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Plight of the Pollinators

November 30th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Kay Gallagher, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Imagine yourself walking down to the local summer farmer’s market down by the town square. It’s the first warm day and you cannot wait to make a large juicy bowl of fruit salad for lunch. Summer time in the valley is your favorite, all winter you have eagerly anticipated the first fruits of the season. With your list in hand that you scribbled down this morning, juicy red tomatoes, green zucchini, bright yellow summer squash, perfectly round peaches, you set Chinese Teapots.


Produce from the local Twisp Farmers Market. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

After a short walk, you arrive at the farmers’ market, ready to fill your basket to the brim. You walk around and notice the usual vendors. The local bakery selling loaves of freshly made artisan bread, the various craftsmen selling their woolen blankets and knit scarves, the goat farmers selling their savory cheeses and assorted dairy products. Then you notice there are no fruit stands. No vegetable stands. There isn’t so much as a rogue berry in sight. Where are the fruits of summer you have been dreaming about since that first warm day of spring? It’s almost as if they have vanished overnight. They’re not there.


The colorful mosaic landscape of Patterson Mountain. Photo courtesy of Kay Gallagher

You leave the farmer’s market quite perplexed, and decide to hike your favorite summer trail instead. On your drive to the trailhead you can picture the lush mountain sides and vast fields full of a colorful array of wildflowers from last summer, you can visualize the river coursing its way through the landscape in the valley below, with animal life whirring and scattered about. You arrive at the trailhead, and hop out of the car, eager for your adventure in the colorful mosaic. As you begin to hike, you notice that things aren’t as colorful as they used to be. There aren’t nearly as many wildflowers, the earth seems dry and crumbly with serious signs of erosion along the river bank below. The landscape is made up of various shades of brown. The air is noticeably quieter, without the hums and whizzing of winged insects flying about. The chatter of birds is absent, and the silence seems a little eerie. It’s a little too quiet. Something is missing, and then you realize …” Where have all the pollinators gone?”

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Weekly Photo Roundup: October 28 2017

October 28th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every weekend I will post photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

It is fall-tastic here in the North Cascades! Below is a collection of beautiful color from around the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. The changing leaves are a celebrated occasion, as we transition into the colder months ahead.

Photo by Liz Grewal

Graduate student Liz Grewal’s realization of the week: “Seasons are real. I just had to leave the Bay Area to experience them.”

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: October 28 2017

Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

September 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Sarah Clement, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Transference is a concept that often comes up in discussion among environmental educators. How do we, as educators, help our students make connections between their experiences with us in “nature” and their daily lives? We teach out students about the North Cascades ecosystem, but we want them to make connections between what they learn about the mountains to what they already know about their homes. We want them to understand that an ecosystem functions in the North Cascades in the same way that ecosystems in and around their home communities function. Above all, we want our students to understand that even though they traveled hours to reach Mountain School, they don’t have to do so to find the importance and wonder of natural spaces.

As human population growth continues to explode around the world, more people are migrating to urban areas. Over 80% of the population of the United States already lives in urban areas, and the influx of people to cities continues to grow. Washington State is no exception to these trends. As of 2016, our population has grown to well over seven million people. Most of the increase comes from people migrating from out of state to large urban areas along the Interstate 5 corridor in the western half of the state. With this population growth comes increased urbanization: more land is being converted to urban infrastructure. Wild habitats are being fragmented or drastically altered in the process.

» Continue reading Animals in the City: Encouraging Children to Get to Know Their Nonhuman Neighbors

Reflections of Diobsud Creek

September 6th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Story and art by Alexei Desmarais, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

What is natural history? Why do we engage in this practice? And what can it teach us about the world in which we live? And about our relationship with this world?

These questions prompted the line of inquiry that became my natural history project, sending me deep into the verdant forests of the Diobsud Creek drainage, digging through the literature, and searching the inner reaches of my personal landscape for resonance with this marvelous external landscape. A landscape which shapes and grounds my being.

What follows are a number of small excerpts from my project, the full booklet of which can be found in the Wild Ginger library at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

What is trustworthy in our lives?

Soil, Air, Light, Water.

The world is full. Each individual being exudes its own light. Face to face with rock, strewn with countless varieties of lichen and moss—feathery boa-like strands, cups, lettuce-like leaves—I feel diffuse heavenly light round the globe and spill through void and cloud and tree to reflect back into my retina. To spill over into my visual field. I reflect back out into the world…


Wren by Alexei Desmarais

The song of the white-crowned sparrow is not merely repetition. Not the unconscious manifestation of something encoded deep within the bird’s DNA. Not merely its heritage. Each song is unique. Each is a thing of inexplicable beauty—the spontaneous burgeoning forth of a lyrical expression wholly individual. A moment of immanence, in which sparrow, vibrating air, listeners (vibrating eardrums), and earth are wrapped into one common experience. Curled tightly into a song. This song is each time a unique expression of being in the world—a moment of creation inseparable (though also wholly distinct) from the artist’s grasp of stylus, brush, or bow. Each time an enactment of that mysterious event long ago, from which burst forth this miraculous world we inhabit.

» Continue reading Reflections of Diobsud Creek

In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History

August 26th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Why Orcas

Growing up, I have always been fascinated with whales. Orca, humpback, sperm, blue, narwhal… you name it! I have quite the collection of whale books on my shelves, some whale toys and other relics. I even have a large tattoo of a humpback whale. But when I moved out to the North Cascades for graduate school, I hadn’t realized I was moving toward these majestic creatures and my first wild orca encounter, potentially opening up a door for future research and educational work with marine life.

In January, I attended the Storming the Sound conference in La Conner, Washington. It was a small regional event with a strong marine theme, located on the shore of the Salish Sea. It blew my mind to think that I had driven less than two hours down the Skagit Valley, just below the Cascade crest, and I was now in a completely different ecosystem, yet still connected to the rugged, steep mountains. The last session of the conference was Howard Garrett, co-founder of Orca Network, presenting on the Southern Resident orcas and their intertwined fate with Chinook salmon. I sat engaged, listening to Howard speak about his lifetime of research on the orcas and how it is so close geographically to me. I was emotionally compelled by his presentation and taken aback by the current status of the Southern Resident population.

Active Research

After my experience at Storming the Sound and upon my selection of this natural history topic, I did the first thing any whale fanatic living in close proximity to marine life would do, I signed up to go whale watching! During spring break, I embarked on a five-hour wildlife search on a commercial whale watching tour. Ideally, this would have played out as a sea kayaking trip or small watercraft, something more intimate on shore, but for my time and resources, this was the perfect opportunity for me. Despite being on the mend from the flu, I donned my binoculars and rain gear, keeping my camera, field notebook, and tea in my hand to board a 70-person or so capacity boat with my husband.

Notebook in hand, ready to see some wildlife! Photo courtesy of Rachael Grasso

Leaving from Anacortes, the trip was one of the first of the season for Island Adventures, a whale watching tour company. Our captain was chatting over the loudspeaker while the tour guide, Brooke, was checking the tickets of boarding passengers. Once the boat left the dock, a bald eagle immediately flew by, graceful as ever. To me, this was a positive sign that the day was going to be filled with wildlife. Nevertheless, I did not want to peak with excitement then crash into disappointment if we were out for the day and didn’t see any whales. So I remained calm, keeping my eyes focused on the shoreline.

» Continue reading In Search of the Southern Residents: Researching Orcas’ Natural History

Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

August 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jihan Grettenberger, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

What do you love about the North Cascades and the Skagit Valley?

I love the burning feeling in my legs as I hike up the switchbacks on the trails that travel through thick forests of Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, and cedars. The sounds of the forest bring me bliss. The birds calling in the distances, the winds rushing over tree tops, and the buzz of bees pollinating plants. Most importantly I am in awe by the abundance of water. In the spring, the North Cascades fills with raging creeks from snowmelt and from lookout points I can see snow covered peaks. I know summer is coming when Diablo Lake changes from a greyish blue to a vibrant aquamarine color.

Diablo Dam with Pyramid Peak in the background. Photo courtesy of Jihan Grettenberger 

How important is water in the North Cascades?

The North Cascades is water rich and named after all of the cascades that flow through the landscape. In the winter, snow piles up on the mountaintops; in the spring the snowpack melts, supplying water to the streams; in the summer glacier melt feeds our alpine lakes and dam reservoirs. The rainy fall then replenishes our dry summer soils and increases the flows in our rivers.

Thanks to our abundant water supply and diverse ecosystems, the North Cascades and Skagit Valley have all five native Pacific salmon species. Eagles soar through the sky, ospreys hunt, and wolverines dig deep dens in the snow. When the supply and timing of water changes in the mountains, it also changes the watershed. People, agriculture, hydroelectric production, plants, and creatures, all depend on reliable water sources to thrive.

» Continue reading Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree

August 11th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Ash Kunz, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Ponderosa Pine. Illustration by Ash Kunz

The story of my life is the story of the land in which I am rooted. There have been more changes than are imaginable. It is a landscape that has been shaped by both natural forces and human hands. It is a ruggedly beautiful place – from the shrub steppe and dry forest ecosystem that descends 1000 meters to the once roiling river, now tamed and known as the Columbia. In times of warmth, my views are consumed with the iconic yellow and purple of balsamroot and lupine. In times of cold, the Earth is blanketed with a thick layer of pristine white snow. I have grown tall and broad and strong Chinese Teapots – fed by the soil and the water and the sun. I have seen humankind change. I have tasted fire and flood. I have heard the stories of glaciers and volcanoes; I have felt the Earth quake. I have heard axes and saws and machines. I have seen the young grow old. I have felt the change of time. My relationship with people, animals and plants is cyclic. Many beings have come and gone; they breed, live and pass.

» Continue reading Pondering Pine: A Life Story of a Ponderosa Pine Tree