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red huckleberry buds

A Phenology Fix

March 24th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

By Sasha Savoian, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

The shifting of seasons. Temperature begins to rise as the arch of the sun lifts. Winds push and pull pendulous crowns of Hemlock and Western Red Cedar while gusts careen through limbs of Doug fir. Rains drench the lichen and moss covered landscape. Sun surprises. Days overshadow night. Subtle, sweet scents of spring waft unexpectedly in a warm breeze. Buds begin to break. Robins appear overnight.

Red Huckelberry

A Red Huckleberry limb with breaking buds along the Diablo Lake trail at the Environmental Learning Center.

The shifting of seasons. Spring is recently arrived, but the harbingers have slowly appeared up here in the North Cascades at 1,200 feet: buds of Willow, Red Flowering Currant and Indian Plum awaken, the catkins of Hazel and Alder open and dangle in preparation of pollen release, Varied Thrush, Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Robins and Pacific wrens sing the morning alive, a frog note travels through the air at dusk. At least a few of us up at the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake are tuned to the frequency of phenology as we have eagerly awaited the firsts to unfurl. Phenology is essentially the study of seasonal cycles in the natural world, paying particular attention to the connectivity of the species within an ecosystem. Phenology encompasses events such as bird migration, phases of buds on trees and shrubs, hibernation and the hatching of insects related to changes in temperature, amount of sunlight and precipitation associated with shifts of seasons.

» Continue reading A Phenology Fix


Lichen Love: A Natural History of Lichen (Part Two)

February 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Kelly Sleight, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

Lichen and People

Lichen and people have interacted since time immemorial. Humans have used lichen as food, medicine, clothing, fiber, poison, decoration and dye. From the original Christmas tree tinsel to the cherished purple robes of the wealthy, lichen has played a huge role in our history.


Many different cultures around the world used lichen as a food source. Often it was survival food because of the limited nutritional value. However, the Okanogan-Colville Native Americans valued the Black Tree Lichen or Black Tree Beard and included it as a staple of their diet. Traditionally the lichen was harvested, usually with Wolf Lichen, and cleaned extensively by the women of the Colville tribes.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
The Wolf Lichen is poisonous (used to tip hunting arrows), so it was important to fully clean the Black Tree Beard from the Wolf Lichen that often grew near and around it. The Black Tree Beard was then cooked in a pit fire with grasses, camas, spices, and deer meat for several days, resulting in a thick noodle-like consistency in the lichen. The women cooking the meal often fasted for the days it took to prepare and tended to the food preparation while remaining separate from the rest of the tribal community (Turner 1980).

Different people preferred Black Tree Beard from different host trees. The lichen often grows on many conifers in the Cascades and tastes differently depending on the host tree. Most Inland Skagit people prefer the Black Tree Beard from the fir trees, while Colville preferred Larch or sub-alpine fir (Turner 1980).

The Colville people also told a legend about Coyote who turned his hair into food after he was stuck in a tree. When Swan dropped Coyote from the sky, Coyote got stuck in a big fir tree. He escaped but much of his hair got stuck in the tree. He did not want his beautiful hair to go to waste so he turned his hair into food for his people (Turner 1980).

These days people still eat Black Tree Beard, however, thanks to modern technology a stew with Black Tree Beard can be cooked and prepared in an hour with a pressure cooker (Wooten 2015).

» Continue reading Lichen Love: A Natural History of Lichen (Part Two)


Lichen Love: A Natural History of Lichen (Part One)

February 15th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Kelly Sleight, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

There is a low mist in the woods-
It is a good day to study lichens.

-Henry David Thoreau, A Year in Thoreau’s Journal: 1851

The history of lichen and its uses began long before any person had started recording information in written form. The knowledge and use of lichen was spread around the globe and each population used the lichen from their region in a different manner. From food to medicine, fiber to dye, lichen has taken a huge role in history and in the ecosystem. However, it seems to me that lichenologists are few and far between, a very small population working with a vast number of species that seem impossible to distinguish. This must be one of the factors that sparked my desire to learn about lichen. I wanted to learn all the little secrets of this intriguing organism, find out what abilities it has, and what makes them so incredibly diverse. As I delved deeper into the mysteries of the natural world during my graduate residency, lichen pulled at me, and I craved more information. From day one, a particular patch of lichen had inspired my sit spot, the canopies of Witch’s Hair kept me spell bound, and the trees of Old Man’s Beard draped over the Skagit. Thus, I embarked on an endeavor to learn about this amazing organzism.

What is Lichen?

Lichens are curious organisms that are completely unique in structure and classification. Lichen is incapable of being classified amongst much other vegetation because it is technically a composite organism, a partnership between a fungus and an organism capable of photosynthesis, either algae or cyanobacteria, the latter sometimes mistakenly referred to as blue-green algae (Brodo 2001). Because of this, lichen is not connected to the plant kingdom and is in fact more closely related to animals than plants (Wooten 2015).Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
This small organism has had such great evolutionary success that there are now over 14,000 different species in the world that cover about 8% of the terrestrial surface of the earth. Looking closer, there are 3,600 species in North America, and 1,000 in the Pacific Northwest alone (McCune 2010).

» Continue reading Lichen Love: A Natural History of Lichen (Part One)


Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator

December 6th, 2014 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Sharon Birzer, artist and natural history illustrator

My Creative Residency journal  @ North Cascades Learning Center, Diablo Lake, July 11-18, 2014

July 11-13

The first three days I interacted with a class held at North Cascades Institute’s Learning Center on lichens: “Frog’s Pelt, Pixie Cup and Old Man’s Beard: Lichens of the North Cascades.” Taught by Daphne Stone, the weekend was rich with lectures, hikes and lichen identification. The class hiked to Rainy Lake and Washington Pass. We also took a hike up a service road to Buster Brown, a rocky outcropping covered in lichens.
This is a group that I brought back to look at under the dissecting scope and draw. This group has two lichens- Cladonia cervicornus with the double cup and Cladonia bellidiflora, and 2 mosses–Racomitrium elongatum and Polytrichum piliferum.




July 14 Thunder Creek

Today is hot, in the 90’s. I hiked up Thunder Creek and spent time in the cool shade of an old cedar and Douglas fir forest. A cool breeze wafts down from the mountains and everywhere are ferns, lichens, fungus, and life.
July 15 Sauk Mountain

Hiked up Sauk Mountain today, 4.2 miles, 5537 elevation. Annabelle told me it would be beautiful. Wow. Alpine meadows. Wildflowers abound. Ice fields at the top and glacier lilies and avalanche lilies (finishing) and many others species of wildflowers in full bloom everywhere. Afterwards I was dusty and hot so I dipped into Diablo Lake before working on lichen illustrations.


» Continue reading Creative Residency with Sharon Birzer, natural history illustrator


Cascade Pass: Go. Now!

August 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

I have recommended the hike to Cascade Pass and up Sahale Arm to countless visitors in search of a day’s worth of adventure while working this summer at the National Park Service Visitor’s Center in Newhalem. Yet I, myself, had yet to experience it beyond the National Geographic topo map spread two-dimensionally under glass beneath my uniformed arms. Tragic, no?

This was recently remedied. Some highlights:

CascadePass.KRenz2After climbing 3.7 miles of moderate switchbacks to Cascade Pass, skip though a glaciated valley another 28 miles to Stehekin. Backpacking is the only way to access this tiny village, aside from a 2.5 hour ferry ride up Lake Chelan.
CascadePass.KRenz10Though the hour-long drive up Cascade River Road, from Marblemount, can be a beautiful challenge, it is one of the few hikes in the Park where you are immediately close-up to glaciers upon hitting the trail.
   CascadePass.KRenz4Rocks ‘n’ flowers, rocks ‘n’ flowers. The contrast between hard and angular rocks, eroded through eons, and colorful subalpine blossoms, the essence of ephemeral, is a treat throughout the entire journey.
CascadePass.KRenz3A tenacious team: Fungi and algae pair up to form this unidentified crustose lichen, growing ever so slowly on a rock in the harsh conditions of the alpine environment.
CascadePass.KRenzTrampling heather and other high-elevation shrubs is a huge problem in the subalpine. This is especially easy to do, even by the well-intentioned, when such plants are still covered in snow. The “social trails” criss-crossing these regions, most notably here above Doubtful Lake, are testament to our tendency to wander.
CascadePass.KRenz5After a scramble for the last half-mile or so to the top of Sahale Arm and the base of Sahale Glacier, there was….a family of mountain goats! Seven of them, including two kids. Their goaty antics provided high-peaks entertainment for a solid 45 minutes. Though they were cute and exciting, it’s prudent to remember they are, indeed, wild animals. Here are some suggestions from Washington Trails Association on what to do if you encounter a mountain goal along the trail.
CascadePass.KRenz8Sahale. The Native American name supposedly means “high” or “heavenly”. Yep.
CascadePass.KRenz7The view looking east. Even with fires raging in the Okanogan, the tallest mountains are still visible through the haze.
  CascadePass.KRenz10 Lupines fancy up the subalpine meadows, poking out amidst green grass, pink heather and touches of white bistort. The entire flower, or inflorescence, is made up of several individual flowers. Once one is pollinated, the banner (the top, single petal) morphs from blue-violet to magenta, signaling to bees to not waste their time and instead to get to work pollinating yet untouched blossoms. Smart things, those lupine.
CascadePass.KRenz9Looking south. The North Cascades aren’t called a “sea of peaks” for nothin’.
Leading photo: Three from the mountain goat crew contemplate the void (or something like that) after frolicking at Sahale Glacier.
All photos by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She would like to remind you that yes, there are a few rather epic backcountry campsites up on Sahale, but that you have to get a backcountry permit from the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount ONLY (not the Visitor’s Center in Newhalem) before heading up there with a fully loaded overnight pack. Have fun!



lichen close up Katherine

A-Hunting for the Details

January 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Today I went on a hike looking for wildflowers. I failed, miserably. But this was accounted for in the strategic plan, a given before I’d even cinched my shoelaces or threw on a daypack.

You see, it’s the middle of winter in the North Cascades. What else would one expect? But as an amateur naturalist with a penchant for all things botanical, the landscape can be a little — dare I say it? — boring. Emerald is pretty, and serves a photosynthetic purpose, and brown ground holds the nutrients to support the whole thing. But recollections of the summer’s subalpine petal-rainbow are haunting. Perhaps this admits a shallowness on my part, a doltish attraction to the obvious, a stubborn attachment to the reproductive parts and advertising wiles of plants, commonly known as flowers.

monkshood with bee KatherineMonkshood (Aconitum spp) and pollinator engaged in nature’s busy dance as seen on the Rainbow Lake Trail last August. This genus contains some of the most poisonous plants known to humans, containing an alkaloid that paralyzes the nerves and can fatally lower body and blood temperatures.

Last season was hardly so harsh: the fall brought mushrooms, which, though of a different kingdom, were close enough. But this new year, even the characteristic mega-fungi have melted back from whence they sprung. Twig ID, a tradition around these parts, is just not gonna cut it; lichen and moss are fascinating, but only do it for so long. Does anyone really want to read a blog post musing on the dozen different shades of Oregon grape?

cranberry scone fungiFall offered all sorts of intriguing decomposers, like this toasted marshmallow mass of mushroom, commonly called “bleeding tooth fungus” (Hydnellum peckii), which smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. Seriously.

The problem is the solution, as permaculturalists say, so what’s the remedy? Not too long ago while living in a dynamic though often ridiculous city, I grew into an expert at glimpsing the tiny things ignored by most: the swollen poppy growing solo next to a street tree near the 101 overpass, October’s spiders weaving webs in the monster trumpet vines, the aloe vera growing, appropriately, outside the tattoo shop. I needed to return to the details, big and small, of the North Cascades. I decided to stroll up the familiar trail to Sourdough’s waterfall.

It worked. An afternoon of re-kindled love, demonstrated by bounding back to the Environmental Learning Center with camera in hand, all smiles, as though returning home from a successful hunt on the savannah. Some samplings:

cedar reflection KatherineReflections on the seasonal cedar swamp near the Pi Shelter. Notice the animal signs on the trunk on the right.
lichen "roots" KatherineMembranous dog-lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Check out the orange apothecia, which are the fruiting bodies from the lichen’s fungal partner and will eventually release spores. Also of note, the quarter inch rhizines, which do not help in water or nutrient absorption like plant roots do, but do serve to anchor the lichen to its substrate. It’s a fascinating little world, eh?
fungi on fungi KatherineFungi on fungi! I’d been paying attention to this shelf fungi on an old snag since coming to the Environmental Learning Center in late August: It always looked and felt very solid and unchanging. Add enough rain and time, and even the toughest decomposers start to get decomposed, too.
hanging roots KatherineLike a sleeping sloth of the Pacific Northwest, dangling roots and dirt clods invite the imagine against a backdrop of Doug fir forest.
Oregon grape KatherineOne of several manifestations of Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), with a pale strand of fructose lichen caught in its spiky leaves. The primary understory species in the forest on the way to the waterfall, Mahonia provides most of the non-green hue in the wintertime forest up to the waterfall. The leaves can burst a crimson hue, spontaneously and randomly, after the plant is a couple years old.
lichen rock fall KatherineA miniature world of lichen and moss tumbled down with some mini-boulders from the perennial rock fall along the trail. Linger at your own risk.
de-barked KatherineAnother animal sign? A strip of bark harvested to make a traditional Salish basket? A weather-induced injury?
"lake"reflection KatherineYes, that is blue sky! As seen from the surface of the seasonal puddle-pond at the junction of the Sourdough Creek and East Diablo trails.
cedar disintegration Katherine Even giants disintegrate: The vermillion spire-snag of an old cedar crumbles slowly but surely onto the trail.
rattlesnake plantain KatherineEvidence of flowers — hallelujah! The bright green, basal rosettes of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia ) on the banks of Fawn Creek offer a rare instance of soft, living leaves in January. Come late spring, stems of small, cream-colored flowers that look like tiny orchids will grow on a tall spike emerging from the center. Early settlers believed that this plant could be used to treat rattlesnake bites because the markings on the leaves resemble that species’ scaly skin.
witches butter KatherineA candidate for the “Brightest Organism in the Winter Forest”, witches’ butter glows like fungal gold. Note its neighbor on this alder twig, a species of avocado-green crustose lichen — a combination reminiscent of 1970’s kitchen appliances.
ELC with sun KatherineA small piece of Sourdough Ridge gets illuminated beyond a lodge at the Environmental Learning Center.
Leading photo: False pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea), a type of club lichen found on open sites, grows its upright “clubs” for reproductive purposes — notice the powdery, pale green grains (aka soredia) on the cup’s edge, awaiting to be dispersed by rain or wind. This one was found on that dry and rocky south-facing slope as one starts the immediate climb to the waterfall.

All photos by Katherine Renz

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. This is her official call to all fellow botanizing freaks to the North Cascades this coming spring. Maybe we can start a club?