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Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”

October 6th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by Ana Maria Spagna; an excerpt from the Prologue “The Low Ground” to Reclaimers, (UW Press 2015)

Spagna reads from her new book at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

When I started telling friends about my interest in reclamation, everyone had a story. Did I know about High Line Park in New York City on a reclaimed elevated freight rail? How about Seattle’s plan to reclaim wasted heat from data centers, the so-called Cloud, to power nearby neighborhoods? Reclaiming appeared everywhere, out of nowhere; it seemed to be, in some ways, the backdrop of our time. Nearly every major American city has a re-store where would-be remodelers can buy lumber and hardware salvaged from demolished buildings. Most watersheds have seen restoration, and some—the Hudson, the Cuyahoga—have been nothing short of miraculous. Even small-scale dam removal, it turns out, was nothing new. The nonprofit river advocacy group American Rivers estimates that in the past century 925 dams have been removed from rivers.
Then there were Native Americans. If reclamation—at least the way it interested me—had to do with land and water, the original inhabitants were the ones with the most at stake. For the past fifty years, I’d learn, all across the country Indian tribes have been taking back what’s been stolen from them: the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the Menominee in Wisconsin, the Passamaquoddy in Maine, the Colville in Washington.
At the beginning, I didn’t know any of this. I wouldn’t until I left home.

So I did. I took a long solo trip—or more precisely a series of them—spurred by curiosity and hemmed by my own geography and finances. Over three years, I’d yo-yo up and down the west edge of the continent on either side of the long strip of mountains—Panamints, Sierras, Cascades—that have defined my adult life and alongside rivers that have, in literal ways, sustained me—the Feather, the Columbia, the Stehekin—in an aging Buick along a zigzagging dot-to-dot route that loosely connects where I grew up in a desert suburb of Los Angeles to where I’ve landed in the North Cascades. I’d walk over sand dunes past lime green mesquite and follow game trails among dormant oaks, watch steelhead through glass and befriend a single red fox. I’d talk to elders and activists, bureaucrats and lawyers and small town mechanics. I’d tell everyone my three part theory of reclaiming, and if their eyes occasionally glazed over at “taking back” and “making right”—weary perhaps of the eternal moral tug-of-war—by the time I got to “make useful” they had some things to say. And I tried to listen.



The sign approaching Death Valley that names it “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone”

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna’s “Reclaimers”


Poetry: Rhythm and Reflection in the North Cascades

September 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes



Fingers of smoke from wildfires
reach down Big Beaver and Pierce Creek valleys
and cover the deep blue of Ross Lake
like a quilt.

The drift mingles with other smokestreams
from Ruby and Thunder creeks,
where mountains, too,
have been touched by the sky.

Smoke clouds curl around Sourdough Mountain,
where I sit in the clear blue center
of this gesture: mudra
of the mountain Buddhas.

Waft of incense from a world renewed,
forests / meadows
rained into soil.
The teachings come round again.

Tim McNulty, from Through High Still Air: A Season at Sourdough Mountain



The cries of migrating swans
stitch the clouds together,
white on white.

Rain yesterday,
sun this afternoon,
cold trees shedding leaves.

In the brown reeds
a red-winged blackbird
remembers his summer song.

Each stroke of my paddle
brings me closer
to those I love.

— Saul Weisberg, from Headwaters: Poems & Field Notes

Join Institute founder and executive director Saul Weisberg and poet & essayist Tim McNulty September 25-27 for a fall weekend in the North Cascades exploring poetry and the outdoors; registration includes instruction, organic meals and overnight accommodations on Diablo Lake. Details at…/programs/poetry-with-tim-and-saul and (360) 854-2599.

too high too steep Williams 3

“Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle

September 14th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Guest post by David B. Williams

Williams’ reads from his new book Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography at Village Books in Bellingham on September 16 at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free!

More so than most cities, Seattle has shaped itself to suit its needs. The citizens of Seattle have dug up, dug into, dumped upon, and carted away its original topography as few other cities have. They eliminated hills, cut canals, killed rivers, replumbed lakes, and built islands, in the process completely reshaping many parts of the landscape. And they did most of this within 75 years of the settlers’ landing. Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography explores these unprecedented engineering projects by weaving together history, geology, and on the ground exploration.

As Michael Upchurch wrote in a Seattle Times review: “Williams does a marvelous job of evoking the cityscape that used to be. He clues us in to the spirit of civic ambition that drove Seattle’s geographical transformations. He methodically chronicles the stages by which its regrade, canal and landfill projects were accomplished. And he’s meticulous about placing his readers on present-day street corners where they can, with some sleight of mind, glimpse the hills, lake shores and tide flats that vanished. (Maps, illustrations and archival photographs help.)”

too high too steep Williams 2

Building Seattle – A few tidbits on interest discussed in Too High and Too Steep.

  • Filling in the tideflats of the Duwamish River created approximately 2,500 acres of new land.
  • No dirt from Denny Hill went into making Harbor Island.
  • The largest single hill regrading took place around Jackson Street when 56 blocks were regraded between 1907 and 1909.
  • Nearby was the Dearborn Street regrade, which created the valley now spanned by the Jose Rizal Bridge on Twelfth Avenue.
  • When Lake Washington was lowered by nine feet with the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, it led to the loss of 90 percent of the lake’s wetlands.
  • Building the locks and canal resulted in the establishment of one of the final whaling fleets in the United States, which overwintered in Meydenbauer Bay.
  • Total dirt moved during the city’s various engineering projects was at least 75 million cubic yards.
  • The regrades were paid for by people who lived in the regrades, not by the city.
  • One failed project called for a canal through Beacon Hill to connect Elliott Bay with Lake Washington.
  • Seattle’s first big tunnel under the city, which runs for a mile, was cut by hand and completed on time.
  • When the Alaskan Way Viaduct was completed, the Seattle P-I labeled it the “royal necklace across the bosom of the Queen City of the Pacific Northwest.”

» Continue reading “Too High and Too Steep”: David Williams’ new book on reshaping Seattle


Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 2)

September 10th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Mike Rosekrans

The grizzly has been a part of the North American continent for fifty thousand years. Grizzlies are part of the Brown Bear family that originated in Eurasia and crossed the Bering land bridge during the last ice age. For nearly 10,000 years grizzlies and humans coexisted in North America. Many first nations and indigenous tribes revered the great bear and honored it in ceremony. Many Native American legends even include the grizzly in creation stories.

North America once held as many as 100,000 grizzly bears in a range extending from the northernmost tip of Alaska, across the Yukon, down through the Cascade, Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges of Washington, Oregon, and California; down the entire stretch of the Rocky Mountains; into the great plains as far east as Minnesota and down to Mexico’s Sierra Madre.


Today the grizzly bear inhabits a mere 2% of its former range in the contiguous United States.

How did an animal as great as the grizzly, a top predator in the ecosystems it inhabited, nearly reach the point of extermination?

To answer this question we need only look to one of America’s proudest accomplishments: the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The grizzly bear has been an animal surrounded by myth and has been associated with trepidation and animosity since the Lewis and Clark Expedition first came across the large bruin in 1804. Journals from the expedition described the grizzly as a “monster bear and a most terrible enemy.” The killing and eradication began with this expedition where they were said to have killed about 40 grizzlies.

» Continue reading Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part 2)


Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part one)

August 8th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Mike Rosekrans

“In late September 1967, Rocky and Lenora Wilson had packed up to Fisher Basin, one of their favorite places, for the ‘high hunt.’ During twilight hours, a large bear came down to the creek close by camp. Rocky lifted his old rifle and got off a good shot. While he knew it was ‘a big’un,’ he didn’t see that it had a shoulder hump and frosted coat until he got to the kill. This was the last known grizzly bear to be taken in the Cascades. A year later, the North Cascades National Park bill was signed, prohibiting hunting in that place and throughout the newly established National Park.”

— Jim Harris, “My Place in the Mountains”

I was on day two of a five-day backpacking trip in the most densely populated grizzly area in the lower 48 states, Glacier National Park. My itinerary, which had been printed and given to me by the backcountry wilderness office, showed that I had 11 miles to my next camp that evening, which included a 2500 ascent up Stony Indian Pass. After hiking the first 5 miles I forded a waist-deep river, where on the other bank I saw a trail sign which read, “Stony Indian Pass 10.5 miles.” How could I have already hiked 5 miles and have another 10 until the pass when my entire trail mileage for the day was only 11? A sinking feeling descended from my throat to the bottom of my gut as the realization set in that the wilderness office had given me the wrong mileage on my itinerary. Here on this rainy July day it was already late morning and I still had 18 miles to hike with a 45-pound pack on my back, up and over a steep pass.

With nothing else to do I put my pack back on and started swiftly hiking toward the pass. Clouds engulfed the high peaks and the rain made seasonal creeks swell and difficult to cross. By mid-afternoon I had reached the pass and saw the clear blue sky and the awe-inspiring mountains to the northwest. I began my descent through overgrown thimbleberry, which made the trail all but invisible. Down, down, down I hiked, every five minutes or so shouting, “Hey Bear.” At 5:00 p.m. I reached a junction that divided the trail to the north and south. Only two more miles and I would be at camp for the night.

After descending such a steep trail the flat ground felt wonderful on my legs and despite walking 20 miles already that day I felt energetic and alert. About a half mile from the trail junction I saw a big, brown animal with a hump on its back and it’s head down coming straight towards me. I instantly knew this was a grizzly bear and shouted, “Hey Bear!” at the top of my lungs as my hands reached toward my hip belt, where my bear spray was strapped. The bear stopped, looked at me, put its head down, and continued walking toward me. I yelled again, “BEAR, STOP!” It once again stopped, this time about ten yards from me. It sat down on its haunches and put its snout in the air and started sniffing. The instant it got a whiff of my scent it sat up, turned, and walked off the trail, giving me the right of way. In Glacier National Park, which is famous for it’s population of more than 300 grizzly bears, I had had an authentic encounter with a bruin itself. It didn’t charge me, it didn’t attack me, and it simply wanted nothing to do with me as it went on its way.

» Continue reading Grizzly Bears In the Pacific Northwest: A Natural History (Part one)

orchard mason bee

Mason Bees and Honey Bees: What’s the Difference?

July 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Kevin Sutton

There were some things I knew about bees when starting this project; what I didn’t know was exactly how much I didn’t know.

When someone says “bees”, I immediately think of the western honeybee (Apis mellifera).  Maybe it’s because of the honey bee’s depiction in popular culture (see Honey Nut Cheerios) or maybe it’s because of the long relationship between humans and bees.

Humans have been trying to domesticate honey bees for thousands of years; evidence has been found in cave paintings in Spain, hieroglyphs in Egypt, on coins in Greece, and more and it makes sense; bees give us honey, wax, and all of our food through pollinating our crops.

The term wild bee is used for those species that don’t produce honey.  There are 20,000 species of bee in the world, 4,000 native to North America, and 600 native to Washington alone.  With such daunting numbers, I focused on one particular native bee, the orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria).

While similar to A. mellifera in size and shape, O. lignaria differs in coloring, some physical attributes (fig. 1), and most significantly, social structure:

O. lignaria A. mellifera
Metallic blue/green Classic yellow and black striped
Nest in tubes, holes, hollow reeds, etc. Builds a hive of wax
Solitary but will live near other mason bees Social: lives in colonies up to 70,000
Each female lays eggs Only the queen lays eggs
Average range of 100 yards Average range of two miles
250 – 300 bees sufficient to pollinate 1 acre one hive per acre (30,000 – 70,000 bees)
Gathers pollen by stuffing it between hairs on abdomen Gathers pollen by storing it in specially adapted pockets on the rear legs
Stores pockets of pollen between larva Turns pollen into honey and stores for winter
Eggs hatch in summer, larva hibernate through winter, emerge as bees in spring, repeat Eggs regularly tended, hive comes together during winter (like penguins), become more active in spring


Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.38.36 PM

For my project, I wanted to see if there were mason bees at the North Cascades Institute.  To do that, I constructed two mason bee houses and stashed them in a rock wall near my house.  Each house is made of the same materials (wood for a base, support, and backing and a compressed cardboard tube for the shell) but the internal pieces, where the Mason Bees will hopefully nest, are different.  The interior nesting holes in house one are made from commercially drilled slats of wood that have been taped together, while the nesting holes in house two are from pieces of bamboo I cut, dried, and tied together (fig. 2).

Screen Shot 2015-07-23 at 1.38.44 PM

I put the houses outside on May 15, 2015 but as of this writing, June 12, 2015, there is no sign of use.  My research said most mason bees are actively laying eggs in early April and with the unusually early and warm spring we’ve had, I expect the process began much earlier than that.  Both houses will stay up until September when I transfer to Bellingham and if nothing else, will try again in March 2016 when I return to my house and garden in Portland, OR.


Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications

July 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Chelsea Elizabeth Ernst, Candidate for Master’s of Environmental Education

The North Cascades are a rugged and dramatic landscape that offers habitat to thousands of plant and animal species and is an epicenter for biodiversity in the contiguous 48 United States. The ecosystem within North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is a popular location for mountaineers and naturalists alike. Many of the people who visit NOCA come hoping to see one of its charismatic megafauna, including American black bear, grey wolf, or the elusive wolverine.

However, an often-overlooked group of organisms that thrive in the Park are amphibians. Not only are these creatures fun to search for and fascinating to study, they are an important contributor to the NOCA ecosystem. Wild and preserved places like NOCA offer amphibians a large landscape in which to thrive, in a world where their numbers are rapidly declining due to anthropogenic effects. Proper research, public education and management strategies can help maintain healthy populations in a group of organisms that are incredibly sensitive to human activity and global climate change.


Western redback salamander

The Importance of Amphibians to Ecosystems and People

Due to the nature of amphibious life cycles, being both aquatic and terrestrial, they occupy multiple trophic levels — as predators, primary consumers, detritivores, cannibals, and either specialists or opportunists — and provide a variety of ecosystem services. (Hocking & Babbitt, 2014, pg. 6).

As larvae, many salamanders and frogs are aquatic and regulate nutrient cycling in streams, ponds, and riparian areas. Nutrient cycling contribution by amphibians is apparent in every stage of their life cycle: from eggs that do not hatch providing nutrients to larger riparian consumers to tadpoles scraping diatoms off of rocks. As adults, they can comprise a large portion of the biomass aquatic ecosystems.

Amphibians also play a role in providing ecosystem services that affect people. Frogs often eat insects that that are capable of spreading disease among humans. Culturally, frogs have been important as a clan totem for Native American tribes such as the Tlingit in Alaska. According to the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Center website (2011):

The frog is a sign to our people to put away the winter activities and prepare for a new season. The frog symbolizes cleansing, peace and rebirth. In Northwest Aboriginal Culture, a Frog is a great communicator and often represents the common ground or voice of the people. A Frog embodies magic and good fortune connected with shaman or medicine man and with spiritual and therapeutic cleansing. Frog’s songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. Frog is a messenger and communicator between species being valued for his adaptability because he freely travels between and survives in two worlds land and water, inhabiting both natural and supernatural realms. (Animal Symbology)

Frogs and salamanders have been important throughout history to humans physically and spiritually. They also provide nostalgia for many folks who enjoyed tromping about riparian areas as children in search of amphibious friends.

Western toad

Amphibians’ Environmental Sensitivity

Amphibians are considered indicator species in the ecosystems they inhabit. When their populations decrease, it is often the first sign to humans that other organisms are at risk and that that ecosystem may be unhealthy. Certain aspects of amphibians’ physiology and ecology make them particularly sensitive to changes in ecosystems. As a result of these sensitivities to largely anthropogenic-induced fluctuations in their habitats, Hocking and Babbitt (2014) write that “amphibians are currently the most imperiled class, with approximately 41% of more than 7,000 amphibian species on the planet threatened with extinction” (pg. 1).

Because amphibians require water during part or all of their life cycle, climate change has a substantial impact on them. In the west, important amphibian habitats like high alpine lakes and montane wetlands are drying and warming (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014). Their physiology makes them sensitive to climate change, among other environmental factors. Amphibians breathe cutaneously, absorbing moisture through their skin as part of their respiration process and to stay hydrated. They are ectothermic and require water to regulate their body temperature.

In addition to climate change, deforestation can affect this balance of moisture in ecosystems. Amphibian populations are also sensitive to UV light (Adams et al., 2005), diseases like Chytrid fungus (Chestnut et al., 2014), habitat fragmentation (Pilliod & Wind, 2008), and the introduction of non-native species to habitats (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014).

With the variety of anthropogenic factors that have negative effects on amphibians and the increasing human population, the cause of worldwide amphibian vulnerability is clear. This highlights the importance of amphibian research in relatively untrammelled habitats like NOCA.

Amphibian Habitats in North Cascades National Park

» Continue reading Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications