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Weekly Photo Roundup: January 22 2017

January 22nd, 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.

Photo by Angela Burlile

The sunshine from last weekend continued on early in the week. We were treated to this beautiful alpenglow on Sourdough mountain, driving across Diablo Dam on our way to the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

Photos by Ash Kunz

Graduate M.Ed student, Ash Kunz, captured these icy photos of Thunder Arm on Diablo Lake. Portions of Thunder Arm have frozen over but still be cautious if you plan to venture out on the ice.

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: January 22 2017


Where the Powerlines Start

April 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 provides the perfect thinking spot. Usually this is the place where my mind starts to wonder things like “Why does traffic happen” and “When will they make flying cars?” The most recent time I was fortunate enough to be stuck, however, my mind drifted over to the powerlines beside the road. More electrons than I could count were wizzing past, heading into homes, phones and even some cars. The hyper-speedways of electricity, we only see powerlines in the transportation or end state. But they have to start somewhere, right?

My quest to see the start of the powerlines had me heading east on Washington State Route 20. If you wish to pursue this adventure yourself be warned: there is not cell phone reception and most importantly no traffic. Heading east along SR 20 will take you past the towns of Sedro-Woolley, Concrete and Rockport. Make sure you fuel up in Marblemount though as it is the last place for gas before heading into the park.

Keep traveling, and you will see the large North Cascades National Park sign just past mile marker 111. Gradually, you will begin to see civilization be replaced with the expansive wilderness that is Western Washington. Even the little town of Diablo (which will be on your left) is dwarfed by the forests, mountains and the mighty Skagit River.


» Continue reading Where the Powerlines Start


Echoes from the Dam

January 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Imagine yourself standing atop of Diablo Dam in the early morning of a crisp, winter day. Behind you five ravens are circling near a patch of trees lining Diablo Lake. One of the Seattle City Light boats speeds on in the distance quickly becoming quieter and softer. As you open your mouth to let the cool mountain air fill your lungs time seems to slow. When you finally expel the air out you hear this:

Mountain Call

Earlier last week Hannah Newell and I, both students at the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate Program, went atop of Diablo Dam to study how sounds move throughout our mountain corridor. The valley that the Skagit river made over thousands of years is very drastic in our neck of the woods. Toward the mouth of the river the Skagit is met by mostly flat land. As you venture towards the headwaters the surrounding slopes become more and more drastic with hundreds of feet of elevation difference over a very short distance.

Diablo Dam Echoes

Skagit River Valley at Diablo Dam. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.

This topography makes for extreme echoes when done in the correct spots. Diablo Dam provides the perfect height and distance from each side so that when the sound moves down valley it has the most room to exist. After experimenting at different spots on and around Diablo Lake, I found the middle outcrop of the dam was the perfect spot for echo calling.

» Continue reading Echoes from the Dam

SWW 2015 Beach sitting

The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part Two)

December 26th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute hosted a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center. Here are some participant poems that came out of this unique weekend in the North Cascades. The first group of pieces from this year can be found here.

Poems in Response to “Voices from the Salmon Nations” by Frances Ambrose


Those great, smooth boulders
were they polished by glaciers?
or by the years of glacial melt
relentlessly flowing over and around?
or by countless salmon bodies brushing their sides
on the struggle upstream?

Death for a rock comes
when it is ground to powder by wind, waves, other rocks
and then dissolved in water
to become food for plankton and algae
in turn, food for feeder fish
who become dinner for salmon.

The next time I eat salmon patties
will I remember and praise those ancient rocks?

When I die
I too will return to molecules
that will feed the smallest to largest creatures,

Great boulders: you and I are kin.

Late Fall

The river stinks.
Dead salmon litter the banks.
Rotting fins float in the eddies.
Eyes pecked out by crows.
Whole carcasses carried into the forest by eagles,
remnants scattered on duff below tall perches.
Fat bears waddle away, fish blood on their muzzles.
Stink and happiness everywhere.

» Continue reading The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part Two)

Diablo Dam

View from Diablo Dam

August 22nd, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

A view looking west from Diablo Dam down the Skagit River Gorge towards Newhalem and the Goodell Creek Fire from Wednesday 8/19, 3:15 pm. By Institute graduate student Joe Loviska. We’re posting more photos from the wildfire at North Cascades Institute updates are at and on our Facebook page at


Gorging the Senses on Gorge Lake

March 21st, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Though I moved to the Environmental Learning Center last August, I had visited many times before during my first summer while living in Bellingham as a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Each time I drove by Gorge Lake, I marveled at the huge sand banks with gigantic tree trunks, remnants from before the dam was constructed and the gorge was flooded. One of three manmade reservoirs on the Skagit River, Gorge Lake is part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. Built in 1921, it makes up one third of a three-part system that helps power the city of Seattle. The two other parts of that system are Diablo and Ross Dams, with their consequent lakes.

During the warmer summer and fall seasons, the utility company, Seattle City Light, keeps the Gorge Lake water level relatively low, making the lake bed look like a vast expanse on a foreign planet. Not long after I moved up to the Environmental Learning Center in September, Seattle City Light raised the water level in Gorge Lake. The Skagit River in winter, without the addition of glacial flour scoured from the mountains above, is a dark emerald green that begs for exploration.

tylerdrygorgelake.HaleGraduate student Tyler Chisholm explored the cracked surface of the de-watered Gorge Lake last fall, looking for signs of a moose who some encountered visiting the town of Diablo. Photo by author.

I recently had the opportunity to canoe the lake with some friends, and though it was a drizzly day, the company was warm and light. We started in the town of Diablo, close to the bottom of the Diablo Dam. Two in our company, Dylan and Max, were advanced paddlers, which made for an easy learning experience for the rest of us who all came with varying degrees of canoeing know-how. Starting close to the dam was a wonderful idea as it gave us a new perspective of the small, company town as we floated by. The Diablo Power House, built into the rock wall, seemed so much more impressive on water than it did on land.

As we floated down lake, we came to a small section of white water where Stettatle Creek meets with the mighty Skagit. My canoe partner, Max, gave me a few quick pointers before we entered the waves and we floated down easily without much duress, bumping and tossing as the flow pushed us here and there. As we shot out the other end, Max and I let out a WHOOP! It was a short bit of rapids, enough to keep us on our toes and to be a ton of fun. We watched as Dylan, Annabel and Kristi expertly navigated the waves before paddling on toward where Highway 20 crosses the lake. On the other side of the massive bridge, we slowed down and meandered through stumps and sandbars that momentarily sit above the water line. We could see far through the deep green water, with visibility at ten or so feet. The sand bars above and below the water line had deep cracks in them, presumably due to the shifting level of the lake. The remainders of the stumps that we could see were old, large and teeming with new life. It is remarkable how quickly nature reclaims that which has been disturbed.

powerhouse.KristiKlinestekerGraduate student Samantha Hale and Seasonal Naturalist Max Thomas paddle past the Diablo Power House. Despite its grey, concrete exterior, the inside is quite fancy, complete with marble and granite flooring, an art deco water fountain, and a tiled goldfish pool. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
submergedtree.KristiKlinestekerStumps of old trees poke through the green waters of Gorge Lake, like 100-year-old ghosts lending paddlers an idea of what the landscape looked like before the dam and reservoir were constructed. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

As we continued on our journey, we stopped here and there to explore the many waterfalls that feed into the lake. By this point, the drizzle had turned to full-blown rain, swelling the cascades around us, giving an even better idea at the amount of water coming off the land. No wonder they call this place the North Cascades. To make the occasion all the more special, it was Kristi’s birthday weekend, so we took our time meandering around some lakeside caves and waterfalls of all sizes and shapes. We continued on much farther than we had originally planned, finally coming to rest at the point where the Gorge Falls meets its namesake lake. The falls are impressive from the roadside, and even more so from the base. Climb as we did, it was too damp to get higher for a full view of the falls. However, there were many waterfalls closer to the lake that were equally as impressive and easier to access.

canoeinggorgelake.KristiKlinestekerChasing waterfalls: Thomas and Hale canoe past one cascade after another, meandering toward Gorge Dam up ahead. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.

After a bit of playing in the snow and taking a plethora of pictures and “selfies”, we were on the water again. Before heading up lake we stopped to touch the massive 300 foot dam on our way back. I can now say I have seen and touched all three dams on the Skagit. On our return journey we hugged close to the opposite shore, investigating an equal number of waterfalls as well as avalanches and rock slides. Rain or shine, the day was exquisite, and I can’t wait to return to the Gorge Falls on a sunnier day. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone, but would suggest going when the water level is higher as it makes for a more relaxed journey.

Enjoy your weekends and get out exploring, my friends!


We made it to the Gorge Falls!  From L to R: Kristi & Dylan Klinesteker, Samantha Hale, Annabel Connelly, and Max Thomas. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.
Leading photo: The trip began in the shadow of Diablo Dam. Photo by Kristi Klinesteker.


Samantha Hale is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She has a background in marine mammal research and is ever in search, via canoe, of Diablo Lake’s elusive porca.



Place-Based Resolutions

December 31st, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Seconds past midnight, all bubbles and kisses. December’s fading moments transition into the cacophony of January, offering an annual reincarnation, ushering in a fresh year of open-ended possibility. Like blushing buds on winter’s twigs: Potential, unstoppable.

(For the next couple of weeks, at least.)

In terms of the new year — unlike most considerations — I’m a traditionalist. Being a powerfully symbolic time, the opportunity to create resolutions, and to reflect upon my variable successes with the almost done ones, is one too juicy to pass up. Two thousand fourteen is no different. Though the standard intentions, namely, “Play more guitar,” and “Stop being so neurotic” are obliged to make their repetitive appearance, I recently found a more measurable, but still challenging, way to test my resolve, one that will hopefully yield better results. It stems from the first post I wrote for Chattermarks, in which I wondered: How do we get to know our place (and, with a wink of the impatient, also asked if can we speed this relationship up)? I still haven’t found an answer, but the inquiry did prompt me to revisit a document called the “Bioregional Quiz.”

salmon carcasses RenzTaking care not to get any rotting flesh on her feet, the author stands amidst dozens of salmon corpses on the banks of the Skagit River near the Newhalem campground in North Cascades National Park. The anadromous fish travel upstream to the pools of their birth, lay the eggs of the next generation even as they begin to decay, then promptly die, in the process nourishing all the life of the upper valley. Photo by Samantha Hale.

Bioregionalism is best described by novelist Jim Dodge in his 1990 essay, “Living by Life.” Most simply, it’s a movement — part philosophy, part politics —  looking to natural systems as the point from which we should organize ourselves, our neighborhoods, our government, our spirituality. This could mean we consider, for example, watersheds, the shift in plant and animal communities from one region to another, topography, or human culture as the bases for decision-making, as opposed to arbitrary lines drawn on a map. Famously championed by Dodge and poet Gary Snyder, bioregionalism is radically place-based.

The questions such an approach requires one ask are essential ones and, I think, are the discoveries and explorations environmental educators seek to encourage in their students all the time. Let’s do it:


Modified and augmented from Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, CoEvolution Quarterly #32, Winter 1981

1.) Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2.) How many days until the moon is full? (plus/minus a couple of days)

3.) Describe the soil around your home.

4.) What was the total rainfall in your area last year?

5.) When was the last time a fire burned in your area?

6.) What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before you?

7.) Name five edible plants in your region.

berries C13 backpack Hale
Wild alpine blueberries and savage salmonberries will soon mix with some oatmeal and sugar to make a mid-trip crisp on Cohort 13’s summer backpacking adventure. Photo by Samantha Hale.

8.) From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

9.) Where does you garbage go?

10.) How long is the growing season where you live?

11.) When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?

12.) Name five conifers in your area.

13.) Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.

14.) What is the land use history of where you live?

15.) What primary geological event/process influenced the land form where you live? (Bonus: What’s the evidence of it?)

glacial valley Slate Mtn. Hale

Evidence of former glaciers can be found all over the North Cascades in U-shaped valleys such as this one looking out from Slate Peak in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo by Samantha Hale.

16.) What species have become extinct in your area?

17.) What are the major plant associations in your region?

18.) From where you’re reading this, point north.

19.) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

20.) Name some beings (non-human) which share your place.

21.) Point to where the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

22.) Are there plans for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

Dam HaleDiablo Dam: When living at the Environmental Learning Center, it’s impossible to forget where the energy comes from. Photo by Samantha Hale.

23.) What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

24.) Name five people in your neighborhood. What do they do?

25.) Where are the parks, open spaces or wild areas in your town?

26.) What are some of the main materials your house is made of?

27.) How much gasoline do you use per week, on average? What are the various ways you use to get from Point A to Point B?


The pace of things to come? Biking around Lopez Island, dreaming of paradise. Photo by author.

28.) What is the oldest building in your community? The newest?

29.) Are there any hazardous waste sites in your community?

30.) Where does your sewage go?

31.) If there is a place you walk to regularly, is there an alternative route you can take instead, just to mix it up? How many different ways could you get to the same place?

32.) Where does your favorite restaurant get most of its food from?

33.) What advocacy organizations are in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

34.) Does your town have a domestic animal shelter? A wild animal one? Do they ever need volunteers?

35.) Do you have a food bank or homeless shelter in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

» Continue reading Place-Based Resolutions