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Learning to Love the Rain

June 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Adventures

It only takes a few days in Forks, Washington, to be dead sure that the town is the rainiest place in the lower forty-eight. And that is exactly where we were headed for our Spring Graduate Retreat. To quell any suspicions that we were visiting for the purposes of Twilight histeria, let me say that while the prospect of vampires and warewolves may have been an exciting addition to our adventure for some, their anticipated sighting was far removed from our journey’s intent.

One of my fellow cohort 11 members aptly described the rejuvenating effects of our recent spring retreat as: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the rain.” An elementary recollection perhaps, but one ripe with meaning for the 14 graduate students at North Cascades Institute who spent four days camped near the rainy coastline of the Olympic Peninsula. The purpose of our retreat was three-fold: to offer us a respite from a busy spring of teaching Mountain School, planning curriculum, and working on Natural History topics, to provide an opportunity for continued exploration of the natural world and, perhaps most importantly, to deepen our connections with each other and have fun together.

After nearly a year of crowding  under trees as we drip water from our noses and our fingertips, we have all learned to stretch our definitions of fun. On this particular retreat, fun was found in many forms. How fun, to sketch the ocean’s horizon line as droplets of water hit our journal pages; how fun, to play touch football on the beach as wet granules of sand stick to our feet; how fun, to cook dinner under the jankity cover of a tarp as the rain whittles away at the woven plastic overhead; how fun, to huddle around a campfire and laugh together as water drips down our backs; how fun, to fall asleep to the sound of rain on tent surfaces; how fun, to wake up surrounded by a puddle built of last night’s downpour; how fun, to watch a sucker hole widen just long enough to warrant the happy shedding of rain gear; how fun, to recognize the urgency of rainfall as the requisite of life found in the wild diversity of the Olympics.

Beads of rain caught poetically in the intricate web left by a spider. Photo by Colby Mitchell.

Our adventure began with a ferry ride to Port Townsend. It wasn’t but a few minutes blithely spent on the windy deck of the boat before we were shouting out the names of shorebirds spotted through binoculars – rhinoceros auklets, pelagic cormorants, and the famed marbled murrelet! Our naturalizing was already off to a great start. After disembarking from the ferry and heading along the north coast of the Olympics for a time, we stopped at Tongue Point to do some tide pooling. Being a naturalist of the mountain variety, I, for one, was giddy to be spending the afternoon exploring life below the water with others of my cohort who were far more knowledgeable about marine wildlife than I: California mussels, chiten, sea anenomes, hermit crabs, periwingle mollusks, gooseneck barnacles, kelps, and sea weeds – to name just a few of the myraid of species we discovered. It was deep breathing interjected with wild explanations of excitement as we examined the intricacies of tidal life while looking out across a great expanse of blue.

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The Animal Dialogues: A Natural History Book Reflection

February 20th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

In 2010, I completed a year-long bicycle tour through many countries famous for their exotic creepy crawlies and, while reading Craig Childs’ book The Animal Dialogues, I couldn’t help reflecting on the experiences I had with some of those creatures throughout that tour. The Animal Dialogues presents an exploration of the author’s uncommon encounters with animals, reptiles, and insects. Childs’ writing style is a blend of naturalist observations and beautifully depicted narratives indicative of a well-seasoned nature writer. He is able to find pause in that moment between life and death and break down the human-animal barrier, capturing in writing the infinite space between one moment and the next.

One such moment was depicted in a chapter on mountain lions where Childs recalls many nearly unbelievable stories. After a recent cougar encounter in Diablo, followed by numerous cougar sightings around the Environmental Learning Center, I found myself paying close attention to how Childs describes his encounters with cougars in the wild. One particular story that Childs writes about centers around a run-in with a cougar near a water source in the Arizona desert. After the mountain lion backs down from the stand-off with Childs, he writes, “I stand there for a few minutes, staring at the forest. […] I have reached the hard, palpable seed of life. The image is now permanently formed in my mind. I can see how the mountain lion will be posed, suddenly in view anywhere around me, its tail weaving an intricate pattern, spelling secret words in the air (66).” We all have moments in life where time seems to stand still and we are truly living moment by moment. Although for most of us this stand still will never occur between man and cougar, what Childs conjures in this chapter and throughout his book is the way in which our primal connection with the earth is realized when we interact with deep wilderness. Whether it’s a cougar in my own neighborhood, a mountain goat on Cascade Pass, or some other surprising encounter, these experiences come in a myriad of forms.

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A Habitat for Learning

February 14th, 2012 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

[We are excited to publish the third piece in our Foodshed Series, with monthly updates from the amazing chefs working so hard to provide program participants and staff at the Environmental Learning Center with sustainable, seasonal, and deliciously fresh food. In an age where the production and consumption of food are heavily disconnected, we work hard to preserve those ties by considering how food flows from the farms to our tables and all the processes in between. Purchasing from local farmers allows us to draw connections between their livelihoods and our own while at the same time contributing to our mission to conserve Northwest environments through education. It’s a renewing and rewarding partnership, and one we hope to keep sustaining and growing.]

This time of year has us all thinking about comfort foods, and one of the primary comforts here at the Environmental Learning Center is bread. Every meal is a little better with some fresh bread and soft butter to accompany it. And speaking of company: The Latin roots of the word “companion” literally translate to “those with whom you share bread.” No other item lies closer to the intersection of food and culture. And here I want to briefly discuss how baking and sharing bread also connects us to our environment and to the role of education in that process.

As part of the ongoing Foodshed Project at the Environmental Learning Center, we have taken to baking as much of our own breads as possible. Using organic, locally-milled flours, we’ve managed to turn out baguettes, cottage loaves, rolls, and sandwich breads in ample numbers. Chef Shelby Slater has made this possible with a number of improvements to the kitchen, including a dedicated baking counter, two new steam-injected convection ovens, and a deep supply of high-quality, high-protein whole grain flour from Fairhaven Mills in Burlington. The results have been outstanding. The Mountain School students have loved the sandwich bread, the staff have certainly appreciated the bounty of loaves just out of the oven, and the kitchen staff have thoroughly enjoyed trying new techniques and creating beautiful products from scratch. It is a kind of empowering work that makes us proud of what we do and gives our days that extra something. It’s always gratifying to look over at the dough and see it developing into a ripe and fermented mixture ready for baking. And the feeling of pulling a dozen loaves of fresh bread from the oven is nothing short of victorious.

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North Cascades VIPs: Highlighting Institute Superstars

February 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

Written by guest contributor Deb Martin, the North Cascades Institute Registrar.

Happy New Year! As our Silver Anniversary comes to an end, we want to move forward in our 26th year by recognizing the strong connections we have with our participants and partners. We would not be where we are or who we are today without so many talented and passionate customers, teachers, students and staff.

We thought it would be fun to begin 2012 by spotlighting a few folks who have been great supporters of the Institute and our mission to conserve and restore Northwest environments through education. We are fortunate to have many such people and appreciate each and every one. Without further ado, here are some people that help make our work rewarding, organized by different program areas.


Nancy participated in her first program with North Cascades Institute in 2002. Since that first experience, she has participated in a total of 19 programs! In 2011, Nancy participated in eight different programs including the Hands to Work Stewardship Weekend, two Diablo Downtimes, four Base Camps and the Artistic Weaving with Cedar Workshop. Nancy is also a donor in support of Institute youth programs.

FAMILY PROGRAMS: The Tebbs/Armstrong Family

Matthew Tebbs, Dana Armstrong and Benjamin Armstrong (age 7) have made Family Getaways a family tradition. Since we launched our Family Getaways when we opened the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, the Tebbs/Armstrongs have participated in five Family Getaways, one each year from 2007-2011. In 2011, they extended their getaway experience by adding extra days through our Base Camp option. We are very honored to be a part of this family’s’ history!

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