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2011 Instructor Exchange Eagle Watching

Time Along the Skagit: Eagle Watching With Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors

March 24th, 2017 | Posted by in Adventures

January can be warm on the lower Skagit and this late January Saturday was no exception. As Becky Moore, Alexei Desmarais and I arrived at the Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit River in Rockport, WA, we looked to see if there were any Bald Eagles present around the river.

As graduate M.Ed. students at North Cascades Institute, we live and study near the headwaters of the Skagit River. We had come to the river this morning to meet a fellow graduate student and along with the US Forest Service, provide an interpretive and educational experience for two unique organizations – Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors. Both organizations mean to bring families and kids to rural areas with open public lands, giving them opportunity to have fun and get outside.

That morning we met to learn about salmon and what they mean to the Skagit River and the animals, plants and humans that live here. We hoped to see Bald Eagles, which spend the winters here feeding on dead salmon which have spawned during the fall and winter. These salmon carcasses provide high energy food for many predators in this ecosystem.

Participants from the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program and Latino Outdoors enjoying the afternoon learning about salmon ecology and the Skagit River watershed. Photo by Daniel Dubie

Having a large number of participants, we split up into four smaller groups, deciding to mix up their time with games and a chance to walk around and enjoy the river. In my group we decided to play a salmon game in which a group of folks are chosen to represent salmon fry which go out in the ocean, grab food, and make their way back to the stream where they were born without getting tagged by other folks who represent dangers such as whales, fisherman, eagles, and bears. We played the game a few times, increasing the numbers of dangers in order to show how hard it really is for a salmon population to sustain itself without a large robust population.

Students have fun while learning about salmon population! Photos by Daniel Dubie

As the day continued, we interpreted salmon and eagle ecology in relation to the Skagit River to our groups and visited the Skagit River Bald Eagle Interpretive Center. I feel that these peaceful and fun experiences here along the river and the land surrounding it, can be instrumental in forming relationships with the lan and our greater world.

Written by Daniel Dubie, avid naturalist and graduate M.Ed. student at North Cascades Institute. 

Ash Kulshan Creek 7

S’more Knowledge, S’more Fun: Kulshan Creek at Lyman Slough

December 5th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Youth Program is a year-round educational program that engages young people ages 5 to 18 from two Skagit Valley neighborhoods in a series of monthly field trips to explore the outdoors and learn about our local watersheds. 

The weather is ominous. Big, gray rain clouds, wind and chilly temps definitely impacted the number of students that turned out, but the smaller number does not diminish the palpable excitement.

A big yellow school bus sitting in the parking lot is the backdrop for our greeting. As we approach the kids standing around it, they come running, big grins plastered on their faces and brimming with excitement and energy. Their enthusiasm is contagious and Kay and myself find ourselves just as giddy! After initial introductions we all eat lunch together, but instead of sitting down, we have to dance around the shelter in order to stay warm. There is nothing better than bonding through dance!

Before we head down to Lyman Slough, Ben led a rousing round of the Starfish warm-up! Shake it out!

Ash Kulshan Creek 2

We walk a short distance from the park down to the slough where we get to learn a little bit about what a slough is and what the Skagit Land Trust does in this area with restoration and land management.

Then we get to play!

When learning about a watershed, one of the most important concepts to understand is the water cycle.


Kay brought GIANT dice for us to make the water cycle happen, plus we also got to make a super cool bracelet.  Each student starts at a location where water is stored in nature – clouds, ocean, rivers, lakes, groundwater, plants, animals, soil. There is a dice at each of these locations with at least one side representing that location, and all the other sides representing all the different places the water could travel to, based on the process of the water cycle. At each of these locations there is also a colored bead. The kids collect a bead at each location and roll the dice to see where they get to go next and collect the next bead. At the end they had a unique bracelet as well as a visual representation of all the places that they, as a water molecule, had traveled.

Ash Kulshan Creek 5

It was incredible to watch these kids experience the water cycle and have a tangible take-away from the lesson, rather than simply lecturing and giving them the facts and basics of the process.

» Continue reading S’more Knowledge, S’more Fun: Kulshan Creek at Lyman Slough

With trap builder Bergen Patterson

Ecosystem Engineers: A beaver curriculum

June 6th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Hannah Newell, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

A person’s perspective on the beaver is malleable. Some believe they are pests that need to be eradicated while others look deeply into their connection to the ecosystem and how they help shape our environment through their lifestyle.

Two North Cascades Institute Graduate students partnered with the Methow Beaver Project to create a curriculum to serve the Independent Learning Center in a few ways. One being the need for a biology class for their ninth to twelfth grade students and two, the desire to inform these students about the place that they live in and the beaver’s role in that place.

With four field trips planned over the course of four weeks, students were introduced to beavers at the Winthrop Hatchery, explored nearby wetlands to research macroinvertebrates and watershed development, and concluded their experience at the Twip Town hall where they conducted a mock town hall to view stakeholder opinions on the matter of the presence of beavers in the area.

» Continue reading Ecosystem Engineers: A beaver curriculum


Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

June 2nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

All photography courtesy of Adam Bates, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Youth have a unique skill in creating adventures out of anything. So even though I had been to tree planting on Cornet Bay and the Migratory Bird Festival with the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program, both large and expansive day trips, our last trip to Rasar State Park felt no less adventurous!

The day started off wet. That might seem ubiquitous living in western Washington but we had been without rain for two full weeks at this point. The rain was a welcome change from weeks of dry, hot, sunny days.


Observing snails and slugs.

» Continue reading Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

Pacific Wren

Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)

November 27th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

By Rob Rich

I came to the Pacific Northwest for many reasons, but one of them was, well, for the birds. Were those harlequin ducks for real? What was so special about the Pacific wren? And oh, how I longed to see the red-shafted Northern Flicker! These were some of my last thoughts before finally chasing the sun towards the Salish Sea. But since most birds don’t migrate from East to West, I knew I’d need a guide to set me straight.

Thankfully, I’d planned North Cascades Institute’s Spring Birding to be my first stop upon arrival. That’s right, I signed up from 3,000 miles away, tossed out my moving boxes in Bellingham and settled first things first: learning birds in the field with Libby Mills.

If you too feel like a lost goose at times, do not fear. Spring Birding is back, as are a host of other older Institute favorites – and some new ones that look out of this world. Literally. Where else but North Cascades Institute can you take a class that is astronomically synchronized for the nighttime awe of photographers? And where else can you hang out with snake experts, or decipher the clues of wildlife tracks in our precious winterscapes? As always, the great unveiling of the Institute’s January-June courses will expose natural curiosities you never knew you had. Experienced and emerging naturalists alike will both be forced to reckon with a growing list of reasons why the North Cascades are where it’s at.

Night photo

» Continue reading Shooting Stars: Nighttime Photography, Wildflowers and More (a preview of 2016!)

books Stephanie Burgart

Confessions of a Bibliophile

March 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

It has been almost two years now since I graduated with my Masters in Education from Western Washington University (WWU) and North Cascades Institute’s unique graduate program. My memories are filled with the laughter of Mountain School students, Professor John Miles’ New “Hampsha” accent and endless views of Diablo Lake. While I miss the sunshine, quiet and darkness up there in the mountains, there are days where I also long for the library, research and studying. It may be shocking to some, but it’s true: we did actually do traditional learning and coursework during the residency. With images of the graduate students gallivanting around snowy peaks, dense forests and playing in the sunshine, it is easy for parents and friends to wonder if we were actually trying to “learn anything” in the program. Of course, it’s a very big “yes”.

We were all there to learn. Sure, Dr. Miles did an excellent job of getting us out into the world we preach about, but there were also the necessary times of studying inside. You can’t read heaps of homework out in the rain, at least not everyday. Deer Creek Shelter, for example, is a wonderful place for respite, but I doubt a LAN cord to connect to the servers will reach that far (though I’ve no doubt Nick Mikula, one of my fellow graduates, tried it at least once). Large portions of curriculum writing, nonprofit work and research for various projects all happen in front of the screen or book, but one of the best parts was the individuality of all this learning.

The amount and types of research varied from student to student. Taken out of context, some of the reading we do as experiential environmental educators could come across as crazy. For me, I’m pretty sure the WWU library has me flagged, and with the recent National Security Agency and “Big Brother” news going on, I wouldn’t blame them. I’m into some pretty amazing stuff.

» Continue reading Confessions of a Bibliophile

Columbia Rececca Wiederhold

Mountain School is ON!: Playing in the Snow, Compensating for the Government Shutdown

February 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Columbia Elementary School was already told once they couldn’t come to Mountain School as planned. So they certainly weren’t going to let the biggest local snowstorm of the year so far stop them from enjoying a second chance to learn about ecology, carnivores, and community during their rescheduled visit last week.

During this past October’s government shutdown, four of the North Cascade Institute’s Mountain School sessions had to be cancelled because the Institute is in a national park and all federal operations were mandated to close. Over 250 fifth graders from Bellingham were told they couldn’t have their seminal 5th grade experience in the wilderness as expected. Some teachers, including Columbia’s, wisely used this misfortune as a teachable moment, organizing students to write letters to their local representatives expressing their discontent. Though the government “re-opened” after 16 days, and the Institute was able to make up one of these cancelled schools by extending its fall season by one session, what about the rest of the students?

The answer? Spring season. Mountain School started three weeks early this year.

It was, however, nearly a false start.

Columbia’s estimated time of arrival was late morning, weather depending. Nine graduate students, four new seasonal naturalists, two staff naturalists, the Mountain School Program Coordinator, and the rest of the Environmental Learning Center community were eager to meet the 83 4th and 5th grade students. But the snow started to fall heavily around Newhalem, eight miles west of the Learning Center and the beginning of a stretch of road prone to rock fall and avalanches. The two yellow school buses were parked. Students built snowmen. The adults deliberated. Mountain School representatives traveled down Highway 20 to meet them and assess possible options. Would the buses be able to drive safely down the hill toward the road atop Diablo Dam?

After much consideration and lunch, they decided that yes, the buses would make it. Mountain School or bust! Columbia Elementary arrived successfully at the Environmental Learning Center in the early afternoon. Most of the instructors had not taught in the snow before. And as the snow became rain, the white trails turned to muddy slush, making for a challenging start. Luckily we had plenty of Mountain School gear (much of it donated) to augment the students’ clothing.

Columbia Rececca WiederholdNot your everyday lesson: Students learn to build a snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdLunchtime smiles. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdOne of many snow-folk that popped up around the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Day two is our longest, all-day stretch in the field. This time, the temperature fell by a few degrees, and the previous day’s raindrops transitioned, fortunately, back into snowflakes. These eight hours highlighted one of the characteristics for which experiential educators are best known: Flexibility! Instead of proceeding with our lessons as planned, many of us delved into snow science, how to build snow shelters, and making “real” glaciers through layers and layers of compacted snow. Building snowmen became a popular team-building exercise. Friendly snowball fights were irresistible, becoming a mandatory component of everyone’s day. A lesson on animal signs was improved from the normal discussion by the opportunity to make various animals’ tracks in the snow. Most trail groups stayed closer to campus than usual, warming up every couple of hours with new, dry gear and hot chocolate courtesy of Chef Shelby. Transitioning from an outdoor-based curriculum to the necessity of more classroom time was a bit challenging for several instructors, since one of the main opportunities of Mountain School is to get these students out in the fresh air, beyond the four walls of their typical educational experience and honing their observation skills in nature. But the students didn’t seem to mind, for the most part, and it was a good exercise for the instructors to consider what lessons and games would transfer well to the indoors.

Despite such issues, the students had a memorable and unique three days at Mountain School. As they got ready to get back on their school buses, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many of them say they wish they could stay here instead of going home. Having “school” in the national park is always a different experience than being in a classroom down valley, of course, but the addition of snow made it something magical. Because really, how more “mountain” can you get than falling snow?

Columbia Rececca WiederholdA student gets a better look at a bird. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdAnd when the weather gets too bad, or the students need to warm up, there are the indoor classrooms. Microscopes are always a hit. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Shannon SampsonIt’s a different forest, and a different teaching opportunity, when covered in snow. Photo by Shannon Sampson.
Leading photo: Students LOVE the snow! This trail group poses, beaming, in front of their small snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. She is looking forward to the upcoming transition from “primarily grad student” to “mostly Mountain School instructor”.