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Pacific Wren

Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More

November 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

By Rob Rich

I came to the Pacific Northwest for many reasons, but one of them was, well, for the birds. Were those harlequin ducks for real? What was so special about the Pacific wren? And oh, how I longed to see the red-shafted Northern Flicker! These were some of my last thoughts before finally chasing the sun towards the Salish Sea. But since most birds don’t migrate from East to West, I knew I’d need a guide to set me straight.

Thankfully, I’d planned North Cascades Institute’s Spring Birding to be my first stop upon arrival. That’s right, I signed up from 3,000 miles away, tossed out my moving boxes in Bellingham and settled first things first: learning birds in the field with Libby Mills.

If you too feel like a lost goose at times, do not fear. Spring Birding is back, as are a host of other older Institute favorites – and some new ones that look out of this world. Literally. Where else but North Cascades Institute can you take a class that is astronomically synchronized for the nighttime awe of photographers? And where else can you hang out with snake experts, or decipher the clues of wildlife tracks in our precious winterscapes? As always, the great unveiling of the Institute’s January-June courses will expose natural curiosities you never knew you had. Experienced and emerging naturalists alike will both be forced to reckon with a growing list of reasons why the North Cascades are where it’s at.

Night photo

» Continue reading Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More

NCI Snyder SourDough 2

Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

November 7th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“August on Sourdough,

A Visit from Dick Brewer”

Poem by Gary Snyder from The Back Country; a reading with Rob Rich

You hitched a thousand miles

north from San Francisco

Hiked up the mountainside     a mile in the air

Thy little cabin – one room –

walled in glass

Meadows and snowfields,     hundreds of peaks.

We lay in our sleeping bags

talking half the night;

Wind in the guy-cables      summer mountain rain.

Next morning I went with you

as far as the cliffs,

Loaned you my poncho –      the rain across the shale –

You down the snowfield

flapping in the wind

Waving a last goodbye      half hidden in the clouds

To go on hitching

clear to New York;

Me back to my mountain      and far, far, west.



Just behind the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, Sourdough Mountain looms. This fabled peak has enjoyed a front row seat to generations of comings and goings in the Upper Skagit: a glacial lake draining, indigenous peoples journeying to quarry ancient sea-floor stones, newcomers paving Route 20 through gorges, your car rumbling through them.

» Continue reading Gary Snyder’s “August on Sourdough, A Visit from Dick Brewer”

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Tim McNulty’s “Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

October 31st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”

Poem by Tim McNulty; a reading with Rob Rich

A late-summer sun
threads the needles of McMillan Spires
and disappears in a reef of a coral cloud.

Winds roil the mountain trees,
batter the shutter props.

I light a candle with the coming dark.
Its reflection in the window glass
flickers over mountains and
shadowed valleys
seventeen miles north to Canada.

Not another light.

The lookout is a dim star
anchored to rib of the planet
like a skiff to a shoal
in a wheeling sea of stars.

Night sky at full flood.

Wildly awake.

Sourdough Lookout

During our recent lunar eclipse, I know an awestruck child who asked that most earnest strain of seven-year old sincerity: “Daddy, where’s earth?” Though I had lacked the courage to so boldly echo her question, I couldn’t help but to smile in agreement. Just how is it that our real experience on this planet be so utterly surprising and mysterious…so unearthly?

» Continue reading Tim McNulty’s “Night, Sourdough Mountain Lookout”


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”

Ana Maria Spagna B&W

Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident

October 1st, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Ana Maria Spagna reads from her new book Reclaimers at Village Books in Bellingham on Thursday, October 8, at 7 pm as part of our Nature of Writing Fall Speaker Series; free! Read a book review by our communications coordinator Christian Martin at

Like many people who choose to live in the North Cascades, Ana Maria Spagna has patched together jobs, passions, and pursuits that inform and inspire each other. Through perseverance and pluck, she has created a life and livelihood in one of the more remote communities in America: Stehekin, a village of fewer than one hundred year-round residents that is accessible only by float plane, a three-hour boat ride, or a long hike over the mountains.

Spagna grew up in Riverside, California, but a camping trip to Oregon as a teenager connected her with the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. “I loved the green forests and the blue sky and even the rain,” she remembers, “and I swore that if I ever made it back, I’d never leave.”

After graduating from college, she spent a summer volunteering with the Student Conservation Association in Canyonlands National Park, which led her to apply for jobs in other parks around the West. She landed in Stehekin in 1990 at age twenty-two to work for the North Cascades National Park.

“I had never been there, didn’t know you had to take a boat to get there,” she admits. “I arrived and saw those mountains and was completely wowed!”

The community of Stehekin sits at the northwest end of Lake Chelan, a fifty-five-mile-long fjord-like lake carved by glaciers, the third deepest lake in the country. The village is surrounded by steep mountains rising seven thousand feet above the valley floor. There are no shopping malls or Starbucks, though the internet and a few phones connect inhabitants to the outside world. Cabins are scattered for nine miles up the valley along the meandering Stehekin River. Summertime temperatures can be upward of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while winters bring long periods of snow and subfreezing temperatures. It is a place for people who like solitude and living close to nature.

Spagna was first assigned a desk job, but she spent every weekend exploring the mountains, eventually joining a trail crew. The transitory nature of trail work had her stationed in Marblemount for a couple of years and then out of Darrington, working in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, for a few more.

She cleared trails with chainsaw, brush whips, and loppers, maintained bridges, worked on tread with a pulaski, and cleared rockslides with explosives. She would often camp in the woods for eight days at a time, putting in ten-hour days with a crew of four or five people, mostly men.

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna: Writer, Trail Worker, Stehekin Resident


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.

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“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.)”

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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