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Milwakee ticket Kim Hall

Tales from a Greyhound Bus: From Goodbyes to New Beginnings

April 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

By Kimberly Hall

March 28th, 2014

10:38 am

Somewhere in South Seattle

We n’de ya ho

We n’de ya ho

Win de yah

Win de yah ho ho ho ho

He ya ho he ya ho

Ya ya ya

This was my absolute favorite song to share with students as they prepared to head home after their experience at Mountain School. We n’de ya ho is a traditional Cherokee song used to greet the morning, a song about new beginnings. So why, you ask, would I choose to sing about commencement with Mountain School students as they wrap up their time in the North Cascades?

For me, the three-day Mountain School experience is not resigned to this one isolated event. Instead, it is the beginning of something bigger, the start of a new phase in life. I hope that, with this experience, many of our students can now see the world with fresh eyes, with a fresh start, one overflowing with hope and opportunity.

It is this song that has been running through my head all day. I stare out a plate glass window on an east-bound Greyhound bus heading from Seattle, Washington to Louisville, Kentucky, humming Win-de-ya-ho.

I just finished up my two-year graduate program at Western Washington University with a year-long residency at the North Cascades Institute and spent the past few days tearfully saying goodbye to this place that has become my home and the people who have become my family. Like the song says, while I close one chapter of my life and am departing from the North Cascades, I am embarking on a new adventure full of amazing people that I have yet to meet and amazing adventures that are sure to be had. Within a week, I will be starting a job as program coordinator for a non-profit in Ithaca, New York.

But before I can even consider accepting my new beginning and this next season of my life, I need time, time to say goodbye, to come to terms with what I am leaving behind in order to truly embrace the road ahead. And what better way to give myself ample time and plenty of opportunities to process and reflect than to undertake a 60-plus hour Greyhound bus ride across the country?

So here I find myself, preparing for the physical and mental journey ahead of me with a poster of the North Cascades mountain range in one hand and a bag full of peanut butter sandwiches in the other. My trip begins with my eyes glued to the window. I watch as the tireless rain permeates the entire city. I watch as Seattle disappears from view. I watch as my home is slowly enveloped by rain, fog and a pair of misty eyes. All I can do is sit here, staring out the Greyhound bus window, and watch as everything I love grows farther and farther away.

snow 2 greyhound Kim HallGreyhound-ing through the weather: The wet landscape through teary eyes and a bus window. Photo by author.

March 28th, 2014

6:24 pm

Northern Idaho

We just whizzed past Coeur d’Alene Lake in Idaho. It’s amazing how many beautiful spots I have already seen along the road thus far. I am beginning to realize that I may have eyes for more than my North Cascades abode. As we round each bend along Interstate 90, white patches of snow grow steadily from my window frame and now the trees are blanketed in winter’s persistence. I feel myself slowly letting go of my sadness in departing from the Pacific Northwest with each southeastern rotation of the tire. The cloud that has been hanging over my head over the past week is beginning to break up, although the rain continues to pitter-patter down my window, lulling me to sleep…


March 29th, 2014

4:05 pm

Near Oacoma, South Dakota

The mountains have long since disappeared from the bus’ rear-view mirror. Wyoming and Montana were breathtaking. We climbed up and over mountain ranges as I stared out as the snow, and rain, and occasional ray of sun light attempted to penetrate my bus window.

All morning, my heavy eyelids and the rocking of the bus have coaxed me to sleep more times than I can count. Every half hour or so, I awake to picturesque views of mountains, lakes and valleys. “I could live here,” I murmur as I drift off to sleep once again.

Montana greyhound kim hallMontana! Photo by author.

The majority of last night was spent tossing and turning in my seat as the bus rolled onward through Montana. A few random travelers behind me, who met on the bus in Idaho, fell madly in love across eastern Montana. Thus, I had the privilege of spending most of the night conducting an anthropological study of the social behavior of the pair of bus-riding human specimens.

Cupid coaxed them to drink heavily despite the constant reminder of Greyhound rules over the bus’ loudspeaker. I soon realized that I may have been a little too close to the lovebirds to safely conduct my observational study. By Butte, Montana, the extremely intoxicated female had attempted to give me a foot massage four times, and halfway to Billings, I awoke to her shadowy figure hunched over me. “Dude. Do you need something?” I barked, the words slurring out of my half-awake mouth. Apparently, the combination of new love and half of a bottle of whiskey left her speechless, and her partner had to pull her back to her seat. My study ended abruptly as I grabbed my pillow and resolved to find another spot to rest my head for a few hours, away from the star-crossed lovers.

Albeit groggy, I am on my 36th hour on the road and the flatness of South Dakota is beginning to make me truly feel the length of this trip. Why did I want to do this again? I sink further down into my seat. Yet, even as I say that, I know, without a doubt, I am doing the right thing. While exhausted, undoubtedly pungent and still missing my mountain home, I feel that this adventure has already been quite therapeutic for me. I am beginning to accept my new lot in life and am almost feeling a twinge of excitement for my new job in upstate New York and my life down the road. Who knows what lies ahead for me on the rest of this trip? I am sure plenty of adventures are yet to be had as we whiz through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana…


March 30th, 2014


Just outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

It is now hour 51 of my journey, and I can officially say that I have mastered the art of riding the Greyhound. So far, I have transferred onto six different buses across seven states, and I have found that the single most important piece of advice to give fellow riders is to claim your territory. If you know me at all, you must be aware that I am not one to push my way to the front of the line. I am more often found in the back, content with a slow and steady pace. But Greyhound Kim has learned that bus life is a dog eat dog world (pardon the pun). In order to ensure your comfort and ability to catch a few winks of sleep, you must acquire a pair of seats. The way to do so is to think strategically and become a little ruthless.

The first step is to directly get in line to load the bus immediately after disembarking. It may be tempting to visit the luxurious bathrooms at the bus station where water flows freely and the toilet bowl does not slosh around beneath you, but this would be a rookie mistake. Doing so will cost you your spot in line, a comfortable seat and often a full night’s sleep. Instead, you must remain steadfast, standing your ground and place in line.

Once you are on the bus, you must scramble to find an open two-seater and set-up your area. This requires strewing your stuff all around the seat, like you have been living in that spot for about four months. I found that the crazier your area looks, the more likely you are to get to keep it to yourself. Fortunately for me, I brought along a wooden stick that I acquired during my time in Senegal, West Africa. I simply place the stick over the seat where it slightly pokes out into the aisle, deterring passerbys from attempting to sit next to the crazy stick lady.

The final and most crucial step is to play dead. As soon as you have successfully built your nest, you must sit in the seat closest to the aisle and lay across all of your stuff into the other seat. At this stage, you must remain motionless and appear fast asleep, dead or somewhere in between. Eyes must be closed at all times as any eye contact between other passengers is seen as invitation for a seat partner. Do not move until the bus is on the road once again.

isle greyhound kim hallBeware the crazy stick lady. Consecutive hours on the Greyhound bus may lead to rapid behavioral adaptations in mammals. Photo by author.

Now, these strategies may seem a little heartless, desperate and one move shy of “seat’s taken”, but this has literally been the key to maintaining my sanity on the road. And it works as a sort of self-selecting system, separating the men from the boys. It is the newbies on the bus who have yet to learn the tricks of the trade that end up with seat partners. They sit wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, smiling at passengers as they board the bus, quickly losing their open seat. I know, for I used to be one of them, but was hardened to the Greyhound way of life somewhere outside of Spokane. It is the veterans who have been on route for days, are desperate for space and sleep, and will go to great lengths to claim their spot. Thus, bus homeostasis is found and the natural order of the Greyhound hierarchy reigns supreme.


March 30th, 2014


So close to Louisville, Kentucky

I am more than ready to be off this bus. My back hurts. I smell like a giant foot. My hair is greasy to the point of embarrassment. My ankles are swollen. And I am steadily beginning to lose my mind.

But fortunately for my sanity and hygiene, I am almost home! Twenty more minutes, and I will be off this bus where my momma will scoop me up in a puddle and sweep me away in her personal vehicle equipped with ample leg room. We will head off into the sunset together and, in less than an hour, I will be in my hometown with a bowl of chili in my hands, watching the 2nd half of the UK vs. Michigan Elite Eight game. GO CATS!

As ready as I am to be home, I am so thankful to have had this time with nowhere to go and nothing to do, except to process these past two years.

I now feel ready to close this chapter in my life and say goodbye. Goodbye to North Cascades that I was just beginning to explore, to the Learning Center that always made me instantly feel at home, and most of all, to the people that have made the past two years so important, to the people who accepted me with all of my quirks and flaws, to the people who are now my family. As I prepare to disembark, I am ready to leave my tears and pangs of sadness behind on this Greyhound bus, but I will carry the memories of the Pacific Northwest in my heart forever.

Thank you to everyone who made it so incredibly hard to leave that I was forced to spend three days on a Greyhound bus to find a way to finally say goodbye.

First morning greyhound Kim HallLooking east into the sunrise from another Greyhound morning. What happens to time when one is traveling cross-country for three continuous days? Photo by author.


Leading photo: We ain’t in the Pacific Northwest no more….A window shot of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by author.

Kimberly Hall recently graduated from North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is ready to rock “We n’de ya ho” with a new flock of little students in the Northeast.

Ed. note: Kudos to Kim for taking the time to see an entire stretch of our nation, getting to know her neighbors (despite playing dead at times) and choosing the less comfortable but far more ecologically intelligent travel option. We will miss you a ton here at the Environmental Learning Center, but are excited for your next phase in life!





Special Event: Poet Holly J. Hughes Reading, Bellingham 4/12

April 9th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Sailing by Ravens
A reading by Holly J. Hughes
April 12, 2014; 7 pm
Readings Gallery at Village Books, 1200 11th Street, Bellingham

This Saturday evening, former Alaskan salmon gillnetter, mariner, editor and naturalist Holly J. Hughes shares her latest book of poetry, Sailing by Ravens (University of Alaska Press, 2014) as part of Village Books and North Cascades Institute’s Nature of Writing Series.

Using a variety of poetic forms, Hughes deftly explores how we find our way, at sea, in love and in life. Hughes draws from more than 30 seasons working at sea, offering a lyrical view of the history of navigation, plumbing its metaphorical richness. From the four points of the compass, Hughes navigates “the wavering, certain path” of a woman’s heart, learning to trust a deeper knowledge. This collection offers wisdom culled from direct experience and careful attention, taking us with her in her quest to chart her own course. “How will she learn to ride the swell, let the earth curve her?” This poet’s questions open us to possibilities as vast as the ocean.

Sailing by Ravens is a deeply moving portrait of a sailor and her ocean.  It’s a look back at love and loss and the Alaskan fishing life. It’s a history of sailing and navigation, a study of a dissolving marriage, a gorgeous map of the body and desire. It’s an impressive book of forms and an ingeniously crafted whole. Holly Hughes takes on the familiar metaphor of the ocean, then makes it necessary and new. I’m awestruck.
–Kathleen Flenniken, Washington State Poet Laureate, author of Plume and Famous

Hughes is a recipient of a Washington State Artist Trust Fellowship and residencies at Hedgebrook, Centrum and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poems have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including Dancing With Joy: 99 Poems (Random House), The Poet’s Guide to Birds (Anhinga Press), Working the Woods, Working the Sea (Empty Bowl Press), and America Zen: A Gathering of Poets (Bottom Dog Press).

She teaches writing at Edmonds Community College, where she directs the Convergence Writers Series and received the Excellence in Education Award in 2012.  She has also spent over thirty summers working on the water in Alaska in a variety of roles, including commercial fishing for salmon, skippering a 65-foot schooner, and more recently, working as a naturalist on ships.

Some samples from Sailing by Ravens:

Steering by Monarchs 


She forgot the instruments and steered instead

by butterflies knowing nothing human could be that sure.  

~Alison Hawthorne Deming, The Monarchs


Fog thick enough to lick, horizon a blanket,

pearl gleam of sun.  Sure, the sea trips

the mind, conjures creatures but what’s

this dusty heartbeat of wing?

First one.  Then another.  And another.

How to account for this river of wings

flowing south through generations?

She watches the monarchs drift—

cloud of orange and black—

Western mind says discount,

but knows better than to dismiss.

She abandons the instruments,

tracks by dusty heartbeat,

joins the wavering, certain path.

Sailing by Ravens


They have no chart, no sailing directions.

Instead three ravens to find Iceland.

 ~ Islendingabok 


Planks creak, sails shudder in unseen wind.  At the tiller,

Floki faces astern, watches the Faroes diminish


to flat line of horizon.  They ride a barrel stave of latitude,

sight each night with the husonatra the Guiding Star.


On the first day out of sight of the Faroes, Floki released a raven. 

Lifts dark wings into an empty sky, an exclamation point,


wings off, shadows another ship’s wake home.

On the second day another raven is released.  Circles, a question,


lights upon the ship’s mast, an answer.  On the third day,

another raven climbed to a great height, flew off purposefully to the west.


A raven can see land ninety miles away  

Floki could see the raven to a height of 5,000 feet.


What next?  Black V of wings diminishing

to a period, winging toward certainty


in bone, feather.  Floki leans against the tiller,

traces faint calligraphy across the blank slate of sky.

 sailingravensHolly J. Hughes’ most recent book of poetry, from which she’ll be reading this Saturday, April 12 at Village Books. The cover is from a painting by Evon Zerbetz.


Leading photo: Holly Hughes, happy. Photo by Isolde Pierce.
Oso Landslide

Oso Landslide Disaster: condolences, and how to help

April 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

On Saturday, March 22, 2014, at 10:37 a.m., a major mudslide occurred 4 miles east of Oso, Washington, in the foothills of the North Cascades. A portion of an unstable hillside collapsed, sending mud and debris across the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River and onto the adjacent river valley, covering an area of approximately 1 square mile. As of April 2, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office has confirmed that 30 people have died, 27 of whom have been identified, and 15 people remain missing or unaccounted for as a result of the landslide. Excluding landslides caused by volcanic eruptions, earthquakes or dam collapses, this is the deadliest single landslide event in United States history.

Print by Linda McPherson

Print by Linda McPherson

North Cascades Institute sends our deepest condolences to everyone who has been effected by this disaster, including the family of Linda McPherson, retired branch manager of the Darrington Library, longtime Darrington School Board member and a frequent student of North Cascades Institute’s art classes with Molly Hashimoto. Here’s a brief remembrance of Linda from Molly: Here is a remembrance of this amazing woman in the Everett Herald

Ways to give directly to the families effected by the slide:

  • In person at any branch of Coastal Community Bank
  • Online at
  • By check mailed to Coastal Community Bank, P.O. Box 90, Darrington, WA 98241 (North Counties Family Services Relief fund acct).
  • By online banking as a deposit to Coastal Community Bank REF account ending in 2246; or to North Counties Family Services Relief Fund account ending in 3038.


Ways to give to organizations that are supporting the local community and families:

  • Darrington Family Support and Resource Center:  PO Box 2629 Darrington WA 98241 (Providing support for families in need from gas money to clothing to assistance finding housing, etc.)
  • Darrington Community Center, PO Box 263 Darrington, WA 98241 (Feeding the volunteers and providing  funeral dinners.)
  • KING 5 is partnering with Red Cross to support the community. Donations can be given to Northwest Response: Landslide Relief at any U.S. Bank Branch or online at


If you know of other ways in which our community can support local relief efforts, please leave ideas and links in the comments.


Elk Xing

April 3rd, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

If you drive on State Route 20 between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete, you can participate in citizen science without even leaving your car.

Researchers at Western Washington University are studying elk crossings along this stretch of two-lane road, and they need your help. Their interest was prompted by the high incidence of collisions between vehicles and the 1,000-pound ungulates. Over 50 elk were reported killed by traffic in this zone in 2012, though it’s only a 20-mile stretch of highway. There were likely more fatalities that went undocumented. A year later, in 2013, reported elk roadkills fell to the low 30s. Since this was only the second year of concerted data collection for scientific study, it is impossible for researchers to discern any pattern.

Yet. Now scientists want to know: Exactly where and when are elk crossing the highway, and where and when are they killed? That’s where commuters, visitors and day-trippers come in. The observations of motorists and residents are an important component of their data gathering, so much so that the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has developed an “App” that makes it easy for people using the Internet or mobile devices to upload their observations. For those of us who hear “app” and get excited about pre-dinner small plates, here’s the simple breakdown: Step one: Download the App. Step 2: Choose your device to open the map. Step 3: Mark your elk sighting on the map, adding to the database and furthering the scientific understanding of elk behavior.

There is also a hotline and email address to report observations. Researchers remind drivers to be safe and not try to use the App while driving – photos and information can be uploaded later upon arriving at one’s destination.

elk haagCan you see the elk? The typical habitat of the lower Skagit Valley, east of Interstate 5, where the North Cascades elk herd tends to hang out, to the chagrin of some and the joy of others. Photo by Jessica Haag.

Other methods being used to track elk movements include using GPS collars and monitoring specific elk trails where they cross the asphalt. The Washington Department of Transportation is installing new elk crossing signs and additional mile markers to make it easier for motorists to identify and report exactly where they see elk cross the highway.

According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), the North Cascade elk herd is the smallest of ten herds currently residing throughout the state. The herd was reintroduced in 1946 and 1948 from eastern and western Washington populations. Their numbers reached a peak of around 1,700 animals in 1984, took a nose dive in the late 1990s with only about 300 individuals, then ramped back up to a herd of 1,200 to 1,400 that we see today throughout Skagit and Whatcom counties. This population roller coaster can be attributed to changes in local timber harvest and rates of both legal and illegal elk hunting.

Habitat changes caused by increased timber harvest should have been favorable for elk population growth because young stands of saplings that replace the larger trees and thicker forest provide the open spaces and new growth that elk prefer for forage. Yet increased human access and visibility may have resulted in the mortality in the late 1990s of this elk population. Christopher Danilson, a WDFW biologist for Whatcom and Skagit counties who has been working with the Skagit elk population for over a decade, wrote in an email to Chattermarks that another issue at that time was that the elk were causing significant agricultural damage and WDFW was permitting high levels of elk harvest in these areas. Danilson attributed the population rebound over the past several years to restricted elk hunting, forest road closures and the augmentation of elk from Mount St. Helens in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

But not everyone thinks this robust population is a good thing. In fact, the North Cascades elk herd is rather controversial, so much so that WDFW hired a “wildlife conflict specialist” to mediate between different stakeholders. There are the hunters, the farmers, the conservationists, the tribal subsistence hunters, the motorists and the transportation officials, all with various perspectives, concerns and generally competing interests. This controversy is not new news. In 2002 WDFW released a management plan with ten objectives for managing the herd and solving conflicts, which included goals that some might consider mutually exclusive, such as “minimize elk damage to private property” and “preserve and enhance critical elk use areas”.

Over a decade later, the elk issue remains a tricky one to negotiate, and still unresolved. In June 2013, WDFW moderated a meeting in Sedro-Woolley to gather community input to inform their revision of the elk management plan and discuss the formation of a North Cascades Elk Management Group. Last October, Senator Kirk Pearson (R), Natural Resources and Parks Committee chairman, led a meeting in Mount Vernon attended by 120 people. Thirty-four testimonies were given. This was in the wake of gunners contracted from USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service who attempted to cull an elk herd near Sedro-Woolley that had been damaging fences and trampling hay and corn, according to an online article from Northwest Sportsman.

Danilson wrote that these meetings serve to inform what WDFW will outline for the next steps and the longer-term vision for the local elk herd: ”We are in the process of updating that herd plan which WDFW hopes to adopt by the end of this year. This process has involved considerable public input through a forum referred to as the North Cascades Elk Management Work Group, which has met regularly since last August.”

Given the diversity of concerned parties, a collaborative effort is challenging but vital. Public safety is a huge part of this complex puzzle, and that’s where the work of the researchers at Western becomes so relevant to this ongoing issue. Nathan Rice, an Environmental Studies graduate student spearheading the project, started monitoring elk crossings last summer. His research is funded by the Stillaguamish and Tulalip tribes. A number of other tribes and agencies are also involved, including the Upper Skagit tribe, the WDFW, the Washington Department of Transportation, Washington State Patrol and the Skagit County Sheriff. Additionally, Rice stressed the importance of motorist and resident participation. “This local knowledge is a great resource,” he said.

To download the App so that you can participate in this study, go to here.

elk 2 haag An elk watering hole near Sedro-Woolley. Photo by Jessica Haag.
Leading photo: Several elk crossing signs, many equipped with flashing amber-colored lights, are common along the stretch of Highway 20 between Sedro-Woolley and Concrete. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Writing this post couldn’t help but prompt the question, “Why did the elk cross the road?”. Talk amongst yourselves.



books Stephanie Burgart

Confessions of a Bibliophile

March 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

It has been almost two years now since I graduated with my Masters in Education from Western Washington University (WWU) and North Cascades Institute’s unique graduate program. My memories are filled with the laughter of Mountain School students, Professor John Miles’ New “Hampsha” accent and endless views of Diablo Lake. While I miss the sunshine, quiet and darkness up there in the mountains, there are days where I also long for the library, research and studying. It may be shocking to some, but it’s true: we did actually do traditional learning and coursework during the residency. With images of the graduate students gallivanting around snowy peaks, dense forests and playing in the sunshine, it is easy for parents and friends to wonder if we were actually trying to “learn anything” in the program. Of course, it’s a very big “yes”.

We were all there to learn. Sure, Dr. Miles did an excellent job of getting us out into the world we preach about, but there were also the necessary times of studying inside. You can’t read heaps of homework out in the rain, at least not everyday. Deer Creek Shelter, for example, is a wonderful place for respite, but I doubt a LAN cord to connect to the servers will reach that far (though I’ve no doubt Nick Mikula, one of my fellow graduates, tried it at least once). Large portions of curriculum writing, nonprofit work and research for various projects all happen in front of the screen or book, but one of the best parts was the individuality of all this learning.

The amount and types of research varied from student to student. Taken out of context, some of the reading we do as experiential environmental educators could come across as crazy. For me, I’m pretty sure the WWU library has me flagged, and with the recent National Security Agency and “Big Brother” news going on, I wouldn’t blame them. I’m into some pretty amazing stuff.

My reading list started in the summer of 2010 with books about gun rights. For our first presentation we were able to pick a current event topic that interested us, and I chose the rider attached to the Credit Card Holder’s Bill of Rights. This rider made it legal for a citizen of the United States to carry a loaded weapon within National Park and Wildlife Refuge areas so long as they abide by the laws of the state in which the park is located. It is still illegal to fire the weapon, but it no longer needs to be dismantled and stored in the trunk. Coming fresh from South Carolina, this was fascinating to me because I think hunters and other naturalists who don’t fit into the stereotypical “tree hugger” category need to be taken seriously. Wanting to carry a gun used for hunting or personal protection does not mean a person cares less about the environment than one who eats vegan and likes to slack line. It may be more about the mental comfort of the holder to carry a gun within the parks, but I argued that person is coming to enjoy nature as well, and shouldn’t be made to feel inferior by other conservationists. Putting political and cultural differences aside, a love for nature and the understanding of the importance of stewardship is the ultimate common ground, locked and loaded or not.

gun Stephanie BurgartThe author getting ready to go practice at a gun range in South Carolina, just for fun. Librarians should not be alerted! Photo by Peyton Munafo.

I’m sure you, dear reader, can imagine the look on some of my peers’ faces when I presented. “Whoa! Crazy Southerner alert!” which is exactly why I chose the topic.

Fast-forward to our capstones in 2012, which was our final class and culminating project. My book list now took on a new shape. There were articles, websites and books regarding death, decomposition and soil formation. One book was about the different ways epitaphs have changed over the years. Another detailed the biological processes that happen to flesh upon death. Yet another examined the flora and fauna of the soil and what they like to eat. Taken out of context, I’m sure the librarians thought I’d murdered someone and was trying to cover my tracks. Not so! It’s all just in a day’s work of an environmental educator.

You know what? I enjoyed every minute of it. The endless hours of reading were my favorite. Yes, I said it. I love reading and writing. No one can succeed fully in a graduate program without at least some form of enjoyment in these complementary tasks. Volumes of books, papers, articles, bibliographies and more all contribute to a rich, diverse graduate experience. Of course the more actively “fun” parts involved going outside and exploring. But sometimes, in the quiet of the work room, it felt just as fun.

tulips Stephanie BurgartThe plant guide/bible of graduate studies, Pojar and MacKinnon’s Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, as pictured in the lovely graduate apartments at the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by author.
Leading photo: A sampling of books, and bones, from Burgart’s shelf. Photo by author.


Stephanie Burgart is an active reader and traveler. She and her husband currently live in Seattle with their two cats and 23 year old turtle.




Hooked!: Saying Farewell to Our New Friend Tele Aadsen

March 3rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Crewing on a commercial fishing boat during prime salmon season isn’t exactly conducive to writing a memoir.

“No writing happens on the boat except on my arm,” said Tele Aadsen, a fisherman, writer, Alaskan and most recent Writer-In-Residence at the North Cascades Institute.

But to write a complete log from the Gulf of Alaska, and then some, sentences via forearm and rare moments of rest would not suffice. With a manuscript due by the end of May 2014, Aadsen needed space, time and distance if she were to finish writing her memoir, Hooked: A Season of Love, Sex, and Salmon.

Fortunately, Aadsen was friends with Betsy Delph, a returning sous-chef at the Institute and the daughter of the Institute’s Administrative Assistant, Anne Hubka. Through them, she heard about the residency opportunity and was accepted in June 2013, spending the rest of the summer watching the long Alaskan days tick by until she could trade a salmon knife for a pen come mid-November.

Aadsen’s next three months living at the Environmental Learning Center were productive, but not always blissfully easy, as most artists under deadline to get into “the flow” likely understand. On a recent night in February, Aadsen gave a farewell presentation to the Learning Center community detailing the opportunities, highlights and challenges of her residency. She described it, in part, as an exercise in “forced accountability,” saying, “I have backed myself into this corner that I’ve spent the past 17, 18 years strenuously avoiding.

Even at the young age of 18, fellow fisherfolk had been asking Aadsen when she was going to write a book, to which she’d respond, a little sheepishly, that she would like to……someday. Though she’d been told by teachers and friends since elementary school that writing was a craft at which she excelled, this encouragement did not necessarily translate into a talent that was automatic or without struggle. At age 21, she left the fishing life, and Alaska, at a point when she was, as she recalled, “very angry and bitter.” She spent the next six years as a social worker in Seattle, helping homeless youth. “I bounced from crisis to crisis to crisis,” she remembered. She didn’t write for the entire six years.

Tele and Besty Photo Joel Brady-Power
Aadsen and Betsy Delph, a sous-chef at the Environmental Learning Center, spent a summer catching salmon together, which included hanging out in the fish hold. Photo by Joel Brady-Power.

But living in a city, passing days punctuated by stress and misery, was hardly sustainable. Aadsen was called back to fishing, a lifestyle she’d known since she was seven when her parents built a 45-foot sailboat, the Askari. At the same time, she was called back to writing: Her story, which she’d spent years trying to ignore, grew louder and more insistent while back on the water.

And then one of those perfect, serendipitous events occurred, the kind that practically force one to believe in fate. In 2010, Aadsen was visiting Bellingham, where she stopped by the independent bookstore and community hub, Village Books. The author giving the reading that evening was Cami Ostman, a former social work colleague of Aadsen’s from a decade previous. “’Someone I know wrote a book!’” Aadsen thought, surprised and delighted. After the reading, her old friend told her that non-fiction books can be sold on proposal, unlike fictional novels, which have to be fully completed. Within three years, under Ostman’s tutelage and encouragement, Aadsen had finished a 100-page proposal for Hooked. Her agent sent it out.

Four of the ten publishers to whom the proposal was pitched wanted to talk about turning it in to a book. All of them were in New York. “None had ever been near a fishing boat, XtraTuf boots or Alaska,” Aadsen laughed. Each publisher singled out a different piece of the story that spoke to them, yet only one, Riverhead Books, identified that there was a feminist component in Aadsen’s life as a female in a male-dominated industry. This was important to Aadsen, and she went with Riverhead, ready to join the ranks of writers such as Anne Lamott and Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Tele presentation photo K. RenzAt Aadsen’s presentation to the community, she posted a beautifully-crafted timeline of the progression of Hooked around the Dining Hall. How could any creatively-driven person not find solace and empathy in the top quote: “As a kid, I’m always writing. Teachers say I’m a good writer, which I internalize to mean that writing should come easily to me.” Photo by Katherine Renz.

Now came the hard part – getting her whole story on paper – a task accompanied by even trickier questions: How does one tell their own stories – ones that are funny, sordid, emotional and everything in between — when they involve other people? At what point is the line drawn between characters in a book and friends in real life? With memoirs, does such a line even exist?

The residency offered Aadsen a freedom impossible to access while in proximity to her loved ones, whether working at sea or landed at her permanent home in Bellingham where her partner, Joel Brady-Power, and cat, Bear, held down the proverbial fort until the season began again. Up at the Learning Center, if she wanted to tell a story that could potentially offend a friend or family member, well, so be it. Aadsen could shrug off the concern. “It doesn’t matter, they’re down river,” she’d remind herself, and start writing.

Aadsen also wrestled with issues of shame. Not only was this a theme in her memoir – What does it mean to be faithful? To love? To delve deeply into one’s own secrets? – but it was also an issue with the luxury of a residency itself. With the constant reflection so characteristic of writers, Aadsen wondered, “Who gets to run away for three months to write a book?”

Part of the answer was found in one of the dozens of letters friends and fans sent her during her three months, some of which she shared during her presentation. As one woman wrote, “You valuing your work gives me permission to value mine.” The humanity of Aadsen’s task became apparent, as a model for others wanting to embrace their creative goals but also in considering how to take Hooked to a deeper, more universal level. “How can I make this no longer my story only?” she asked herself, chapter by chapter. With the popularity of memoirs over the past decade or so, with authors like Cheryl Strayed agonizing over love and loss on the Pacific Crest Trail or Elizabeth Gilbert traipsing all over the world to find herself, this format has often been criticized for its narcissistic tendencies. Aadsen’s intention was to escape this inherent pitfall as much as possible, to craft a story in which readers can better understand their own experience through her experience.

As a graduate student and year long resident at the Environmental Learning Center, welcoming Aadsen into our lean wintertime community was a sweet opportunity. I remember the autumn afternoon when Anne Hubka mentioned we would have a writer-in-residence, the same woman who provides all the salmon we serve in our kitchen. An author? I thought. A real live writer? Who is also a feminist? YES! My initial assumption to jump for joy proved correct as we got to know Aadsen over the next few months. Though she was, most of the time, diligently locked in her apartment organizing words, Aadsen always made time for her new family, including leading an all day writing workshop for the graduate students, one of the highlights of our educational experience. I can’t count the number of times I heard her say, “There’s a book in you….,” extending the encouragement she’d received along her own journey to the writers among the graduate cohort and staff.

Tele Aadsen became and remains part of our community and part of our story as, we hope, we are a part of hers. We’re hooked.

Tele writing on arm/joel brady powersMemoirs are an internal story, but sometimes they’re external, too: Aadsen doing her daily ritual on the boat, pre-residency, transcribing her inspired notes-on-forearm into a more permanent journal. Photo by Joel Brady-Power.
Leading photo: Aadsen and the graduate students (collectively known as “Cohort 13″) pose for a farewell photo. Obviously, we wish she could be our constant writer-in-residence. From L to R: Sarah Stephens, Annabel Connelly, Katie Komorowski, Samantha Hale, Katherine Renz, Tele Aadsen, Elissa Kobrin, Kaci Darsow, Tyler Chisholm. Photo by Liz Blackman.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. When not doing homework or blogging, she is dreaming of being a writer-in-residence. 





MountainSchool_Hiking1-M Scott Kirkwood

Holy Gaia! I’ve Been Saved!: The Nature of Education and Vice Versa

February 20th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

There’s a t-shirt that proclaims, “SAVE THE HUMANS.” It’s usually accompanied by an image of a cartoon whale, or maybe a panda bear. Have you seen it? For a long time I couldn’t understand the message. Save the humans? At seven billion and counting, with a city the size of Spokane added to the global population daily, are we really at risk of extinction any time soon?

When I was 21 years old, a passionate environmental studies major, I assumed the message was an awful attempt at anti-ecological humor. These were the early days, when I read Thoreau and would contemplate all the work on our shoulders of fixing the world while I laid surrounded by a circle of third-growth redwood trees, staring up at the small cutout of blue between their sky-scraping tops. There was an intense immediacy: People were suffering, and the rest of the non-human species were relegated as victims of our culture of violence, commonly known as “progress.”

Occasionally I’d meet other environmentalists, ones who were into meditation, or who were obsessed with eating healthy food, or who would om away their evenings and cap it with a namaste. This seemed arrogant. Oil companies are killing Nigerian activists and the President refuses to sign any international agreement on global warming, and you’re talking about the light that shines within me?! Their priorities seemed backwards: If we don’t help the earth — pronto! — there won’t be anywhere to go to therapy or sit in lotus position. As sociologist and author Barbara Ehrenreich put it in her 2009 bookBright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, “Why retreat into anxious introspection when, as Emerson might have said, there is a vast world outside to explore? Why spend so much time working on oneself when there is so much real work to be done?”

Cool bus K.RenzThere is a vast world, and seeds to scatter. Photo by Katherine Renz.

I can still tap into this kid, impatient and heartfelt as a black lab pup. But these days, my interpretation of the  “Save the Humans” shirt has shifted. Instead of supporting that dominant, human supremacist paradigm, what if it’s suggesting that the ecological crisis is, in part at least, a spiritual one? That yes, we do need saving, though not in some frantic sense of scarcity belied by our exponentially growing numbers, or by a revivalist preacher coming to redeem our souls. Rather, because our gross disconnection from the rhythms of wild nature is at the heart of environmental destruction. Though modern scientists can split the atom and splice genes, most of us wayward ecological citizens have no idea what phase the moon is in and would fail in naming five wildflowers growing in our neighborhoods.

What if the best thing you can do to save the world is to save yourself?

» Continue reading Holy Gaia! I’ve Been Saved!: The Nature of Education and Vice Versa

YLA.CM.inchworm NCI archives

Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades

February 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Five pairs of fifth graders are scattered on the Buster Brown Trail. In each pair, one is blindfolded with a colorful bandana, being carefully – the teacher hopes — led in a circuitous route by their partner.

“Remember, when you start to head off the trail toward your tree, make sure to not step where other people are stepping, and try hard to avoid the plants!” This is what I, or another Mountain School instructor, will inevitably say, loving this lesson but feeling the nagging omnipotence of the leave-no-trace ethic.

The students are mindful, taking care to not crunch the Mahonia and Salal understory. The blindfolded student is led to a tree. Maybe it’s a Doug fir, with its thick “bacon” bark (or akin to the cracked top of a pan of brownies, for the vegetarians). Other naturalists tell me bats can roost in there, when the tree is old and the bark is deeply furrowed, though I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter that yet. Perhaps the student is escorted to a paper birch, its thin, peeling bark being a telltale give-away of its arboreal identity. There’s always the vine maple, as well, dressed in moss and reaching from the mid-story canopy with its flexible, green branches.

peeling bark K. RenzCould you tell this tree with your eyes closed? Photo by Katherine Renz.

“Okay, start heading back to the trail!” After five or ten minutes, the students reconvene briefly to trade bandanas and head out a second more time. I enjoy watching them “meet a tree”, as this exercise is called. They use only touch, smell, taste and hearing – and these last two are arguable since, respectively, I don’t encourage students to eat unidentified plants, and the trees aren’t usually feeling loquacious. Can you find your tree? It’s a fantastic lesson in sensory awareness, considering it activates four of most peoples’ less dominant senses. What does your tree feel like? What about the plants at the base of the trunk? If you hug it, can your hands connect? Is there a smell if you scrape at the bark a little or crunch the leaves? If you knock on the trunk, does it make a notable sound? What did the ground feel like beneath your feet as you were led, without sight, through the fallen logs and leaf litter of the understory?

We come back together in a circle, everyone’s eyes open, and “debrief” the details the students relied upon to find or, sometimes, not find, their tree. This is one of my favorite lessons, and the students tend to recall it fondly as well. On the evaluation sheets their classroom teachers fill out at the end of the three days, they usually rave about it, saying it helps open their students up to a deeper level of observation, care, and empathy for the natural world.

» Continue reading Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades

Desolation NCI

On the Lookout for Unalloyed Pleasure: Poets in the North Cascades circa 1950s

February 10th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascade Institute’s graduate Cohort 13 recently hosted our annual Instructor Exchange with other students and teachers from IslandWood and the Wilderness Awareness School. As part of this, I facilitated a session about the handful of poets who served as fire lookouts in the North Cascades in the 1950s. My notes were gathered almost entirely from John Suiter’s comprehensive and lovely book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint 2002). After the presentation was through, I realized my hunch was correct: People love these stories.

At this point, over half-a-century later, Jack Kerouac’s benzedrine-fueled fiction and Allen Ginsberg’s revolutionary (for the times) poems can seem romantic and co-opted to the point of being trite. Sometimes. More often, though, I regard this small club of men – Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Jack Kerouac — who looked out, in solitude, from these mountains as an immense and symbolic source of relief. All three had connections and allegiances to the San Francisco Bay Area, a peninsula inhabited by freaks and artists and which regularly appeared as a setting in their writings. I, too, have been steeped in that place. It is a lifeline to know they lived and loved, wrote and pondered, here in the North Cascades, that they were the keepers of these ridges and valleys over a decade before these mountains were bestowed national park status. I can look up toward Sourdough Mountain, if it’s not hiding behind heavy grey, and hear Snyder and Whalen reminding me what a stunning land this is, assuring me that the steep streets of North Beach, the forested flanks of Mt. Tamalpais, the cacti gardens and Craftsman homes of Berkeley are a mere hitchhike away, should one choose.

The following relates three connected snippets of the poets’ experiences in the North Cascades. All information and quotes are from John Suiter’s Poets on the Peaks.

*    *    *

It is 1954, and Gary Snyder is not happy.

After spending two summers as a fire lookout in the North Cascades, once perched in the highest structure, atop Crater Mountain, and later living on the comparatively “suburban” Sourdough Mountain, Snyder’s application to work a third season is rejected by the United States Forest Service. Had the 24-year-old poet and mountaineer done something wrong? Perhaps he had not spent the requisite 20 minutes per hour scanning the horizon for smokes or failed to memorize every peak amidst his diligent practicing of Zen Buddhism, outlining a future play about lookout life, reading galore and imbibing green tea?

view north from SD, K. RemzThe view from Sourdough Mountain, looking north toward Ross Lake. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The answer is hardly definitive. On February 10, the Forest Service supervisor in Bellingham denies Snyder’s application on unclear grounds. Snyder eventually receives an explanation from the Department of Agriculture, vaguely attributing his dismissal to a “general unsuitability” as opposed to “security” issues. One thing is clear: Snyder is blacklisted from government work.

Homegrown campaigns against labor rights activists in Washington and Oregon got nasty after World War One, at times demonstrating a particularly Pacific Northwest brand of vigilante violence by flogging Wobblies with the spiky native plant, devil’s club (an ethnobotanical application of this highly medicinal species that usually goes unmentioned). Thirty-five years later, Snyder is irritated, hurt, and increasingly angry and frustrated by attempts to find other, equivalent employment. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare is raging, and though the young poet is an open pacifist and anarchist, he is not involved in any radical organizing. Calling all pikas! You mountain goats o’er there, with your un-American beards! C’mon Hozomeen, rally the chert!

Plan B. Snyder sends a stack of applications all over the Pacific Northwest and California looking for summer work doing trail-building, fire crew, or fire-watch. He is successful, and buys six weeks worth of groceries on the way to his new lookout job in the Gifford Pinchot forest. He is fired the next morning. He finds a position as a choke setter on Oregon’s Warm Springs Indian Reservation instead. From Zen lookout-poet to manning one of the most dangerous jobs in the logging industry, Snyder’s season was a challenge.

Poets Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg Backpacking
Though never a lookout himself, poet Allen Ginsberg [on right] was a friend and contemporary of Snyder, Whalen, and Kerouac. He writes: “Between June and September 1965, North Cascades National Park, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington State, USA — Summer 1965, 8 day backpack climbing in wilderness area of northern Cascades, Glacier Park, Washington state, [with] Gary Snyder [on left] back from a near-decade in Kyoto studying & practicing Zazen. My first mountain walk.” — Image © Allen Ginsberg/CORBIS

As Snyder writes in a letter to his friend, fellow poet and lookout Philip Whalen: “I am physically sick for wanting to be in the mountains so bad. I am forced to admit that no one thing in life gives me such unalloyed pleasure as simply being in the mountains.” And later, he elaborates: “Everything feels all wrong: I just can’t adapt to not packing up and traveling this time of year and my rucksack and boots hang accusingly on the wall.”

Philip Whalen’s boots, however, are indeed on his feet, though they are likely propped up on a chair, his lap supporting a book, more often than his mountaineering friend Snyder’s ever were. Set above 6000 feet at Sourdough Lookout, it’s mid-August and Whalen is in his second season, occupying the one room home in which Snyder had experienced his own creative surge the year before in 1953.

Previously, Whalen had spent his premier lookout season on Sauk Mountain, with a choice view of the Picket Range, Mount Shuskan, and Mount Baker. The two men, both writers, became friends while students at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. Highly intellectual, Whalen is turned on to lookout-ing by the younger Snyder, thrilled not so much by the physical challenges of the outdoors but by the rare opportunity to embark on an intensive summer reading campaign while living embedded in beauty and solitude to inspire his writing. And getting paid by the Eisenhower administration to do it! Snyder also introduces Whalen to Zen teachings and practice.

During his short stint in 1954 atop Sourdough (fire danger is low that year, and the season starts late), Whalen’s neighbors include a herd of a dozen stags and a resident black bear. Upon returning to the valley, motivated and enthused, he writes in a letter to Snyder: “My imagination is in great shape. Goodness knows what will happen next.”

diablo from SD Katherin RenzA classic image of Diablo Lake, as seen from the flanks of Sourdough Mountain. In his poem “Sourdough Mountain Lookout”, Whalen describes it as “two lights green soap and indigo”. Photo by Katherine Renz.

It is a little over a year later, October 1955. A handful of poets, on fire, give a reading at San Francisco’s Six Gallery. Allen Ginsberg unleashes his incendiary “Howl”. Jack Kerouac, a writer and train-hopping Buddhist who’d recently arrived from a literary bender with William Burroughs in Mexico City, is in attendance, too. It proves a legendary night, the kickoff of the literary resurgence fueled by the so-called Beat Generation (not all participating poets, Snyder included, would enjoy this lasting label).

Whalen shares his tales of lookout work in the wild North Cascades to Kerouac. Snyder elaborates. Though Kerouac has never traveled in the backcountry before, he has long fantasized about holing up in a hermitage – writing rapid-fire, beset with visions, privy to a direct line to the divine. His experienced friends encourage him to apply.

Kerouac is accepted to man Desolation Lookout, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border, for the summer of 1956. His anticipation is overwhelming, and he tells his friend, Carolyn Cassidy, “O boy, O boy, O here I go, I got the offer for the job watching fires…and I told the Forest Ranger I hoped he’d take me back next year, and the next, and all my life. It will be my life work…”.

kerouac copyright Walter LehrmanMay 1956, Kerouac at Gary Snyder’s going-away party (Snyder would be back and forth between Japan and California for the next 12 years) in Northern California. This is six weeks before Kerouac left for his season in the North Cascades. Image © Walter Lehrman.

Being a fire lookout does not become Kerouac’s life work. He writes a ton while on Desolation (his arguably most famous novel, On the Road, would be published a year later). But he is also lonely, scared of the looming Hozomeen, especially in the dark, having more delusions than visions and yearning more for debauchery and drugs upon returning to the city than for the dharma of the present. In his 63 days on the aptly-named mountain, he receives no visitors, his sole social contact being when he scrambles down to the Ross Guard Station, ten days into his season, to scrounge a one pound tin of Prince Albert rolling tobacco from the generous guards.

*     *     *

Three men, 360 degree views, a slew of haikus, tales and legends. It is 2014. I look to the peaks and they rumble poems.

desolation sign NCIAbove and top images © North Cascades Institute

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward to an obligatory pilgrimage to Desolation Peak this coming summer vacation, followed by a drink in North Beach.



Sam manatee Liam McDonnell

South or Bust

January 27th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

To paraphrase graduate student and Chattermarks contributor Samantha Hale: This weather? It ain’t normal. Or at least, these no-Gore-tex-required skies and 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures may be a little out of the ordinary, but they still did not stop more than a few of the staff and graduate students at the North Cascades Institute from venturing to more traditionally sun-struck lands this past winter break. Whether it was Hale sailing off the Floridian coast, Amy Brown putting her flamingo-watching skills to use in Colombia, or myself feeling re-connected in California, we all imitated the birds and flew south. –Katherine Renz


Golden Brown: Of Drought and Draught

By Katherine Renz

It was already past noon when my best bud, Kelsey, and I drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge toward our hiking destination, the undulating hills of the Marin Headlands. I’d been back in my native California almost a week already, and was getting used to the inescapable sign of major drought all through the Coast Ranges: not a single blade of wintertime green grass, nor even the characteristic golden version. Just dirt. Just brown. After six months of living amidst northwestern Washington’s emerald understory and constant wet decay, this was both a refreshing change and a depressing, scary homecoming. But the Headlands are family, and I would happily hike within it in its emergency state of dehydration, if that was what was offered.

Kels and I climbed and descended the hills between our Mill Valley starting point and Muir Beach toward the end. The “Coastal Trail”, a small snippet of the California Coastal Trail, paralleled the ocean for about three miles. Reuniting with cliffside scrub species like lizard tail and Artemisia californica was nearly as good as seeing old friends at a party the night before (and in some cases, better). Soon enough, we reached the classic destination for this trip: the Pelican Inn, a pub modeled after 16th century Tudor-style buildings, complete with a dart board, a lawn for the picnicking overflow, and a dark dining room with long wooden tables reminiscent of a feast scene from Game of Thrones.

pint and map RenzPerfection. Photo by Katherine Renz.

A freshly poured pint with a plate of meat and cheese has to be one of the best mid-hike treats found in the frontcountry. Substantially refueled, we were smarter on the return trip towards San Francisco, choosing the paths that zigged and zagged along the ridges rather than the knee-crushing peak-valley-peak-valley of the Coastal Trail. We were privileged to pass through Green Gulch Farm, a Zen practice center that combines meditation with spending time in the natural world and doing physical work. Between the dry coastal foothills and the huge organic gardens of the Buddhist retreat, I knew I was home, and had to keep myself from mauling every tick-ridden coyote brush (Bacchus pilularis) in a show of loving kinship.

It was December 22nd, the day after winter solstice. I’d stayed in my tank top throughout the entire hike, stubborn and thrilled to expose my pale arms to the California chill even as the sun plunged softly, burning, into the Pacific.

green gulch zen center altar RenzGarden shed altar at the Green Gulch Zen Center. Photo by Katherine Renz.
SF in Headlands RenzThe tops of the ubiquitous coyote brush poke up in the foreground and the pointed peaks of two of San Francisco’s most characteristics landmarks, the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge, are barely visible and snug between the rolling Headlands. This land is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban parks in the world, with a size two-and-a-half times that of the consolidated city and county of San Francisco. Photo by Katherine Renz.


Salty and Sweaty in the Sunshine State

By Samantha Hale

I’ve lived in Washington only half a year and already know that the recent weather isn’t normal. In 2013, both summer and fall were full of blue skies, not the rain that I was promised by so many. But with the arrival of winter, the rains came, and the blue sky and sun disappeared above the high peaks I’d spent so many months memorizing. Though I am not one to crave warmer temperatures, the promise of winter break had me yearning for sun. And so, I went searching. Destination: Key Largo, Florida.

The day I flew out of Seattle it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit and massive ice storms raged throughout the country. I almost didn’t make it out of Washington. I spent hours at the check-in desk while the most amazingly patient American Airlines employee booked me on cancelled flight after cancelled flight, until she found one that would get me to Florida. It was a rough start in my search of sunshine and ocean adventures, but it was worth it. The next day I arrived in Florida, greeted by temperatures in the 60s, humidity, brilliant sun and a cloudless sky.

I was going to spend a week sailing with a friend who had formerly lived for many years just north of Bellingham. He, too, had just arrived in Key Largo and we both waited for my baggage, sweating through our first outfit of the day. We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing his little sailboat for the ocean. The evening was spent among good friends, grilling chunks of freshly caught fish and sitting under the stars with bug lamps shining strong.

wooden ship Liam McDonnellThe wooden boat had a few leaks, but once it sat in saltwater for a few days it swelled up and all the leaks disappeared. Photo by Liam McDonnell.

The next day we launched his tiny wooden boat into the Atlantic Ocean. It had just arrived, like its owner, from the shores of Lake Tahoe and was in for a different, more tropical life.

The rest of the week was spent in warm bliss. In this flat land of the lower latitudes, the sun stayed in the sky longer than I was used to at the Environmental Learning Center, giving the week a dreamlike quality. The days were long, the nights longer. Friendship and adventure were in abundance, and my land legs remained packed in my luggage for a later date. We snorkeled on offshore reefs, had close encounters with manatees and gorged ourselves on freshly caught seafood. I was introduced to wooden boat sailing (and the idea that they break often, but you love them more for that reason) and “hook and cook”, in which you catch your own seafood and bring it to a local restaurant for them to prepare.

Sam lobster by alden roweLocal ocean grub: Graduate student Hale with Captain McDonnell getting their crustacean catch for “hook and cook”. Photo by Alden Rowe.

All too quickly, the week came to an end. It was glorious being in the warm sun, but the bugs were ferocious and the land too flat. I will miss the sound of the ocean lulling me to sleep and the sweet, salty sea breeze, but am looking forward to continuing my explorations of the amazing wilderness of the North Cascades, my home.


Taking Flight

By Amy Brown

-2Who knew that real live flamingos are actually brighter and more colorful than those plastic lawn ornaments? Photo by Eric Mickelson.

This December, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Colombia. It is big and diverse country, with multiple mountain ranges that soar over 18,000 feet, two oceans, friendly people and relatively few tourists. It offers awesome birding opportunities, beautiful rivers, tons of beaches, enough tourist infrastructure without tons of tourists and the opportunity to buff up my beginner Spanish. My husband and I booked plane tickets for a three-week trip.

Before we left, a friend and colleague recommended we visit Santuario de Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos (“Flamingo Nature Reserve”), a 700-hectare reserve along the Caribbean Coast. He was adamant: “Do not miss it,” he said. Being avid birders and having never seen flamingos before except in a zoo, we taxied from our beachside lodging in Palomino east to Camarones, the closest small town to the sanctuary. The contrast from Palomino, where we were staying at a finca on the beach, was incredible. Just an hour’s taxi ride had transported us from lush, tropical jungle to desert-like, dry tropical forest. Four coastal marshes and salty lagoons separated from the sea by a shallow sand bar provide perfect flamingo habitat, attracting thousands of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) who congregate in large flocks to feed and nest during the wet season from September through December. Our friend was right. The Santuario proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Visiting the reserve was also the chance to get to know the colorful Wayuu culture, an Amerindian ethnic group who lives both in the far north of Colombia on the Guajira Peninsula and in Venezuela. Our Wayuu guide took us out in a canoe hand-carved from a Ceiba tree with an ingenious sailing set-up: a well-worn green plastic tarp and a 12-foot long mast which he inserted into a hole in one of the canoe seats.

Wayuu guide Eric Mickelson  Resourceful, colorful sailing by a Wayuu guide at the Flamingo Nature Reserve. Photo by Eric Mickelson.

After sailing for about 15 minutes across the lagoon, occasionally getting stuck on the mussel shoals that lined the shallow bottom, we spotted our first birds, including Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Great Egrets and more. These alone would have been enough to make us feel satisfied with the excursion.

But then, we spotted a wide smudge of pink about a half-kilometer away. As we came closer, we could see a flock of 500-plus American Flamingos standing in the lagoon. To feed, flamingos use their curious-shaped bills (technically called “ventroflexed”) to strain algae, brine flies, shrimp and small fish out of the water by inverting their heads underwater and holding their bills nearly horizontal. The real show, however, began when they took to the air. Anyone who’s seen snow geese wintering in the Skagit Valley knows how magical it is to see them take wing in huge flocks numbering in the thousands over your head, the drum of wing beats reverberating through the air. So you can imagine our awe when the entire flock of flamingos suddenly took flight, and we had the chance to stare in wonder at these fabulously beautiful and awkward-looking birds winging over us. All impossibly long legs and necks with short, down-curved bills and bright, coral wings — it seems almost unbelievable that such a fascinating creature evolved.

Given that we’d arrived with very few expectations or information about our visit to the reserve, we were delighted. If you ever have the chance to visit this gem of a country, as my friend said, do not miss seeing the flamingos!

-6Pretty in pink. Photo by Eric Mickelson.
Leading photo: Samantha Hale and her manatee friend on the coast of Key Largo, Florida.


Samantha Hale and Katherine Renz are both graduate students in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Amy Brown is an award-winning educator who has led the Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures program since its inception in 2006.