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An Unforgettable Mountain School Adventure

March 30th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

The first week of the 2017 spring Mountain School season will be one not forgotten here at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. After experiencing an unusually high amount of snowfall at the ELC this winter, many of us were eagerly anticipating signs of spring (and sunshine), hopeful that the last lingering patches of snow would be gone before our students’ arrival. However, winter was not quite ready to concede to spring. On March 6, the first day of Mountain School, we awoke to a winter storm warning in the North Cascades. While it certainly wasn’t the spring weather we had hoped for, it provided a rare opportunity to play and learn in the snow with our first group of students, the 5th grade class from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School.

Driving to the ELC for the first day of Mountain School. Photo by Angela Burlile

By midweek, the snow had subsided and we said goodbye to Madison Elementary and welcomed the AP Environmental Studies class from Mill Creek’s Henry M. Jackson High School. These high school students were here to participate in our Aquatic Investigations field-based science curriculum. Working in small groups, students designed their own study investigating the interactions between physical, chemical and biological components of the local watershed. Through site observations, groups developed a scientific question which they then answered using various data collection methods such as water chemistry testing, benthic macroinvertebrate samples and examination of physical stream characteristics. They then presented their findings in a symposium-style discussion with their peers and teachers.

Henry M. Jackson student, Taylor Gerould, searching for benthic macroinvertebrates in a partially frozen Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

Henry M. Jackson student, Alina Ribeiro, taking a dissolved oxygen reading at Deer Creek near the ELC. Photo by Angela Burlile

What was meant to be a three day experience became a slightly longer visit. Although the snow had subsided earlier in the week, heavy rain followed and the combination pushed the avalanche forecast to high. Early Friday morning, instructors and staff awoke to an email sent by Kristofer Gilje, Operations Director at the ELC.

“There is a very large avalanche at mp 122.6, Brown’s Creek.  There is another smaller one on the dam road.  WSDOT is aware of our situation and will give us more information when it gets light.”

The avalanche covering Highway 20 in the Skagit gorge. Measured at over 40 feet tall and 200 feet long. Photo courtesy of WSDOT

» Continue reading An Unforgettable Mountain School Adventure

Highway reopened, students safely back home!

March 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

UPDATE March 13, 4 pm: After WSDOT successfully reopened one lane of Highway 20 today, the Henry M. Jackson high school students, teachers and parent chaperones were able to leave the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center to return home!

More updates later, but for now we want to say thank you to the great students, teachers and parents, to WSDOT and to our Environmental Learning Center staff for keeping everyone safe and sane with educational activities, community building and fun through this unexpected long weekend of Mountain School!

Avalanche closes Hwy 20, students and staff get unexpected weekend at the Learning Center

March 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

On Friday morning, March 10, the Washington State Department of Transportation closed Highway 20 seven miles west of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center due to a large avalanche across the road. This incident blocked the school buses that were due to pick up students from Henry M Jackson High School in Mill Creek, WA, who were participating in our Mountain School residential environmental education program. Forty-two students, seven teachers and parent chaperones and 21 Institute staff and graduate students are currently at the ELC until WSDOT crews can reopen the road; they are doing an assessment on Monday.

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is a modern facility with 92 beds in three comfortable lodges, a dining hall, classrooms and other amenities, and we have plenty of food and supplies to get through the weekend. Everyone on site is safe, warm, well-fed and in good spirits. The Environmental Learning Center was deliberately sited away from avalanche paths and is not at risk for avalanches. We have two Emergency Medical Technicians on staff and our instructors are trained Wilderness First Responders. We are in close contact with our partners in the National Park Service and Seattle City Light and have contingency plans if any emergencies arise. Extreme weather conditions are a part of life in the mountains and North Cascades Institute has established procedures and risk management training to get through incidents like this.

Mountain School is a nationally-recognized residential environmental education program offered in cooperation with North Cascades National Park that brings local students to the North Cascades to learn about the ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains. Mountain School was recently profiled by National Geographic and The Seattle Times calls it ” a national model for wilderness education on public lands.”

Report from KING 5 NEWS

LINK: www.king5.com/news/local/mill-creek-students-stuck-in-north-cascades-after-snow-slide/421620399

Contact WSDOT for more information about the road closure at (360) 707-5055 or visit www.wsdot.wa.gov/traffic/trafficalerts. We will post updates to our website at www.ncascades.org/roadclosure, on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/ncascades and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ncascadeswa.


Weekly Photo Roundup: February 12, 2017

February 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Snow falling on the Skagit River in Marblemount, behind the Blue House residence. Photo by Angela Burlile

The week started off with continuing heavy snowfall in the upper Skagit. The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center accumulated several feet of new snow in a period of just four or five days!

Top photo: Blue skies at the Environmental Learning Center. Bottom: A snow covered Diablo Dam. Photos by Angela Burlile

On Tuesday, the snow let up and we had a brief period of sunny skies. A break in the weather gave us all a chance to dig out our vehicles and clear some walkways around the Environmental Learning Center.

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: February 12, 2017

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The Snow and The Shining

March 7th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

A small avalanche across Highway 20 just east of Newhalem at milepost 121 had residents of the Environmental Learning Center stuck at home Monday morning through Thursday morning of this week. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was waiting until avalanche danger had decreased to assess the situation and clear the snow and debris. The highway is now passable up to its regular winter closure at milepost 134, seven miles east of Diablo Dam.

What did the closure mean for life at the Learning Center? Graduate students couldn’t leave, and staff who live down valley in Newhalem and Marblemount couldn’t come up. Residents had to increase their awareness of their daily actions, since they already live at a remote facility (defined as 60 miles or more from definitive medical care) and now had even fewer options for help if need be. But by far the worst consequence was the cancellation of Mountain School. Two Bellingham elementary schools, Wade King and Northern Heights, could not spend their three days exploring ecosystems in the North Cascades as planned. The avalanche was the second time this school year that both schools thought they were coming but were prevented by outside forces (the first was during the government shut-down last October). They are troopers! Both have been rescheduled.

During this time, Senior Naturalist Kevin Biggs could not get to work from Marblemount for two days, but was offered the opportunity on Wednesday to be take the extra seat of the Seattle City Light helicopter and be flown up to participate in trainings. Here are a few aerial photos from his exciting journey.

avalanche!kevinbiggsThe avalanche on Highway 20, milepost 121. Photo by Kevin Biggs.
diablointersection.kevinbiggsGorge Lake and the town of Diablo. Photo by Kevin Biggs.
aeriallakekevinbiggsAbove one of the tunnels on Highway 20 between Newhalem and Diablo. Photo by Kevin Biggs.

The resident graduate students chose to make the best of the snowed-in situation and efficiently cross two things off their “Wintertime To-Do List” simultaneously: “Make a Blanket Fort” and “Watch The Shining”. Raiding both their backpacking supplies and the office, they constructed a fort in the Wild Ginger Library by stringing up tapestries and sheets with parachute chord and industrial strength binder clips.

blanket fort K. RenzTyler Chisholm and Katie Komorowski put their construction and interior design skills to use on a recent dark and stormy night. Photo by Katherine Renz.

And really, as practicing environmental educators the grads were simply exemplifying one of the seven “Children and Nature Design Principles” as described by award-winning author and educator David Sobel in his book, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Among principles such as “Animal Allies” and “Hunting and Gathering” is “Special Places”: “[There] appears to be a universal tendency for children to create or find their own private places,” Sobel writes. “I believe the creation of these places serves many developmental purposes for children. The fort is a home away from home in nature; it provides a bridge between the safe, protected world of the family and the independent self in the wider world of adolescence. These places also serve as vehicles of bonding with the natural world, allowing children to feel comfortable in the landscape, connected to it, and eventually committed to acting as stewards of it.”

So, really, the blanket fort was an exercise in preparation for facilitating the next generation of ecological stewards.

people in fort k. RenzAll smiles, bright lights, three bags of popcorn and a jar of nutritional yeast. This is before the film. Photo by Katherine Renz.

With each cushion and sleeping bag of the Special Place Blanket Fort in order, it was time to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 screen version of Steven King’s psychological horror novel, The Shining (1977), a feature film we had been planning on watching during a snowstorm since we’d moved to the isolated Environmental Learning Center way back in the sunny days of September. This activity also be considered related to our studies, in multiple ways: it taught us how not to act when you’re stuck in the mountains with a lot of writing to do; it showed us one of our sister Cascade peaks, Oregon’s Mount Hood, which towered over the backdrop for the exterior shots of the movie’s haunted Overlook Hotel, known in real life is called the Timberline Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in the late 1930s; and it encouraged further cohort bonding, as any good horror movie will do.

the shining twins k. renz“Come and play with us, forever, and ever, and ever……”. The creepy ghost sisters of The Shining, as seen in the Wild Ginger Library-cum-independent movie house. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The road is open, the snow is slowly melting, and the grads have transitioned from fort-building to prepping lesson plans. We look forward to Mountain School resuming next week and watching the landscape morph, day by day, in to spring.

slush on diablo katie rolosonDiablo Lake from the shore at the Environmental Learning Center, Monday morning. Program Manager Katie Roloson said this was the first time she had ever seen the lake so completely covered in slush. It’s almost hard to imagine it having its characteristicly jewel-green, milky blue summertime hue. Photo by Katie Roloson.

 

Leading photo: Chunks of ice float on Diablo Lake in the shadow of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks on the weekend preceding Monday’s avalanche. Photo by Katie Komorowski.
 

 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. She is happy to say that The Shining is less terrifying by the third viewing.

 

 

Adventures in My New Home

January 23rd, 2011 | Posted by in Adventures

Though I was born in San Diego, California it doesn’t feel like home.  For the last eight years I have lived and traveled in Japan and Chile.  Each successive place in which I have lived or traveled has been nice, and my heart has slowly been pulled away from the sunshine and blue skies where I spent my youth.  Since moving to the Pacific Northwest in June I have been quietly lulled to comfort by rainy days, cold temperatures and good coffee.   Each adventure and experience in which I have participated reinforces the sanctuary of western Washington.

At the turn of the year I participated in an avalanche safety and training course with American Alpine Institute, a Bellingham-based climbing school and guide service.  The three-day class consisted of different components of avalanche safety, practical snow science, beacon practice and rescue scenarios.  The majority of the course was spent in the locally famous backcountry adjacent to the Mt. Baker Ski Area.

Students study layers of snow and ice.

» Continue reading Adventures in My New Home

The destructive forces of Mother Nature

January 22nd, 2009 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Anyone that has spent much time at the ELC has seen, or at least heard stories, of the waterfall.  Every Mountain School student secretly hopes to visit the waterfall and when they do everyone hears about its splendor.  Adult program participants often make the trek up in the evenings for sunset, admiring views of distant peaks while listening to the water.  Many of the graduate students visit the waterfall to journal, think and reflect.

Waterfall after the avalanche

The waterfall on January 22, 2009

But today it does not look like the waterfall that so many remember.  Earlier this season an avalanche ripped through and left a huge debris field.  To say that debris litters my favorite picnic spot is an understatement; the debris in that spot is roughly ten feet deep.  The debris is nearly twenty feet deep at the foot of the waterfall.  The water has punched a hole through the debris, creating a deep cavern.  Now I wonder, how long will it be before we see the base of the waterfall?  Will I still visit the waterfall to journal?  Will my spot be covered in debris?  Perhaps I’ll have a new favorite spot, with a perfect smooth log to serve as a backrest and another to rest my feet upon.

The destructive forces of Mother Nature are pretty phenomenal.  Witnessing this transformation of the landscape reminds me of the impermanence of all things that seem timeless and it makes me thankful to be here, witnessing the change.

Photo by Jenny Frederick