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Naturalist Note: February in the Mountains

February 25th, 2018 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” – Hal Borland

February is the beginning of my favorite stretch of year – the transition from winter into spring, and then spring into summer.

This winter I am finding myself drawn to the lowland forests and deciduous banks of the Skagit River. My time upriver has been the most wintery winter I’ve endured; I am now accustomed to the semi-regular process of scraping ice and snow off my windshield, and wearing microspikes as I walk down the icy road of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. However, a walk in the forest feels like a visit with an old friend. It reminds me of my island home at the other side of the watershed, Deception Pass. Everywhere in the forest, signs of familiar companions are appearing and talking and that makes my heart feel much warmer, though my toes and hands are just as cold.

These interactions have also filled my journal with many, flowery ramblings. In between classes, and now Mountain School trainings, I try to take a walk outside and note changes in my environment. February is especially a time of rapid change – one day it can be cool and damp out, and the next day there’s seven inches of snow on the ground and slush in my boots. Below, I’ve noted some of the changes witnessed within my little sphere of the world this past week. What have you noted, too?

Recent Naturalist Notes: 

On February 16 – I heard a Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) sing outside of my partner’s cabin in Marblemount, while branches cracked from the weight of freshly fallen snow.

February 17 – During a rainy walk in Rockport State Park, I found Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), or osoberry, breaking leaf buds all along the Suak-Springs trail.

Also spotted were young buds on the Vine maple (Acer circinatum), leafy buds of the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), and two of my favorite edibles popping up along the forest floor: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytona sibirica). It’s only a matter of time until I can make a batch of nettle pesto!

And there were signs of moss reproduction everywhere, with the stalk-like shoots of the sporophyte popping up. The spore capsules are about ready to release spores that will grow into new moss. Next time, I will take my hand lens with me to get an even closer look.

On the drive home, I stopped at mileposts 100 and 101 to stand by the Skagit River. I saw three Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at 101 and noticed the snow line on the mountains and grey clouds. It felt good to stand close to the talking river and listen to the eagles.

» Continue reading Naturalist Note: February in the Mountains

confluence garden 1

The Confluence Garden: A Space For Growing Community

December 16th, 2016 | Posted by in Institute News

Here at the Confluence Garden we’re gearing up for winter. That means bringing in the irrigation hosing, tucking in the garlic bed with a blanket of straw, building row cover structures to protect our more tender perennials, and battening down the hoop house hatches to enable some winter planting. It also means starting to think about next spring. And, let me tell you, we’ve got some big plans for next spring! We’re hoping to ramp up production in order to supply some veggies to programs at NCI’s Environmental Learning Center, to support the summer graduate program, and to provide fresh produce to the Marblemount Food Bank. We’ll also be expanding our educational programming—working with community partners in the valley and with NCI programs to welcome more students and community members into the garden space than ever before.

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Graduate students construct a bamboo row cover for the herb garden.

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Gathering up the irrigation hoses for winter.

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The Confluence Garden hoop house.

We hope that you join us at one of our community work parties this Spring! Because this garden is more than just a space for growing food and teaching hands-on lessons about food systems, gardening practices, and plant biology. It’s first and foremost a space for growing community, for getting our hands a little dirty as we build connections between one another and the land here in the upper Skagit.

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The Blue House and Confluence Garden space in Marblemount.

Thank you for your support! Stay tuned to ChatterMarks for more about what’s happening at the Confluence Garden!

Title photo includes Rachael Grasso and Dan Dubie picking herbs during the fall harvest party at the Confluence Garden. 

Written by Alexei Desmarais, Cohort 16 Graduate Student. All photos courtesy of Angela Burlile


Blue House Farm

April 18th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Tyler Davis, member of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

Spring has arrived and summer will be here before we know it. When I think about summer, I think about juicy, red tomatoes, summer squash and fresh cucumbers, picked right off the vine. This summer, we should be able to find all of those things (and more!) at North Cascades Institute’s “Blue House” in Marblemount.

North Cascades Institute has implemented a Foodshed Program that encourages the use of organic, local, sustainably sourced foods in the Environmental Learning Center Dining Hall for program participants, visitors, staff and graduate students.

In an effort to find more ways to encourage healthy food choices and to support sustainable food systems, the organization has decided to start a farm – tentatively named “Blue House Farm.” On Sunday, April 10th North Cascades Institute Staff, graduate students and neighbors all came together to build the “foundation” of the farm!

Currently, there are some graduate students from the 15th cohort and North Cascades Institute staff members working to plan and start the farm. As plans go, the Blue House Farm should be operating for production and educational use in the summer of 2017. This year we are dipping our toes in the water, so to speak. We will be planting various crops over the 2016 growing season that will be used by the upcoming graduate cohort (Cohort 16). Some will be available to staff and Cohort 15 graduate students. We also plan to donate a portion to local food banks.

» Continue reading Blue House Farm


Snapshots of Paddling on the Skagit

February 11th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

While the Broncos and the Panthers were playing the biggest football game of the year, almost two dozen of us living in the upper Skagit valley traveled down the Skagit River. In our “paddling crew” included members from the Institute’s 14th and 15th graduate cohorts, North Cascades Institute Staff and students in the Remote Medical International class living at the Environmental Learning Center for a month or so. Here are a few of the best “snapshots” of our adventure down the Skagit from Marblemount to Rockport.


Making sure everything we wear is waterproof before hitting the water.


Our canoes ready for launch!

» Continue reading Snapshots of Paddling on the Skagit


Primitive Skils: A Lesson in Reconnection

December 15th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I remember my first introduction to the world of primitive skills – the day my employer and mentor first showed me how to make fire by friction.

Fifteen of us sat and watched as David sat quietly on the ground and pulled several pieces of wood from a canvas bag. A long bow, a slender rectangle, a cylindrical branch, a stone, and a bag of bark. Without speaking, he positioned the branch, wrapped in the string of the bow, perpendicularly to the slender rectangle. He steadied it with a rock on the top of the branch, then began to rhythmically move his arm back and forth, rotating the branch in a divot in the board. We waited, barely willing to breathe lest we break the spell David wove.

Almost immediately, fragrant sage smoke began to pour from beneath David’s hands. Without breaking his focus, he set down his bow, and lifted the wooden rectangle from the ground to reveal a small, glowing ember. He gently tapped the ember into a clump of bark, then held it to his face and began to gently blow. He seemed to breathe life into his hands. Thick, yellow smoke began to surround his head until, in a split second, flames erupted. To me, he seemed a modern day Prometheus – the bringer of fire.


I feel like Prometheus on every camping trip

From that moment, I was spellbound by both fire and the world of traditional skills. Tapping into this body of knowledge felt like a way to connect with the most ancient, ancestral part of myself. As a person already comfortable in the outdoors, I felt catapulted into a new stratosphere of connection to the earth. I could create fire. Ever since man discovered fire, it has played a central roles in so many aspects of our lives. We cook over fire, gather around it as a focal point of community, tell stories around it, and use it to survive long, cold winters. To be able to create it with my own hands, without the aid of lighters or fuel, felt like a revelation.

This skill, and the community to which it introduced me, changed my life.


My trusty fireboard, cut from a sage trunk in the Utah desert

For the next two years, I taught friction fire to my wilderness therapy students while simultaneously seeking out primitive skills teachers. I learned wicker basketry and how to make spirit horses. I attended WinterCount, my first primitive skills gathering, which could fill an entire blog post by itself. While at WinterCount, I sewed with buckskin for the first time, wet-felted with llama wool, crafted a didjeridoo, soaked and manipulated porcupine quills into a bracelet, learned many new ways of making fire, and learned about the bevy of wild edibles growing in the southern Arizona desert. All in the warm embrace of primitive skills enthusiasts who range from ranchers and traditional homesteaders to barefoot, tattooed 20-somethings.

I recently had the good fortune to discover the Marblemount Homestead. Steve and Corina Sahlin live just down the road from the Environmental Learning Center on a beautiful piece of land set back from Highway 20. Corina dyes and spins her own yarn and Steve imparts his impressive body of knowledge to community members through a variety of traditional skills classes including hide-tanning, friction fire, and bow-making. Two of my graduate cohort members and I jumped at the chance to make our own bows and arrived on a chilly but sunny Saturday morning at their homestead, ready to learn.

In just a day, Steve took us through the process of turning a red oak plank into a beautiful working bow. We took the planks, tapered at each end by Steve, and set to work shaping them. We closely followed Steve’s instructions to scrape wood equally from both sides, to only cut from the “belly” of the bow, and to move slowly and deliberately. We diligently scraped, then perched our bows on Steve’s tillering tree to figure out things like draw length and draw weight.


Shaping my bow with a rasp


Steve helping Kelly Sleight, another graduate student, perfect her draw weight


Liz at the tillering tree

Liz, Kelly and I agree: to learn such knowledge feels empowering. To work with our hands and to create a beautiful, functional product is something so easily lost in today’s world of omnipresent technology and living life virtually. Steve and Corina’s homestead feels like a lovely haven, safe from pervasive iPhones and computers, and a place of great knowledge and learning.


Confirmed: it shoots.

The world of primitive skills has brought such joy into my life. I came into graduate school knowing that this body of knowledge and educational goals would be an integral part of my studies, and that I would work to find ways to incorporate it into my residency at the North Cascades Institute. Along with my bow-making workshop, our entire graduate cohort got the chance to learn deer processing from Katie Russell in the Methow Valley, and I continue to push friction fire on whomever shows the slightest interest in it. Whether it’s my fellow grad students or the inspiring young adults at the Youth Leadership Conference, I see the same reaction upon exposure to these skills: awe, wonder, and a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I am grateful for all my teachers, and for those who’ve allowed me to teach them.




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!



An Upriver Life: The Skagit Beyond Highway 20

December 17th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The North Cascades are full of secrets. One must have a specific intention to discover the scenic treasures of the peaks, and that intention is usually accompanied by a backpack, several days of supplies, strong legs, and fortitude. Some treasures are only available for viewing from one particular point, on one obscure trail, after one has hauled body and gear up several thousand vertical feet. Although the drive along the highway is loaded with landscapes that suspend the breath and inspire the imagination, those who choose to linger a while and explore will reap the greater reward.

The same highway twists through dwellings that serve as no more than mile markers to most travelers. A few sporadic gas stations and convenience stores denote the entry to and exit from places that would be missed if one sneezed or got a bit of dust in one’s eye. However, these places that line the highway to the North Cascades hold their own magical secrets. Just as travelers are rewarded for finding their way beyond the sole strip of bitumen through this wild and scenic space, so do delights await those who choose a side road, and saunter rather than a sprint through the surprising upper Skagit River Valley.

Concrete, Washington

Like many, I had mentally reduced the small town of Concrete to what was visible from the highway: a small market, a few gas stations, a speed limit not to be tested by risk-taking passers through. The town’s name did not inspire exploration. My assumptions were tested at a meeting of the Upriver Poets (a story for another time) when I was told that there was a remarkably good, entirely gluten-free bakery hidden on the town’s main street.

An adorned lamp post in downtown Concrete, WA

Time Warp: An adorned lamp post in downtown Concrete, WA with Sauk Mountain in the background. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

One sunny Sunday, I drove to discover this aberration. I turned right off the highway and left onto Main, and stopped dead in the middle of the street with my brow furrowed and my head cocked to one side. Street lamps were adorned with wreath and garland, Christmas lights draped every fanciful store front, and people were walking around in Dickens-era frocks complete with top hats, tails, and petticoats. I peered into the rear view mirror to check for any obvious signs of temporal disturbance, and seeing none, I continued down the whimsical lane. I soon discovered that it was the exact day of the annual Christmas parade, wherein townsfolk dressed in period costumes and a variety of events filled the day with fellowship, entertainment, and Christmas Spirit. It was incredibly pleasant to discover two things: the lovely little downtown filled with cheer, and that I had not passed through a quantum anomaly (although that might have been really cool).

Upon arrival at the 5b’s Bakery, I was again taken aback. The bakery was a beautiful open space filled with natural light and delightful aromas. The pastry cases, counters, and freezers were bursting with tempting treats of every variety. To the left there was a full espresso bar and soda fountain that provided coffee drinks, milkshakes, and old fashioned sodas to complement any baked good.

5b’s was started by the Beals family: Em, Walter, Lizzie, Bowen, and Tavish. Em Beals was diagnosed with celiac sprue disease 18 years ago. Her twin sons, Bowen and Tavish were diagnosed when they were four years old. Em’s mission for the 5b’s was simple: to make delicious food to satisfy every craving while being dedicated to a 100% gluten-free facility with no risk of cross-contamination. She makes sure that people who live with celiac disease still get pizza, cookies, and birthday cake. The bakery also serves lunch specials including soup and sandwiches. I partook in a tasty soy latte and a scrumptious pumpkin cookie.

Em Beals, part of the family that runs the 5b's Bakery

Mama Bee: Em Beals, part of the family that runs the 5b’s Bakery. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The 5b's bakery features a wide variety of all gluten-free treats

Good and Gluten-Free: The 5b’s bakery features a wide variety of all gluten-free treats. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The staff of the 5b's Bakery whip up coffee drinks and lunch for patrons

Busy Bees: The staff of the 5b’s Bakery whip up coffee drinks and lunch for patrons. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Shortly thereafter, I learned of a Celtic Christmas concert being held at the Concrete Theater. In 2012, the community rallied around the historic theater, and raised over $53,000 from individual donors and grants to obtain a digital projection system with 3D capability. In addition to delivering first-run major motion pictures for the community, the theater also serves as a venue for live performance and fitness classes.

The theater was warm and inviting inside with a myriad of concessions for the theater goer. The performer was Geoffrey Castle, who plays an electric violin with flair and talent. He brought with him his entire five-person band plus special guests Beth Quist of Cirque du Soleil and Don the Bagpiper. Even Santa Claus made an appearance, and rightfully so, because that show rocked. Castle is an exceptional performer and is accustomed to considerably larger venues and crowds, but he played with enthusiasm and often left the stage to walk up the aisle and interact with audience members.

The Concrete Theater in Concrete, WA

The Concrete Theater in Concrete, WA. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Valarie Stafford and her staff welcome concert-goers at the Concrete Theater

Valarie Stafford and her staff welcome concert-goers at the Concrete Theater. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Geoffrey Castle and his band perform at the Concrete Theater

Geoffrey Castle and his band perform at the Concrete Theater. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The concert truly felt like a community affair, with friendly greetings amongst audience members prior to the performance. Valerie Stafford is the theater’s owner, “The community has been absolutely amazing at supporting the theater. They attend our movies regularly and take part in lots of our other events. I also use the facility for Encore Fitness, and have a great following of fitness fanatics at my classes.”

Rockport, Washington

Head nine miles east of Concrete and slow down, or you might miss this place where the Skagit River runs wide and the eagles come in droves each winter to pluck plump salmon from the pristine waters. Howard Miler/Steelhead Park provides river access and wildlife interpretive trails with views of the sublime Eldorado Peak and its giant glacier to the East.

Just south of Highway 20 is Blue Heron Farm and Nursery. This local staple has been around since 1979 and has provided farm fresh fruit, vegetables, bamboo, and plants to the community. The farm is also home to National Park Service ranger-extraordinaire, Mike Brondi. Above the barn, Mike built an extraordinary space for Tai Kwon Do, meditation, and Yoga. Classes are provided by local instructors by donation, and the space has been well appointed with mats, blankets, blocks, and meditation cushions as a result of the generosity of participants. The intention behind the space was to provide a venue for spiritual practice and recreation that was not cost prohibitive. Truly a community space, the Rockport Yoga Studio is for and by the people of the upper Skagit.

The well-appointed Rockport Yoga Studio

Plenty for All: The well-appointed Rockport Yoga Studio. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The Rockport Yoga Studio provides Tai Kwon Do, Meditation, and Yoga classes by donation

The Rockport Yoga Studio provides Tai Kwon Do, Meditation, and Yoga classes by donation. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

A singing bowl at the Rockport Yoga Studio

A singing bowl at the Rockport Yoga Studio. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Marblemount, WA

Hidden a mile or so up a gravel road along Diobsud Creek you will find Marblemount Homestead. There, Corina and Steve Sahlin raise their three children on five acres of farm and forest land. Corina was born and raised in southern Germany where she learned the art of cheese making from the ubiquitous artesian cheese makers in her homeland. As a child, Steve spent ten years in primitive Papua New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries. The simplicity and happiness of the people of Papua New Guinea inspired Steve. He became passionate about wilderness and tool crafting, and brought that passion to the upper Skagit where he teaches bow-making and wilderness survival classes. Corina raises goats and teaches classes in cheese making and goat husbandry. She makes and sells goat milk soaps and hand knits and felts beautiful hats, scarves, and other garments which she sells on her Etsy webpage.

Corina Sahlin and her daughter, Eva milking their goat

Having a Goat Time: Corina Sahlin and her daughter, Eva milking their goat. Photo by Corina Sahlin

From left: Kai, Eva, Corina, Lukas, and Steve Sahlin

A Homestead Family: From left: Kai, Eva, Corina, Lukas, and Steve Sahlin. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Steve Sahlin displays a bow  and arrow he crafted. Sahlin teaches bow-making classes at his home

Survival Skills: Steve Sahlin displays a bow and arrow he crafted. Sahlin teaches bow-making classes at his home. Photo by Corina Sahlin

A selection of hand-felted hats made by Corina Sahlin

Colorful Toppings: A selection of hand-felted hats made by Corina Sahlin. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Steve and Corina believe strongly in the power of community and they feel fortunate to have found a close community in their neighbors. When their oldest boy, Kai, wanted to learn to play the fiddle, Corina was supportive, but skeptical as to where a teacher could be found and considered the challenge of commuting long distances for lessons. When her neighbors learned of Kai’s interest, one gifted the boy with a fiddle, and another has provided lessons while refusing any kind of compensation. Last year, community members came together to create the Marblemount Community Market where local crafters, including Corina, offer their wares and musicians provide entertainment at the Marblemount Community Hall. Steve and Corina believe that strong community bonds and relationships happen organically, and that they cannot be forced. They have happily made Marblemount their home for nine years.

Road’s End

When I first arrived in Diablo as a North Cascades Institute graduate student this past September, I felt overwhelmed by what appeared to be a remote and isolated place. I had left behind irreplaceable friends and a rich community in Eugene, Oregon. However, when I took the time to linger a while, and when I made the commitment to stay for my winter break and seek out the community I hoped was here, I was blessed to find an abundance of creativity, warmth, and connection hidden just beyond the highway.

Lead Photo: The Skagit River from Howard Miller/Steelhead County Park. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.