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Wild Eats! Forage on Lopez Island with Jennifer Hahn

May 29th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Wild Eats From Land to Sea in the San Juan Islands
Saturday, June 14, 8:00am to Sunday, June 15, 5:00pm
Lopez Island, WA

Imagine fulfilling your desires for eating local food, learning cool new things, becoming more self-sufficient and connecting with nature. Now imagine doing all of them simultaneously.

Really?! Yes, I know, how could so much good stuff happen all at once? But it’s not a too-good-to-be-true proposition.

Jennifer Hahn, an a expert on wild food foraging and an adjunct professor in Western Washington University’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, is leading an adult field class on Lopez Island through the North Cascades Institute in mid-June. [Jaw-drop here]. As she tempts us in her book, Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine (Skipstone Press, 2010): “Imagine for a moment one long feast table spanning from the islands of Yakutat Bay in southwest Alaska to Point Conception, California, and beyond, rising from the Pacific Ocean to the Cascades crest.” [Begin salivating here.] Part cookbook, part bioregional natural history escapade, Pacific Feast reveals that nearly 180 different species were once central to the food traditions of the West Coast indigenous people, and offers 65 recipes celebrating them. [Dig in, here.]

“Ever try nettle pesto, rose petal truffles, ginger-sesame seaweed salad, kelp-wrapped BBQ salmon or Douglas-fir sorbet?” –

Hahn does not write up a standard itinerary for the weekend program in advance, saying instead that she likes to “keep it wide open,” which makes sense considering nature is always changing. “I wait and see what is blooming/growing/sprouting/flagging my wild attention, then I plan the two days around that,” she wrote to Chattermarks in a recent email. The trip is timed to take advantage of both the abundance of spring and extreme low tide so nutrient-packed sea veggies are easily harvestable.

The schedule includes a daily afternoon feast, preparation and cooking, practice in plant identification and learning foraging ethics. Was the daily afternoon feast mentioned?

dandelions k. renz
A sampling of foraged foods. What an interesting shift to consider ingredients as species rather than just products from the grocery store that you have to eat before they spoil in your fridge! Photo from Hahn’s website.

Basecamp for the program is Group Camp Three in Spencer Spit State Park. Lopez Farm Cottages is an available option if the cute indoors are personally preferable to tentin’ it.

The weekend is not only about tasty treats but also about sharpening a sense of connection and reciprocity with the natural world. Hahn is attentive to her “Sustainable Foraging Guidelines” in her 6-fold laminated “Pacific Coast Foraging Guide” (Mountaineers Books, 2010), and will teach participants what to be of mindful of while harvesting. Her “Stewardship” guidelines are not only on-the-mark but are clever, too:

Sustain native wild populations.

Tread lightly.

Educate yourself.

Waste nothing.

Assume the attitude of a caretaker.

Regulations and laws – follow them.

Don’t harvest what you can’t ID.

Share with wildlife.

Harvest from healthy populations and sites.

Indigenous people’s traditional harvest sites deserve respect.

Pause and offer gratitude before you pick.

Pacific Feast has plenty of impressive foodie recipes, distinct from a dish from an Alice Waters cookbook by the foraged focal point and Pacific Northwest bent (e.g. “Oyster Mushroom Pizza with White Truffe Aioli” by Peter Jones of Arcata, CA, or “Huckleberry and Port Wine Sorbet” by Bellingham’s Lynn Berman). But in this blog post I wanted to provide something easily accessible to everyone, a product with few ingredients that was quick to make, delicious and empowering.

Thus, get ready for a pre-trip teaser of “Dandelion Syrup.” As a non-native weed, dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) have a pretty negative reputation. But once one knows how to harvest and prepare them – the roots, leaves and flowers are all edible and good for you – stepping outside is akin to going to the Co-op. Wild dandelion greens are wildly more nutritious than the domesticated greens from the store, and they’re free (perhaps you could even get paid for weeding them from a neighbors garden?). With their toothy leaves and sunshiny flowers, dandelions are one of the most recognizable species. Unlike various wild plants that have look-alike, fatally toxic relatives (think wild carrots and poison hemlock), dandelions have no poisonous dopple-gangers. The following recipe uses their bright yellow petals for a simple addition to your kitchen.

Dandelion Syrup

By Jennifer Hahn

(As seen in Pacific Feast: A Cook’s Guide to West Coast Foraging and Cuisine (Skipstone Press, 2010)

The taste of dandelion syrup reminds me of tangy lemongrass with honey. It’s a delicious treat drizzled on waffles, pancakes, berries, or baklava. Stir it into tea for a nutritious sweetener, or mix it with warm water until dissolved and add ice for a refreshing dande-lemonade. I’ve made this syrup with sugar and agave nectar. The latter gives the syrup a haylike overtone, reminiscent of a summer day lying in a field chewing on a spring of grass. Sugar gives the syrup a yanglike zing.

Yield: 1 ½ cups syrup


4 cups dandelion petals

4 cups water

½ organic lemon

2 cups sugar or agave nectar


In a medium stockpot bring the dandelion petals and water to a boil. Turn of the heat immediately. Let steep covered 8 hours or overnight.


Pour dandelion tea through a strainer to remove the petals. Press the pulp into the sieve with the back of a spoon or your hand – or ball up the mash like you are making a snowball and squeeze the last liquid out.


Measure the remaining dandelion tea. Add water if it is less than 4 cups and pour into a clean stockpot.


Slice lemon into rounds and remove seeds. Add lemon rounds and 2 cups of sweetener to stockpot. Stir well to dissolve sweetener. Simmer uncovered over low heat for 1 hour. As evaporation lowers the liquid level, lower the heat for a constant simmer. (A sugar-sweetened syrup will thicken faster than syrup sweetened with agave). After 1 hour, check the consistency by spooning a bit onto a plate and cooling it in the fridge for a few minutes. The syrup thickens as it cools, and it is ready if it beads up. If you like thinner syrup, reduce the cooking time; if you like a thick, honey-like consistency, cook 15 to 30 minutes more.


While it is still hot, strain the syrup through a fine sieve into jars. Set aside the “candied lemon wheels” on a plate to dry. Add them to hot tea or ice cream. Dandelion syrup will deep for six months or more in the fridge.


Get inspired with this 2:25 minute sample of what it’s like to forage with Jennifer Hahn.

Find more information on how to sign up for Wild Eats here.

foraged food Jennifer Hahn's websiteEat me. Photo by author.
Leading photo: Foragers become one with their chosen plants. Jennifer Hahn and broad-leaved foliage. Photo from Jennifer Hahn’s website.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Like a true nature’s child, she was born, born to be wild.


Ribes K. Renz

But To Carry On: Ribes has Arrived!

April 29th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

The anticipation was torture for an amateur botanist from southern climes. It took three weeks for the tight buds to finally crack and unfurl into star-shaped flowers. Three weeks, after months of the bare twigs and snow-smothered ground cover of winter. But, one by one, the red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) that is planted around the landscaped areas at the Environmental Learning Center began to claim its seasonal distinction as the first blooming plant of spring. Its species name — sanguineum — is appropriate, derived from the Latin sanguineus, or bloody. This early color lends a flushed optimism to the sunny edges of the forest, full of life amidst the still withered and brown remnants of the stubborn oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), another tall and lanky flowering shrub characteristic of these parts. Ribes’ tubular flowers attract hummingbirds, which are also set to arrive in the upper Skagit Valley after a winter vacation in Mexico and Central America. Anyone with one of those plastic hummingbird feeders, full of red #40-dyed sugar water, knows that these winged pollinators best see colors in the long-wave light spectrum — reds, oranges, and violet-reds.

hummingbird K. RenzYou’re right: This feeding of wildlife did not occur in North Cascades National Park but was taken on a trip to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. A hanging row of plastic feeders was attended by dozens of colorful hummingbird species, sucking down enough artificial nectar in order to obtain their requirement of half their weight in food daily. Photo by author.

The white petals surrounded by the flashy pink sepals (aka “bud covers”) are like a neon sign throbbing around an otherwise inconspicuous target, alerting potential pollinators that this is where the goods are. Since hummingbirds have almost no sense of smell, flowers pollinated by the buzzing birds have no need to waste energy on manufacturing fragrance. Ribes are no exception. The individual flowers are small, only about half-an-inch wide. This lack of girth is compensated by their arrangement in a larger cluster, known in botanical circles as an “inflorescence”, which hangs down like a handful of succulent grapes, offering an easy one-stop buffet for hungry pollinators and a clear area for the assertive approach of a determined hummingbird.

Ribes with naturalists K. RenzTa da! Bow down to the first blooming plant of spring! From L to R: Seasonal naturalist Oliver Wood, graduate student and staff Tyler Chisholm, and seasonal naturalist Allison Andrews. Photo by author.

Though perhaps not as tasty as the hummingbird’s nectar, uses of this species have been found by humans, as well. According to Daniel Matthews in his comprehensive field guide, Cascade-Olympic Natural History, Ribes is the Arabic term for “rhubarb”, which makes sense considering its hot pink hue. In their Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Pojar and MacKinnon call the bluish-black, round berries “unpalatable” and “insipid” (author’s note: As a gardener who is always excited to nibble straight from the source, I would argue otherwise.). Various Coast Salish groups eat them fresh if necessary, but they are not preferred. No big deal, though, for now: Spring is the time not for berries, insipid or no, but for flowers. Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice! Happy Spring, everyone!

Ribes 2 K. Renz
Leading photo: A Ribes inflorescence. The individual flowers take a couple of weeks to open from the base to the tip, an adaptation allowing the plant to be available to pollinators for as long as possible, thus increasing its chances of reproductive success. Photo by author.
Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Had she had any foresight, she would have joyously written the book, Sex in the Garden, before author Angela Overy did. Are you similarly obsessed with flowers and pollination? It’s a must-read!

Red red

October 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Simultaneously crispy and cozy, the first days of autumn belong to the poet.

All the seasons are lovable in their own way, and each claims my favorite when that quarter’s beginning day of solstice or equinox finally spins around. Yet there’s something about fall, its fading light and muted yet still burning colors, that is especially good at invocation. Symbolically, it’s that last call before the witching hour of death—bare branches, brisk, dark, truncated days–the one guarantee we get besides birth, one our modern industrial culture is predictably loath to appreciate. If winter is the cold end, spring the new beginnings, and summer just carefree fun, fall is the reflective calm. Books could be written devoted to the beauty of maple leaves coasting whimsically to the ground, Crayola palettes inspired by the browns and ambers and goldenrods and crimsons of October. Both are probably out there.

A few nights ago, during the first big storm since graduate Cohort 13 arrived at the Environmental Learning Center, a new meaning of the season struck me with a boom. The lightness of falling leaves may be a quintessential image, but what about the heaviness of falling trees?


Fellow grad, Tyler, and educator extraordinaire Kevin followed the sound of the crash and discovered a red alder lying prone and broken across the Sourdough Creek Trail, not far from campus. Later, out with our first week of Mountain School, we all had to cross a tangle of more alders sacrificed to the storm just past the Fawn Creek Shelter. Though my non-ecological mind immediately sentimentalizes, “Oh, poor trees,” I soon remember this North Cascades forest community is composed of at least as many horizontal, decaying logs as it is healthy standing ones. The cycle is complete: easy to see and obvious to teach.

The inside of the tree, now splinted, is easy to see as well. This is a benefit, as it offers a visual on why this species was named as it is. Red alder, or Alnus rubra, translates to “red red.” According to Pojar and Mackinnon’s trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ‘Alder’ seems to be a variation of Old English or Old High German words for ‘reddish-yellow;’ ‘rubra’ is red in Latin. Redundant or emphatic? It matters little, for now I have in situ evidence when I tell students the bark is used to make a red or orange dye. My other favorite regional field guide, Daniel Mathews’ Cascades-Olympic Natural History, says the Salish have techniques to boil, chew, or urinate on cut bark to make and fix the color. This potent bark is also medicinal, used against tuberculosis and as an anti-biotic wash for skin wounds. The wood is reputed for being among the best for smoking salmon.

It is hard to ascertain this vermillion-ness from the standing trees, though, for on the surface their trunk is a mottled combination of white and grey, and moss. The trees’ thin layer of outer bark is greyish-brown, and the patchy effect is from the white crustose lichens using the alder as a reliable host. These lichens are also easy to check out, eye to apothecia, when having to negotiate the fallen trunks. Nature explodes in details.

IMG_5905The sage green is a foliose lichen (think, “foliage” aka “like a leaf”), and the white is the crustose lichen (think, “like a crust”) that forms the patchy texture of red alder bark. Notice the apothecia, the tiny circular reproductive structures of the fungal partner of the lichen. Photo by author.

It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the species causing the midnight raucous was red alder. They grow fast and aggressively, but they die young, considered an old tree at 50 years. In their short time, though, they offer an invaluable natural service, partnering up with bacteria that live on their roots and “fix” atmospheric nitrogen that is normally unavailable to plants. In many ecosystems, including the Pacific Northwest, nitrogen is one of the biggest factors limiting plant growth. Not only do the bacteria thus provide some nitrogen for the soil and the host alder, but the alder leaf litter is nitrogen-rich, fertilizing the forest floor and preparing the system for later successional species, such as Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, as it decomposes.

The Red red tree: a pioneer, a friend of the lichen and bacteria, an important plant resource for human cultures. And for the poets among the alders, stepping over all this on the trail, another pleasant reminder of a favorite season.

Leading photo: A bigleaf maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) rests in the fresh break of a fallen red alder. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is currently one of two editors of Chattermarks. Until March 21, autumn is usually her preferred seasoning.


Reflections on the Upper Skagit: Ross Lake by Boat and Boot

December 18th, 2011 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Written by Special Guest Blogger Elisabeth Keating.

On a cool Thursday evening in late July, a group of adventurers gather at the Environmental Learning Center for the 24th (and possibly final) year of one of North Cascades Institute’s most popular courses: Ross Lake By Boat and Boot a three-day exploratory workshop on the people and places of the Skagit River Valley, led by Gerry Cook and Bob Mierendorf. Both Bob and Gerry have had celebrated careers with the National Park Service – Bob is in his 25th year as the North Cascades National Park Archaeologist, and Gerry, recently retired from 44 years as a Park employee, has been a North Cascades fire lookout (1967 and 1971), a Park designer and architect, and an instructor and captain of the Ross Lake Mule. Bob and Gerry have led this class since 1997, labeled fondly by those who know them as The Bob and Gerry show.

At orientation, Bob welcomes us to what he and Gerry call Up River University: Nature’s classroom in general, and the floating classroom on board the Ross Lake Mule in particular. In our handout is an essay about the history of the area’s indigenous people, a map of today’s current Ross Lake, the class field itinerary, and a timeline of key events in the Upper Skagit reaching back 24,000 years to the present day. Before the creation of the dams along the Skagit River in the first half of the 20th century, the heart of the North Cascades was so rugged and inaccessible that few outsiders ventured in.

Looking out across the great expanse of Ross Lake on board the NPS Mule.

Gerry gives us a brief orientation to our home for the next few days – The Ross Lake Mule built in 1968. The North Cascades National Park inherited the NPS Mule from Katmai National Park in Alaska in 1976. The Mule hauled tons and tons of sand, gravel, cement, and materials of all kinds until it met its most noble calling: a floating wilderness classroom for students and adults.

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