinated with whales. Orca, humpback, sperm, blue, narwhal… you name it! I have quite the collection of whale books on my shelves, some whale toys and other relics. I even have a large tattoo of a humpback whale. But when I moved out to the North Cascades for graduate school, I hadn’t realized I was moving toward these majestic creatures and my first wild orca encounter, potentially opening up a door for future research and educational work with marine life.

In January, I attended the Storming the Sound conference in La Conner, Washington. It was a small regional event with a strong marine theme, located on the shore of the Salish Sea. It blew my mind to think that I had driven less than two hours down the Skagit Valley, just below the Cascade crest, and I was now in a completely different ecosystem, yet still connected to the rugged, steep mountains. The last session of the conference was Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network, presenting on the Southern Resident orcas and their intertwined fate with Chinook salmon. I sat engaged, listening to Howard speak about his lifetime of research on the orcas and how it is so close geographically to me. I was emotionally compelled by his presentation and taken aback by the current status of the Southern Resident population.

Active Research

After my experience at Storming the Sound and upon my selection of this natural history topic, I did the first thing any whale fanatic living in close proximity to marine life would do, I signed up to go whale watching! During spring break, I embarked on a five-hour wildlife search on a commercial whale watching tour. Ideally, this would have played out as a sea kayaking trip or small watercraft, something more intimate on shore, but for my time and resources, this was the perfect opportunity for me. Despite being on the mend from the flu, I donned my binoculars and rain gear, keeping my camera, field notebook, and tea in my hand to board a 70-person or so capacity boat with my husband.

Notebook in hand, ready to see some wildlife! Photo courtesy of Rachael Grasso

Leaving from Anacortes, the trip was one of the first of the season for Island Adventures, a whale watching tour company. Our captain was chatting over the loudspeaker while the tour guide, Brooke, was checking the tickets of boarding passengers. Once the boat left the dock, a bald eagle immediately flew by, graceful as ever. To me, this was a positive sign that the day was going to be filled with wildlife. Nevertheless, I did not want to peak with excitement then crash into disappointment if we were out for the day and didn’t see any whales. So I remained calm, keeping my eyes focused on the shoreline.

» Continue reading In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History