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Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

October 9th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Written by Master of Education graduate Sasha Savoian

Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop are two of the most heavily-visited trails off Highway 20 in the North Cascades range, offering Chinese Teapots access to the unique subalpine ecosystem blanketed in blooming heather in the late summer months.

On the eastern flank of the mountains, the trail to Blue Lake winds through engelmann spruce forest singing with golden crowned kinglets and dark-eyed juncos, into a meadow thick with clustered white valerian, dangling meadow rue, purple lupine, and bell-shaped jacob’s-ladder. It then crests above treeline with spectacular views of Liberty Bell Mountain, Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain toward the northwest. As altitude-loving larch trees appear, pink and white mountain heather pierce the edges of rocks along the trail leading to the aptly-named Blue Lake, where mountain goats are often spotted grazing on subalpine foliage 6,200 feet above sea level, a mere 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

Maple Pass in the North Cascades. Photo by Sasha Savoian

Maple-Heather Pass Loop travels 7 miles from the trailhead and back again through a shady forest of subalpine fir and spruce trees. Pacific wrens sing to an open Chinese Pu-erh Tea with talus fields catering to furry hoary marmots and peeking pika. Grey crowned rosy finch and clark’s nutcracker songs slide through larch trees above while hearty heather beckons below, filling gaps between rocks among dotted saxifrage, bugle-shaped penstemon, splayed phlox and deep red indian paintbrush atop 6,600-foot rocky Maple Pass–one of the best views of the North Cascades.

But this dynamic alpine ecosystem is fragile! With their woody stems and short growing season, heather is easily crushed. It takes only 50 booted steps to destroy plants that take upwards of 1,000-5,000 years to establish as a successful colony. Heather plants stabilize soil, prevent wind and water erosion, trap nutrients and control temperature in the soil to promote growth of other alpine vegetation.

Restoration projects on Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop began in 2012 when the Methow Valley was chosen as one of 14 designated sites as part of the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences established to connect people and their communities to their forests and watersheds through community engagement and collaboration.

» Continue reading Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

October 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Hanna Davis, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

There are various facets to graduate life at North Cascades Institute: taking classes, a teaching practicum, work study positions. And throughout every aspect, nearly every assignment of my residency this past year, a common theme has appeared: climate change. Specifically, how do we, as environmental educators, talk about climate change? It’s a topic that comes up so continuously in my work here that hardly a day goes by that I’m not talking about how to talk about climate change. So naturally, my natural history project is all about how we can improve climate literacy, specifically here at NCI.

If you’ve gotten a chance to look at NCI’s new Strategic Plan, you may have noticed the goal to “Strengthen the Institute’s impact and meet the needs of diverse communities by pursuing new opportunities for programs, partners and audiences [by]…integrating and expanding climate literacy throughout Institute programs.” Now, a strategic plan may seem like a mundane obligatory document, but if you can get past the admittedly dry language, you’ll find the heart of NCI: these are the values we believe in, the goals we strive for. So by including climate change literacy in this plan, we are saying: this work is crucial.

» Continue reading Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree

August 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Ash Kunz, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Ponderosa Pine. Illustration by Ash Kunz

The story of my life is the story of the land in which I am rooted. There have been more changes than are imaginable. It is a landscape that has been shaped by both natural forces and human hands. It is a ruggedly beautiful place – from the shrub steppe and dry forest ecosystem that descends 1000 meters to the once roiling river, now tamed and known as the Columbia. In times of warmth, my views are consumed with the iconic yellow and purple of balsamroot and lupine. In times of cold, the Earth is blanketed with a thick layer of pristine white snow. I have grown tall and broad and strong Chinese Teapots – fed by the soil and the water and the sun. I have seen humankind change. I have tasted fire and flood. I have heard the stories of glaciers and volcanoes; I have felt the Earth quake. I have heard axes and saws and machines. I have seen the young grow old. I have felt the change of time. My relationship with people, animals and plants is cyclic. Many beings have come and gone; they breed, live and pass.

» Continue reading Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree

Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

July 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jenny O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. Read Part I – The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven here

Like human babies, ravens are highly curious of all objects upon first leaving the nest. Fearless, they get into everything that’s in front of them and, accompanied by parents who help steer them away from true danger, they are free to explore and learn. As an integral part of exploration, play is a big part of ravens’ lives. Though admittedly difficult to define, Heinrich states that according to most definitions of nonhuman play, it is a behavior that “seems purposeless but possibly just because the observer hasn’t figured out what the benefit is.” Ravens play to have fun, not deliberately to educate themselves. Education is the side effect for which the strong drive to play came about. They play with a full range of skills that are crucial to their long-term survival and wellbeing, which Heinrich talks about in multiple chapters of his book:


Raven tug-of-war. Photo courtesy of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

Through physical play ravens develop strong bodies and graceful movement, such as: hanging upside-down, digging in the dirt, playing tug-of-war, chasing each other, snow-bathing and sliding. Much of this physical play also involves some danger, referred to as “risky play.”

Through risky play ravens learn to manage fear and develop courage, such as pulling other animals’ tails and approaching carcasses that might be equally as appealing to stronger, more threatening animals. In risky play animals also must develop effective communication. Amotz Zahavi, an Israeli biologist, describes effective communication in what he calls the “handicap principle.” Animals must learn first to have reliable signals between the communicators. In order for the receiver to know they’re reliable, they must be costly to make–attracting predators, for example. Heinrich relates two anecdotes of ravens effectively “warning” people of predators lurking, attracting attention to themselves, but also potentially providing themselves a meal if said predator attacks and kills! Through risky play, ravens have even learned to trick animals out of their food—one raven will distract the other animal, for example, and the other will steal its food.

» Continue reading Animal Natural Learning Tendencies: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part II

The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

July 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jennifer O’Toole, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort. 

Curiosity is born from one of the most unlikely of places: boredom. I used to fight the feeling of boredom, as I had been trained to do by the media with its constant barrage of entertainment, the internet with its never-ending information and by my own relentless drive to be productive. But one day I decided to try something different. I was trying to write a lesson plan for my 3rd grade science class the following day and found myself feeling bored with the work. I stopped typing and decided to let the feeling of boredom wash over me, accepting that I was bored instead of rejecting it. I decided to trust that, if I stewed long enough within my boredom, a flicker of curiosity would ignite and reinvigorate my brain to continue its productivity. A few minutes later I heard the pitter-patter of rain starting on my roof and my mind wandered to water as I noted the feeling of comfort that crept over me as I listened. I thought of splashing in the puddles, racing homemade boats down drainage ditches and allowing myself to become soaked. I had a strong desire suddenly to relive the feeling of joy and freedom created in that memory and—curious, now—looked to see what weather was predicted for the following day. More rain! It was decided: my students and I were going outside to play and explore water physics tomorrow.

I have felt, during my 10 years as an educator, the forceful squashing of curiosity. Instead of allowing the space my students need to get used to the boredom necessary to discover their own interests and then pursue them, the curriculum I must strictly shove down the often disinterested throats of my students is so jam packed I haven’t the time to get through half of what I’m expected to. My students must be able to regurgitate the correct answers to the specific questions they must know to pass the tests that will determine the level of stress they will endure for the remainder of the school year. The students who fail to “perform well on” the state and national exams (selecting one too many incorrect multiple choice answers while staring at a computer screen for hours is now considered a form of “performing”) face years of potential medicating, tutoring, extra homework and ridicule from other students. It’s no wonder under such stressed conditions that a child’s ability to perform creatively, focused on topics that interest them, is significantly diminished. I found myself searching for ways to nurture curiosity in my mentoring (I no longer use the word teaching, as it implies something being done to the student as opposed to with them), which I found meant significantly less control on my part and much more on that of the students.

Photo of raven stealing food. Image courtesy of Pixabay

» Continue reading The Birth of Curiosity: Through the Eyes of a Raven Part I

The Great Fisher

July 4th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Smokey Brine, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

A warm summer wind funnels down the Skagit River, blowing wisps of brown hair in front of my eyes. I shift my head to regain sight of the river channel and spot a green canoe cutting the water in front of me. The three passengers are laughing at something, I can hear their muffled exclamations over the sound of the rapids chopping against my boat. I attempt to propel my kayak closer to their conversation; clearly I am missing out on some sort of hilarity with my new housemates. When I catch up the river is now calm. I look to my friends and notice their gazes are focused downriver but not at the oncoming curve. Instead, they look upward.

Further downstream the Skagit River curves south, continuing its course from high in the formidable North Cascade mountains to the Salish Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Behind me is a wall of snowy peaks cutting the sky. In front, rounded tree-covered hills roll slowly seaward. The frost-bitten-blue color of the water beneath me hints at the river’s glacial origins and it seems that the clear blue of the westward sky is not quite as beautiful as the water below.

Ahead, before the riverbend, I spot the thing that has made my friends so watchful; a dark speck is hovering above the azure water. It seems motionless, as if suspended in time. It suddenly plunges downwards and I recognize the spectacle as the osprey crashes head-and-talon first into the water. An audible gasp issues from both our boats and we watch as the enormous bird rises from the water with a large fish clutched in its talons. The luckless fish, what appears to be a trout, is limp in the bird’s grasp. The hunter is successful.  

» Continue reading The Great Fisher

Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Western Washington University

June 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County. While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trip and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Ambassadors will contribute blog posts and photographs that highlight their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Inna Mayer and Aaron So, who share their experience visiting Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Inna Mayer

In late April, the Youth Leadership Ambassadors went on a trip Western Washington University. There, I learned about the Huxley College of Environment. Western Washington University is one of the colleges I’m interested in attending and I was happy to find out about their great Department of Environmental Studies. Steve Hollenhorst, Dean of Huxley, talked about the college and what interested him the most in the environmental field. It was special to hear what it meant to him to be a part of one of the oldest environmental colleges in the United States.

Youth Leadership Ambassadors taking a tour around the Western Washington University campus. Photos by Inna Mayer and Aaron So.

During the second half of the day, we got to attend the annual Earth Day event that the Environmental and Sustainability students and staff at the university put together. There were many speakers at the event and I was surprised and inspired at all the steps that these people took for conservation efforts. It was an eye-opening experience to learn what I could do to help out.

About Inna Mayer

My name is Inna Mayer and I’m a junior at Mount Vernon High School. I was adopted from Russia and I love the Pacific Northwest and getting involved with almost anything in the outdoors. Last summer, I participated in the eight day Outdoor Leadership trip with Youth Leadership Adventures. Taking on a leadership role in the outdoors provided a great experience to learn how to communicate and get through the day as smoothly as possible. It was a little intimidating to have the responsibility of leading my group through all the days planned activities. I had made a personal short-term goal for the day, which was to be able to look back on the things that went well and see improvement. Overall, I learned that it’s ok to ask for help.

Last fall, I attended the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit and found out about the Youth Leadership Ambassador program. I joined the Ambassadors because I wanted to continue my involvement with the North Cascades Institute.

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Youth Leadership Ambassador: Aaron So

For our fourth trip, the Ambassadors of North Cascade Institute went to Western Washington University. Located in Bellingham, we had the opportunity to meet the Dean of Huxley College of the Environment, Steve Hollenhorst. An advocate for program, he also serves the board member for the North Cascades Institute. Frankly, without his keenness for the program, it would not have existed.

While at the college, we toured the campus with Emmanuel Camarillo, a North Cascades Institute graduate alumni. At WWU, Emmanuel advises students academically, coordinates their peer mentor program and advise the Blue Group (Western’s student club for undocumented students). With Emmanuel, we were able to gain more insight on the college life, visiting the dorms and cafeteria. After eating lunch in one of Western’s dining halls, we listened to Tina Castillo, a WWU Admissions expert.


Listening to Dr. John Francis at Western Washington University’s Earth Day celebration. Photo by Aaron So

For the second half of the day, we participated in a student led day celebrating Earth Day. There were 7 local speakers who gave short talks of various areas of sustainability, ranging from food waste to transportation. We ended the day with a notable keynote speaker, Dr. John Francis, who spoke of the day’s theme, “Turning Empathy Into Action”.​​​​​​

About Aaron So

I’m Aaron So and I’m 16 years old and I’m currently attending Burlington-Edison High School. A few of my hobbies pertain sports like swimming, tennis, and volleyball. To be quite frank, I’ve never really been outside into nature for long periods of time nor have I ever had the chance to see nature for what it is. I joined the Ambassadors in hopes of experiencing new things and seeing new sights.