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Natural History Field-Excursion: Learning the Value of Citizen Science

December 26th, 2017 | Posted by in Field Excursions

This post is the second of a 3-part series describing graduate students’ ten-day field excursion to the Methow Valley, as part of their fall Natural History CourseBelow is writing by Zoe Wadkins, graduate student in the North Cascade Institute’s 17th cohort

It was twenty-eight degrees out and declining. Seventeen of us gathered around a lone fire while Andromeda twinkled in the Eastern sky. Our second night atop Chelan Ridge with HawkWatch International held my cohort and I captivated by firelight – humbled by the elements, the beauty of raptor migration, and the relentlessness of the folks who perch atop these ridges in hope of conveying an important story to the world.

Graduate students stand atop Chelan Ridge

Kent Woodruff retired Biologist for the U.S. Forest Service taught bird aerodynamics from our lookout post

For a more in depth account of our experience with HawkWatch, please see Brendan McGarry’s post Migrating Raptors over Chelan Ridge.

Though welcomed into hearth and home, and gifted rare opportunity to partake in this season’s raptor counts, us graduate students were the ones now being thanked. Thanked by the people who devote a portion of their lives to banding and counting hawks in the name of science. Thanked for our presence and interest in their migratory bird studies. Thanked for committing ourselves to education, and for imparting our experience to the outside world.

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Zachary with Hawk

Beavers and Hawks: Graduate Fall Retreat Seminar 2015

November 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Woke up at 0555 to a pack of coyotes (Canis latrans) howling and barking in a playful manner with one another for about ten minutes. During this time a barred owl (Stix varia) was making some small hooting. Still very dark, the weather was mostly fog with a 70 yard visibility at 40*F.

This is how my journal entry for the 2015 Fall Natural History retreat started on October 8th, 2015.  As part of the Graduate Program at North Cascades Institute, the fifteen of us students  in the newest cohort along with our instructors Joshua Porter and Lindsey MacDonald went over to the Methow Valley to get first hand experience with our natural home. As future environmental educators, it is vital for us to understand our local ecosystem through experience so that we can lead the next generation in outdoor experiences.  With this trip in particular, the first day focused on beavers, while the second on hawks.

We had spent the night in the Gardner Hut on Rendezvous Pass.  When we awoke we heard a chorus of coyotes and owls, but could not see them due to two factors: low visibility due to heavy fog and little sunlight, and rather comfortable and warm sleeping bags. Despite this, we packed up, ate breakfast, and heading for Winthrop.

Ponderosa at Gardner Hut

Packing up from our night in the Gardner Hut. Two Ponderosa Pine are pictured.

» Continue reading Beavers and Hawks: Graduate Fall Retreat Seminar 2015

thirtymile memorial

The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology

October 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Terror surged silently through my viscera as I watched the swirling inferno twist red and merciless up the talus in the smoke-blackened darkness of night.

Trapped on a rocky, steep slope in a canyon without exit; that is how I would have perished had I been forced to make the same decision faced by five wildland firefighters in 2001. I had to control my breathing and disconnect myself from the story being read by our professor, Dr. John Miles, at the Thirtymile Fire Memorial up the Chewuch River Valley in Okanogan National Forest. Four of the five firefighters lost their lives in ways I dared not ponder while fleeing a storm of fire fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, and extreme drought. At the memorial, their faces stared smiling and youthful from the stone wall adorned with emblems, mementos and the remnants of weathered paper notes tucked under rocks of granite.

As graduate students, we were on our annual Fall Natural History Retreat, and this year found us traveling east to the Methow Valley to study both the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology. Before reading from John Maclean’s book, The Thirtymile Fire, Dr. Miles asked us what we would have done: taken cover in the stream or climbed high into the rocks? I chose the rocks, thinking that I would have been able to find a hole with enough depth in which to take refuge and preserve my life. I would have been wrong.

thirtymile memorialA patch from Whatcom County firefighters at the memorial site, weighted by two chunks of granite.

Fire: Prometheus’ great offering to humankind. Stolen from the gods and placed in our fragile hands of flesh and bone. Who knew what a frenemy we would find in the gift for which he paid such an eternal price? Our fear and fascination have persisted throughout time immemorial. Yet finding a balance between protection of property and fire’s greater purpose still mires our management practices.

Thirtymile exemplified a forest fire’s ability to be both a harbinger of deadly destruction and one of cleansing renewal. Charcoal and bone, the remnants of a once verdant forest protruded like skeletal fingers from the earth. The valley itself, however, was smeared with lime, gold, burgundy, rust and canary. Nature’s intrinsic instrumentation was evident. Fire swept away the abundant, dry understory. It ridded the land of pests and pestilence such as mountain pine beetle and laminated root rot. It held the key to unlock the serotinous cones of the lodgepole pine.

Then, from the ash, came Nature’s healers: lupine, fireweed and alder to fix nitrogen back into the soil and make way for the forest’s rebirth. The earth erupted in a symphony of color, drawing butterflies and hummingbirds. Dead tree trunks provided homes for invertebrates that became tasty snacks for woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Aspen, wild rose and other sun-loving species burst from the desolation, and among them began growing stout little conifers to begin the forest anew.

red barkRegeneration after fire: Aspen trees come in to a disturbed ecosystem early on and help fix nitrogen for the rest of the plant community, as well as offer important browse food for animals.

» Continue reading The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology