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sherisnowshoeing. John Harter

Quietude

May 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Highway 20 opened last Thursday at noon after six months of being closed — as it is every winter, due to heavy snows and avalanche danger over the pass — between Milepost 134 at Ross Lake and Milepost 178 at the Early Winters Information Center. This year, it took clearing crews almost six weeks to move the snow that had fallen up to 35 feet deep. The opening is a cause for celebration: East side, we’ve missed you! Yet there is also a tinge of lamentation, for the “road closed” season is a unique time in the North Cascades, one characterized by near impeccable silence.

Though those of us at the Environmental Learning Center live, work and play in a remote, backcountry national park, the effects of May through November’s steady stream of vehicular traffic on the acoustic environment is hard to ignore. Through the winter, residents and visitors hear the rhythm of the rain and the schulumps of snow sliding from needled branches above. As we orbit into spring, the sounds of nature change. The road closure’s sustained quiet is perfectly timed with the re-arrival of migrating birds, and the clean air is enlivened with the complicated call of Pacific Wrens, the monkey-like laughter and jackhammering of Pileated Woodpeckers and the dive-bomb buzzing of Rufous Hummingbirds.

The absence of murmurings from internal combustion engines offers the opportunity for a heightened level of sensory awareness, whether to auditorily observe the Park with adult ears or to facilitate listening activities for Mountain School students. “What’s the quietest sound you can hear?” instructors often ask trail groups. What about the fir cone scales gnawed away and dropped in a pile by industrious Douglas squirrels, or the various sounds water makes as it flows and dribbles and pools over the landscape? The cracking of a bud’s petals or the birth of a baby bird? “Road Closure” time is the ideal season for “sound mapping,” as well: Choose a spot to sit with pencil and paper, draw an “X” in the middle representing yourself, then listen and draw what you hear, notating it on the page in relation to your sit spot.

deer ears Molly FooteFifth graders from Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary using their “deer ears” to better hear the sounds of nature along the Deer Creek bridge. Photo by Molly Foote.

It is typically trying-slash-impossible to convince trail groups of ten fifth graders to close their mouths for any significant stretch of time with the goal of really listening (and the amount of talking and enforcing that trail instructors usually have to do toward such ends makes these attempts rather ironic). But the forest is a busy place; when one’s ears are opened and the machines given a rest, this becomes immediately apparent, sometimes to the point of epiphany.

Even without Highway 20 traffic, though, we are never far from reminders of the pace, size and sonic magnitude of contemporary existence. Many years ago, I spent 48-hours on a wilderness “solo” near the Dirty Devil River in Utah. While I sunned on slickrock, battling beefy ants and timing my day by the pale pink evening primroses that opened with the setting sun, I also became quickly acquainted with the flight paths of commercial jets. Respite from reminders of human civilization — the subtle or the bludgeoning — are hard to come by these days.

So difficult that Gordon Hempton, a western Washington-based acoustic ecologist, believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States where one can be for 20 minutes without hearing noise from human activity. He bases his argument, in part, upon his extensive listening experience, including a cross-country “sound tracking” tour in 2010, after which he co-authored One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). “It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may from it,” Hempton writes on his website. “By listening to natural silence, we feel connected to the land, to our evolutionary past, and to ourselves.”

dark-eyed Junco Alex PatiaCan you hear this Dark-Eyed Junco taking a bath? Photo by Alex Patia.

Hempton also founded “One Square Inch,” an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. Here he has identified – you guessed it – one tiny spot entirely free of noise pollution. It is marked by a small, red-colored stone that was given to him by an elder of the Native American Quileute tribe and is now placed atop a mossy log. The idea is that since a loud noise, such as that of a passing aircraft, impacts several of the surrounding square miles, designating a noise-free space, even one just the size of a postage stamp, with have its own rippling effects.

Ironically, one can find directions to this project on the “One Square Inch” website. (the exact coordinates are 47° 51.959N, 123° 52.221W). How long will this acoustically pristine site maintain its quietude as listening hikers pay homage? The scritchy scratch of synthetic hiking pants, the vocal appreciations of friends on trail, the beep of some technology one forget to turn off? A worthy conundrum, indeed.

Noise pollution has become a noted environmental issue over the past couple of decades. Not only do some humans seek solace away from anthropogenic noise, but it is critical for wildlife who depend on auditory signals for survival functions such as feeding, migration and breeding to not be bombarded with extraneous sounds. As Hempton said in a 2010 interview in The Sun: “The problem is that humans are often oblivious to the natural balance of sounds that has been established since the beginning of time. Imagine we’re gathered to hear a symphony, and a handful of people are running vacuum cleaners or perhaps playing their own instruments without any regard to the orchestra. That’s how human sounds often come across in a wilderness environment.”

Where is the quietest place you can think of? What are the sounds that impact it? Is it secure in its silence, or threatened? What are your favorite sounds?

As I join the party and drive to the east side, revisiting my favorite places in the Methow Valley, I’ll remember to consider my own contributions to the acoustic ecology, and try to open my ears ever wider to catch nature’s callings over the clamoring cars.

on the eastside.Elissa KobrinThe author on the east side in the fall, demonstrating how to communicate the presence of something especially cool in nature without making a sound. Photo by Elissa Kobrin.
Leading photo: Sheri Harter explores the closed side of a wintertime Highway 20 on snowshoes. Photo by John Harter.

 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She likes to Enjoy the Silence: All I ever wanted/All I ever needed/Is here/In my arms.

 

 

Institute Celebrations of Spring

May 7th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

I think it may be safe to say that life is coming back to the North Cascades as of today, and yesterday, and even a few weeks ago! At first the change was so subtle it was barely recognizable, and we here at the North Cascades Institute were still clinging to the warmth of our down jackets even as the first shoots of palmate coltsfoot were pushing their way stubbornly through the matted duff of winter. Then the first familiar calls and presence of returning migratory birds were heard – the throngs of robins, the vibrant rush and resonate tapping of the red-breasted sapsuckers, the two-toned trill of the varied thrush, yellow warblers, and most recently the whir and brilliance of the rufous hummingbird. And now, with the warming and lengthening days, spring has truly taken off. Life is bursting everywhere from canopy to forest floor and an expanding color palette hints at more to come. Emergent alder leaves catch the growing sunlight and reflect it at new angles throughout the understory, delicate yellow violets line the edges of pathways, a few brave lady slipper orchids hide behind rocks, fiddleheads unfurl their fronds, and a solitary patch of bleeding hearts open their petals.

Each day, new anticipations. Each day, burgeoning new colors. Each day, returning signs of life to marvel at and explore.

Here at the Institute we each notice and experience these springtime harbingers in different ways. For some, spring’s arrival is primarily an auditory sensation captured in birdsong and flowing creeks, for others a visual experience of color, and for others still a feeling that sneaks up on them slowly or startles them into wonder at a particular moment – a waterfall swelling with snowmelt, sulfur butterflies basking in the sun on muddy trails, or the first black bear spotted as it munches feverishly on new shoots of grass and greens. Together, our collective celebrations paint a rich narrative of springtime in this place where we live, work, and play.

The dappled hues of green cast by sunlight on emerging alder leaves. Photo by Katie Tozier.

» Continue reading Institute Celebrations of Spring

Bird Migrations at Ebey’s Landing

April 29th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

This past Earth Day Weekend, the North Cascades Institute hosted the 3rd Anuual Migratory Bird Festival! The event was sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service and brought people together from across western Washington for a day to explore the natural history of migratory birds and the cultural heritage of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve.

Students and elders from Seattle’s International District, Mt. Vernon’s Kulshan Creek Neighborhood, and North Cascade Institute’s NC Wild 2012 program joined together to celebrate and learn about birds by migrating through four different educational stations.

Participants dined on a multicultural feast featuring Chinese food from Seattle’s International District and homemade Mexican tamales and sopes from Yolanda Zamora of Mt. Vernon. Delicious!

The first station was the Sea Lab, where students and elders could see, touch, and learn about some of the marine invertebrates that help fuel the birds’ migratory journeys along the Pacific flyway. This hands-on lesson covered the basics of the ecology and dynamic interplay between Puget Sound’s marine life and the migratory birds that utilize northwest marine ecosystems in order to complete part of their journey.

Graduate student Jacob Belsher teaches students all about the joys of being a moonsnail.

» Continue reading Bird Migrations at Ebey’s Landing

Following the Snowy Owls

March 19th, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Since first moving to the Environmental Learning Center last August, many people have told me, “You must go see the snowy owls!” This advice has been on my radar since migratory birds began returning to their winter feeding grounds in the Skagit Valley. Who are these snowy owls that everybody speaks of? After doing some research, I learned that not only were these birds magnificent and beautiful creatures, but that this was an unusual year for the North American Snowy Owl. This year is known as an “irruption” year. An irruption is caused by a shortage in the Artic lemming population in the Arctic Tundra of Canada. As a result, snowy owls, whose primary food source are lemmings, must travel in search of additional food and can be found as far south as the United States. This event occurs every four to seven years as predator-prey dynamics change, and in those years snowy owls can be found in hospitable places like Boundary Bay Park in southern British Columbia and occasionally along the Skagit Flats in Washington. The owls are expected to return north sometime this month.

In anticipation of their departure, I knew a trip over the border to Boundary Bay had to be made. The snowy owls were also spotted just north of Bellingham at Sandy Point, but the word on the birder streets was that it was possible to see 20 to 30 of them at once in British Columbia. So we chose to cross over, and the adventure was well worth it.

Here are some pictures from our wondrous day with the snowy owls.

Just off of 72nd Street in Delta, BC, we were lucky enough to witness about 25 snowy owls hanging out along the dyke path in Boundary Bay Park.
These large owls breed in the Artic Tundra, and as you can tell by their unmistakable white plumage they probably blend in very well up there. Females and juveniles are more heavily marked than males. Adult males can be almost pure white.

» Continue reading Following the Snowy Owls