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North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

January 27th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017

Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.

This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.

Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

Mtn School Nat Geo Oct 2016

Mountain School in National Geographic magazine

October 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

We are thrilled to have been included in Tim Egan’s cover story for the October 2016 issue of National Geographic!

“In early fall I went to North Cascades National Park — the American Alps, chock-full of glaciers containing the frozen memories of wet winters past. A bundle of high peaks in Washington State, the park is one of the most remote places in the contiguous 48 states and also one of the least visited parks. But here, deep in the forested embrace of the upper Skagit River Valley, you can find the next two generations of Americans getting to know a national park. I heard hooting like owls and howling like wolves, coming from a circle of fifth graders and their wilderness instructors. The kids were from Birchwood Elementary in Bellingham, Washington, a school where almost half the students are nonwhite and most had never been in a national park. They were there for Mountain School, three days in outdoor immersion run by the North Cascades Institute. Their guides—staff naturalists, park rangers, graduate students—were all millennials. Without exception, the instructors thought the concern about their generation’s attachment to the land was valid, but overstated.

“It’s not like all of a sudden people are going to stop loving nature,” said Emma Ewert, who had gone to Mountain School and returned as an instructor. “But you do need the exposure, the fun of playing in the woods.” For that, perhaps, we should look to today’s parents, those afraid to let their children wander a little bit on their own.

The institute’s co-founder and executive director, Saul Weisberg, is a self-described Jewish kid from New York by way of Cleveland. He’s 62 now, wiry, with a bounce to his step. He learned to love the parks from his family, camping in a tent not unlike the one my folks used. He became a seasonal ranger at North Cascades and noticed a troubling pattern among visitors. “I don’t think I ever saw a person of color in the backcountry,” he said. He started Mountain School in 1990, partnering with the Park Service. About 3,000 students a year go through the program.

Though these kids lived only two hours or so away, this park was a strange new world for them. Many said it was the first time they’d been off the electronic leash of a family smartphone. “They have a very short attention span,” Ewert said.

At Mountain School, the instructors note changes in behavior over the few days the kids spend in the forest. They start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’ ” said Carolyn Hinshaw, a teacher at Birchwood.

The parks director, Jarvis, is a big fan of Mountain School and similar programs, like Nature Bridge, which brings 30,000 students every year to a half dozen national parks. But he cautions that one visit does not a park lover make. “Something clicks, a light goes on, just by having some exposure,” he said. “I think it takes three touches for someone to change. A great first impression, but no follow-through, is not enough.” What’s needed, he said, is a broad cultural shift—a return, of sorts, to a time when outdoor exposure was a basic nutrient of American life.”

Read the rest of “Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?” at www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/10/unplugging-the-selfie-generation-national-parks.

Gaines

Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines

December 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Bill Gaines has been at the forefront of the grizzly bear recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest for 25 years. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about the historical struggles of recovery efforts, the impacts of other carnivores in the North Cascades ecosystem and the role education must play in order to successfully implement recover efforts.

Mike Rosekrans: What initially got you interested in bears?

Bill Gaines: I finished my undergrad and went into my Masters pretty quickly where I studied harlequin ducks, so I really wasn’t a bear person coming out of school. I’d always been interested in bears, but it was something I never had the opportunity to focus on. I then went to work for the Forest Service where I was on a crew that was collecting information about habitat for bears in the North Cascades as part of an effort that started in the mid-80’s and ended in the early-90’s to evaluate whether the Cascades had the capability to support a recovered population of grizzly bears. I was working on the habitat side of that process as a field crew person. The fellow who was leading the habitat evaluation wound up moving after a few years, so in the late 80’s I found myself taking over the role of the leader of the habitat evaluation component. It then became pretty obvious to me that I needed to immerse myself in bear biology and ecology.

I began going to different meetings where I got to meet all these interesting people from all over the world who got to work with bears. I immersed myself in the literature, and had an opportunity to get involved with research on black bears in the Cascades for my PhD dissertation. This really gave me the opportunity to get into the research side and get out in the field and track bears around and start learning about how they behave here in the Cascades.

I got to be very intimate with many of the parts of the Cascades and had black bears radio collared on the eastside and the westside. So it was four years of field research that really became a dream job! That got me hooked on bears and I started to become more and more fascinated with their ecology, their intelligence, and their behavior. After I finished my PhD, I became involved with the development of the recovery planning for the grizzly bear in the Cascades.

MR: How important is it to reach the younger generation, who will ultimately be the future managers, to just go out and to educate the general public?

» Continue reading Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines

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Mountain School fifth-graders help restore Bowman Bay

December 2nd, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

By KERA WANIELISTA for the Skagit Valley Herald, November 23, 2015

BOWMAN BAY — Bracing against the wind at Deception Pass State Park’s Bowman Bay, 10-year-old EmmaLee Grove put the force of her entire body into digging a hole on the beach’s newly restored shoreline.

When the hole was sufficiently deep, EmmaLee and her best friend Kadence Yonkman placed the roots of a small, leafless tree — which they had named Wilbur — into it, then covered the roots with rich, dark gray mud.

“I think Wilbur’s going to be happy,” EmmaLee said.

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Nearby, about 70 Fidalgo Elementary School students planted other trees, shrubs and ground cover.

“We’re rebuilding the habitat for animals and bugs,” Kadence said.

That morning, Fidalgo’s three classes of fifth-graders were the first student group to help restore habitat at Bowman Bay. Three more classes from Island View Elementary School headed to the beach in the afternoon.

“We really just want to re-create the entire ecosystem,” said Lisa Kaufman, Northwest Straits Foundation nearshore program manager. “The habitat (then) can do what it wants to do and what it needs to do.”

The fifth-graders’ work to restore the beach came after a three-day trip to the North Cascades Institute’s Mountain School.

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» Continue reading Mountain School fifth-graders help restore Bowman Bay

Indira

Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez

April 29th, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Indira Mejia-Chavez was born in Mexico, but her mom raised her and her two younger siblings in the Skagit valley, where she lives today. Her first experience with North Cascades Institute was in 2004 when she attended Mountain School with her fifth grade class. Now 21, Indira still has a vivid memory of that first experience with North Cascades Institute.

“Mountain School was a whole new world I’d never seen before…and it was pretty cool,” she remembers. “We were exposed to a natural setting, we made our own bracelets, tasted healthy food that we didn’t know could be made (because you know, it has to be bad for you to taste so good)!”

She recalls how going to Mountain School brought everyone in her class together more. The cliques that were already starting to form in her class were broken up by the trail groups; everyone was able to mesh together and bond.

And her favorite activity at Mountain School? Water quality testing!

“I really liked putting two and two together,” she explains, “if the water isn’t producing animals, then the water isn’t good quality. It just made sense. I still remember the guy that was leading us told me, ‘You’re very smart, you could be a scientist.’”

For a time, Indira thought she wanted to be a community police officer, but she realized that she wants to do something she loves, and share that love with others. Her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water quality. Although she is taking a break from school after several terms at Western Washington University, her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water

Although Indira’s initial experience with Mountain School made a big impression, she didn’t stop there. In 2009, she participated in North Cascades Institute’s North Cascades Wild program. Two years later she was back at the Institute for our Cascades Climate Challenge program (the two programs are now combined into our Youth Leadership Adventures program).

Between the two courses, Indira spent over a month in the backcountry of the North Cascades pushing herself to overcome the challenges that everyone experiences when placed far outside their comfort zone and the familiarity of home and family.

“When I went on North Cascades Wild,” she says, “I spent a lot of time focusing on the negative – this is so hard, I wish we’d take a break – I complained a lot! With Cascades Climate Challenge, I knew what to expect and didn’t want to miss out on anything. It was so beautiful and I didn’t want to get distracted. I grew so much from the opportunity to lead others.”

» Continue reading Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez

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Educating the Heart

October 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascades Institute has always believed that the route to conservation passes through the head and the heart — “we take children outside to fall in love with the world,” Saul Weisberg, our executive director, has remarked, “so that they learn to care, and take care, of this special place they call home.” With this is mind, our communications coordinator attended the Heart-Mind Summit last week in Vancouver to learn about efforts underway in BC schools to “educate the heart” of young students. As the Vancouver Sun reports, “It turns out that children who learn to be kind and resolve conflicts, who live free of fear and anxiety, who are compassionate and present in the moment, grow up to be happier, healthier and more productive in nearly every way that social science and psychology can measure.”

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Attending the Youth Dialogue session at John Oliver Secondary School, our staffer Christian Martin expected to learn more about the new Heart-Mind Index, to be inspired and perhaps get a peek at one of his heroes, the Dalai Lama, who was in town to promote these efforts. What he didn’t expect was this encounter in the school library!

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Read more about BC’s Heart-Mind education experiment at www.vancouversun.com.

Heart-Mind Online provides resources and activities that build capacity in parents and educators so they in turn can support the children in their care in areas such as anxiety, stress, managing conflict, friendship and other key domains of a child’s Heart-Mind well-being.

“Heart-Mind Online is a really exciting project,” says Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, interim director of the University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership.  “It is so important for parents and educators alike to have a place where they can find practical resources and tools, rooted in science, that really educate the heart. These competencies, like empathy, altruism and compassion, are so critical not only in childhood, but also later in life.”

Top two photos by Christian Martin; bottom photo by Thandi Fletcher/Metro Vancouver.

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Post-Graduate Adventures in Job-Land

December 20th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Guest post by Brian Stafki

I was part of North Cascades Institute’s Graduate M.Ed. Program third cohort. I felt like I was part of the first, second and fourth cohorts as a groupie, for that matter. I can say things like, “We didn’t even have a learning center to live in — we just camped in the woods,” or, “We were the guinea pigs.” Back then we weren’t positive there would be a Cohort 13. I love introducing myself when I see members of the newest cohort at community events, fairs or conferences. We all share that common bond of having gone through the trials and tribulations of graduate school at Western Washington University with John Miles and crew, and having studied in the craggy North Cascades with North Cascade Institute folks such as Saul Weisberg. And we are all changed forever.

When I finished the program, I felt like I could conquer the world. I had my bright new shiny non-profit that I was “ready” to launch. My keystone program was a high school youth leadership program for high-achieving 10th and 11th graders. It was modeled after the semester-abroad exchange idea. Youth come to a unique destination, learn about sustainability from community experts and prepare to apply what they have learned. Problem was, my New Mexico-based non-profit was pretty far from the place I had come to deeply understand and appreciate, the North Cascades and Puget Sound lowlands. I have never had such a strong sense of place as I have here in the Puget Sound area. That’s also when the reality of funding sources started to kick in: I would not be launching my non-profit right away in my new home of the Puget Sound.

So I did what I could to stay in this region. I worked for the Institute for a while doing everything from being a contract instructor, to a cook, to facilities help. And I did get to live at the Environmental Learning Center after I graduated.

I got back into education for two seasons working for NatureBridge at Olympic Park Institute outside Port Angeles. We had talked about inquiry learning in classes but now I was teaching it at a new level. And it was powerful! But it was still seasonal work.

Before long I was the Education Director for Sound Experience and the historic schooner Adventuress in Port Townsend. One reality that I am not sure any schooling could have prepared me for, though, was a failing economy and the pressures of nonprofits to survive. I found out first-hand that program income was very important for our programs with Sound Experience as other funding sources dried up, including revenue from schools.

IMG_0962Brian on a day hike with Jennifer at the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge near Olympia. Jennifer calls him a “walking Google” when it comes to nature.

» Continue reading Post-Graduate Adventures in Job-Land