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Northwest Bookshelf: Ozette, Orcas and Ancient Places

June 8th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Ancient Places: People and Landscape in the Emerging Northwest

Jack Nisbet (Sasquatch Books)

Spokane-based writer Jack Nisbet is a treasure for anyone interested in the ways natural history, landscape and human cultures intersect in the Pacific Northwest. His previous books have traced the route of Northwest fur agent and geographer David Thompson, profiled pioneering naturalist David Douglas and his many discoveries and meditated on the unique flora and fauna of the dry side of Cascadia. His latest title journeys around the Inland Empire in search of “genesis stories,” events from long, long ago that shape our world today.

A highlight is the essay “Meltdown,” which flows across vast stretches of time to reach an understanding of how the cycles of ice ages and epic floods shaped much of Eastern Washington and, in turn, our habitation in and movements across the land.

From the Colville Valley to Lake Pend Oreille, Okanagan Highlands to Grand Coulee, Nisbet deftly connects past to present, human to nature.

Jack Nisbet reads from Ancient Places at Village Books in Fairhaven on Wed, June 10 at 7 pm; free!



Ozette: Excavating a Makah Whaling Village

Ruth Kirk (University of Washington Press)

It’s been nearly 50 years since the Makah’s whaling village at Ozette emerged from the mud in the far northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula. Richard Daugherty came across the site while surveying the wild Pacific Coast for archaeology sites as a UW graduate student. The subsequent decade of excavation by Dr. Daughtery and his team unearthed one of the richest troves of Northwest native artifacts ever discovered: clubs and combs made from whalebone, net sinkers and knives from stone, mussel-shell harpoon blades, beaver-teeth carving tools and a myriad of useful and ceremonial items made from the Tree of Life, Western Red Cedar. Their research also discovered entire houses inhabited by the Makah hundreds of years ago, close to perfectly preserved by being encased in a mudslide.

» Continue reading Northwest Bookshelf: Ozette, Orcas and Ancient Places

Jumping Mouse 2

The Story of Jumping Mouse

January 13th, 2015 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

At the start of 2015, the themes of change and transformation are on my mind. It seems impossible not to think of these with so much attention paid annually to commitment to goals and becoming better versions of ourselves. It seems appropriate that the new year comes right on the heels of so many other seasonal changes. The trees around the Environmental Learning Center seemed to lose their leaves in the span of a few hours on a random early December day, and winter has firmly embraced Diablo, blanketing us in snow. The yield of fall to winter happened, not quietly and slowly, but in the blink of an eye. Much of the Learning Center staff left town for vacations or family visits, and the grad students just returned from three weeks of vacation. During those three weeks, the Learning Center found itself in its quietest and most contemplative state. Again, how appropriate.

The graduate students scattered to our various corners of the country, stretching from Oregon to Maine. We too were deep in contemplation. We saw the families we said goodbye to in order to relocate ourselves to Washington, regaled others with stories of funny experiences, the occasional mishap, and knowledge acquired. That knowledge is the topic of one of my very favorite stories of all time. A story I used to share with my students in wilderness therapy, and one that seems to be endlessly relevant to every new environment in which I find myself.

The story is of Jumping Mouse. The origins of the legend remain a mystery to me. The only sourcing I am able to find calls it Plains Indians Sundance story. The particular text I used here comes from this version, which remains one of my favorites. Whatever the source, it remains an inspiration to me. May your new year be filled with curiosity, questions, and the strength to ask questions and seek your own answers.

Jumping Mouse

A beautiful drawing taken from John Steptoe’s beautiful 1989 book, The Story of Jumping Mouse.

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A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

June 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Come every fall, winter and spring quarter, the graduate students in residency at the Environmental Learning Center leave for a long weekend dubbed the “Natural History Retreat.” It is a chance to explore a novel, neighboring ecosystem beyond the North Cascades we teach about and love on a daily basis. Last autumn, in the midst of a government shutdown, we quickly cavorted to the Methow Valley; in winter, we slept, to the extent we were able, in hard-earned snow shelters on Mt. Rainier’s Paradise. This mid-June, we headed for the one Washington national park we had yet to discover: Olympic.

But backup for a sec. Before it seems grad school is all fun ‘n’ games, it’s essential to clarify that the term “retreat” is a bit of a misnomer. Try “concentrated, highly efficient learning experience” instead. There were no hot tubs nor Swedish massages. Rather, like wolverines — those elusive weasels capable of covering six miles per hour whether traversing rivers, flatlands, or the steepest vertical relief — we were on a mission to cover as much territory in as little an amount of time as possible. In three days, we traveled from the Environmental Learning Center to Port Townsend, and eventually to the Hoh Rainforest, pit-stopping along the way to engage in multiple natural and cultural activities.

wooden boats pt townsend K. RenzInside Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. Smells so good, like wood and varnish and salt. Photo by author.

After a four-hour long end-of-season Mountain School debrief, we zoomed to sea level to catch the ferry out of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Before we knew it, we were attired in orange dry suits and talking like pirates on a long boat in Port Townsend. We sailed and rowed around Port Townsend Bay, captained by Kelley Watson, former commercial salmon fisherman and organizer of the Girls Boat Project, and assisted by Chandlery Associate Alicia Dominguez. The quick trip was a success, and our tiny craft failed to collide with the giant ferries or picturesque sailboats in the midst of their weekly Friday night race. A graduate student in education herself, Watson told us Port Townsend had recently passed the “Maritime Discovery School Initiative.” As part of the community’s commitment to place-based education, all students would get a first-hand exposure to the maritime trades. Our collective graduate cohort eyebrows raised in unison as we heave-hoed through the salty sea: Jobs?

wooden boats III pt townsend K. RenzDown from the mountains, on the sea: From L to R: Katie Komorowski, Sarah Stephens, Elissa Kobrin, Samantha Hale, Joshua Porter, and Alicia Dominguez. Photo by author.

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Facing Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest

April 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

North Cascades Institute former staffers and current friends Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele just launched four new films for their multimedia project, Facing Climate Change. Oyster Farmers, Coastal Tribes, Potato Farmers, and Plateau Tribes all explore global climate change through people who live and work in the Pacific Northwest, with an emphasis on how climate change will impact food production and tribes.

These stories came about after one of the project’s partners, the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, released the Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
It’s an incredible resource with startling projections for how climate change will impact the Northwest’s future, but it’s also 400 pages and a lot of science to wade through. Benj and Sara’s goal is to put a face to projections like these and to bring new voices into the conversation.

» Continue reading Facing Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest

David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work

November 23rd, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Spokane-based author, naturalist and teacher Jack Nisbet is fascinated with the natural and cultural history of the Pacific Northwest. He is one the most gifted interpreters of the wild bounty that our corner of the country possesses, and also has gone to great lengths to tell the stories of the first European explorers to encounter this native endowment.

His books include Source of the River: Tracking David Thompson Across Western North America, The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest and The Mapmaker’s Eye: David Thompson on the Columbia Plateau. Each volume retraces the steps of passionate, hardy individuals who made the first strides in understanding the landscape, native people, wildlife and botany of Washington State.

Douglas, the subject of his latest book David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work, landed at the mouth of the Columbia River in the in the spring of 1825, charged by the London Horticultural Society, with blessings from the Hudson’s Bay Company, to learn all he could about the Pacific Northwest ‘s botanical treasures. He had previously pored over the accounts of Lewis and Clark, Vancouver, Mackenzie, Thompson and other explorers and was uniquely adept at scientifically surveying this “New World.” Douglas was passionate about botany and gardening, fastidious about specimen collecting and note taking, young enough to be resilient and adventurous and also wise enough to befriend the native people and others who lived close to the land. This combination of skills, pluck and strategic relationships combined to produce one of the great explorers of America.

His legacy is writ large on the landscape today by way of nomenclature: the Douglas fir, Snow Douglasia, Douglas squirrel, Douglas Brodiaea and over 80 plant and animal species with douglasii in their scientific names.

As exemplified in David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work, Nisbet’s method of interpreting regional history isn’t the usual staid recitation of dates and facts. In pursuit of bringing stories nearly 200 years old to life, he walks trails, visits reservations and tribal elders, charters pilot boats, climbs trees and wildharvests food. His studies may begin by perusing old maps or historical journals in dusty archives, but his curiosity soon has him bounding out the door and in to the same landscapes that his subjects once roamed.

» Continue reading David Douglas: A Naturalist at Work

Road Trip: The Olympic Peninsula

July 15th, 2010 | Posted by in Adventures

As much as we love North Cascadian landscapes — and with over 7,000,000 acres of protected public lands in Washington and British Columbia, there will never be an end to options for explorations — we here at the Institute are still called to visit and experience other amazing places on our planet. We’ll publish accounts of some of the places NCI staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series

My first 2010 trip away from the Salish Sea occured in May when I caught the Keystone Ferry for Port Townsend and spent a solo week in Olympic National Park, hiking, paddling and observing the emerging lushness of spring.

My first destination was Lake Ozette in the far northwestern corner of the state. I posted up at a nearly-empty campground on the northshore, dropped my sea kayak on to the lake and paddled a couple of hours south to a remote backcountry campsite at Erickson’s Bay. I was lucky to have decent, stable weather, no wind and Ozette — the third largest lake in the state — all to myself. Trails from the bay, as well as from the northshore campground, wind 3 miles through coastal forests, prairies and the remains of homesteads to the wild Pacific coast, where one can explore tidepools, view sea stacks, observe seabirds and seals and search for migrating grey whales and the famous Wedding Rocks pictographs.

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Bob Mierendorf and the pre-history of Cascade Pass

February 12th, 2010 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

North Cascades National Park archaeologist, and long-time Institute field instructor and former board member, Bob Mierendorf is prominently featured in an excellent new article just published in Washington State Magazine, published by Washington State University. In “Of Time and Wildness in the North Cascades,” Mierendorf interprets his important work in documenting native presence in the higher elevations of the North Cascades:

Mierendorf has spent the last couple of decades trying to convince the archaeological establishment that pre-contact Northwest Indians did not confine themselves to the lowlands, but lived in the North Cascades and frequented the high country. When Mierendorf first started working at the park, Cascade Pass was one of 17 archaeological sites identified within it. Since then, he has identified nearly 300 more. Forty-five of those sites are located between 4,000 and 7,000 feet.

Obviously, population densities in the mountains were nowhere near what they were along the more hospitable coastal lowlands. Mierendorf argues simply that lower density does not mean absence. An earlier assumption by archaeologists was that Indians actually avoided the mountains, and any contact between coastal and interior tribes was accomplished by traveling along the Columbia Gorge. Mountains were a barrier, not a destination. The idea that prehistoric people crossed the Cascades on foot was simply incomprehensible.

Such an assumption is certainly understandable. The North Cascades is tough country. Even though only two volcanic peaks are higher than 10,000 feet, the deep glacier-carved valleys create dramatic local relief, often as much as 6,000 feet between valley floor and peak.

Alexander Ross, a fur trader with the North West Company, made the first non-Indian crossing of the North Cascades in 1814, from east to west, guided by an Indian. “A more difficult route to travel never fell to man’s lot,” wrote Ross.

So why was the question of the Indians’ presence in the mountains such a mystery? Why didn’t archaeologists just ask the Indians?

This article is a significant contribution to the public’s understanding of the cultural history of the North Cascades, and the Institute is understandably very excited to share it widely. You can read the rest of the article here.

In the next week or so, we’ll be opening registration for our spring and summer programs in the North Cascades, including Mierendorf’s long-running, popular field excursion on Ross Lake that explores the region’s cultural history, from native uses through to miners, fire lookouts and the park service (see photo at top of post). “Ross Lake by Boat and Boot: People and Places of the Upper Skagit” takes place July 22-25, with Captain Gerry Cook piloting the Ross Mule, your floating classroom for this exciting learning adventure. (While we can’t offer registration quite yet, you can send an email to and we’ll let you know as soon as it is open for sign-ups!)

» Continue reading Bob Mierendorf and the pre-history of Cascade Pass