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Winter Insects in the North Cascades

February 17th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

For weeks here in the North Cascades, the ground has been blanketed in a thick layer of snow and ice, two or three feet deep in places. It is not the kind of weather in which you’d expect to see many insects out and about—and indeed, most insects go into a dormant phase in the winter, surviving the season in a state of suspended torpor as eggs, larvae, or adults. Yet it turns out that some insects will brave the snow and venture out in near-freezing temperatures.

After some of our recent snowfalls, I’ve gone snowshoeing and found winter insects alive and well, crawling about on the recently fallen snow crystals. Below are a few of the insect species you might encounter in the North Cascades even in the depths of winter:

Illustration of a midge or ‘no-see-ums’ courtesy of Wikipedia

Midges – In late January, fellow graduate M.Ed student Dan Dubie and myself went out hunting for midges after we noticed several of the tiny insects flying outside the window of the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center dining hall. Midges are a type of true fly, meaning they belong to the same family as house flies, bluebottles, mosquitoes, and hundreds of other insects with a single pair of wings. Midges are among the smallest and most delicate members of the fly order, making it all the more impressive that they can survive in winter.

First we set out to find where the midges were coming from. Most midges spend the first part of their life cycle underwater, so I went down to the shore of Lake Diablo to look for signs of them. There, I found what appeared to be the shed pupal casings of a small insect floating in the water. I hypothesized that the midges we’d seen were recently-emerged adults that came out of these cases, just as a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis.

We next caught several in small jars, and I later examined them under a microscope to try to identify them. While I can’t be 100% positive (tiny insects are extremely difficult to identify, and in many cases only experts can make the call with certainty), I’m fairly confident the midges we found belong to the family Ceratopogonidae, the “no-see-ums.” They are also known as biting midges—but they never bit me, leading me to think this particular species must feed on animals other than humans.

In fact most midges, even those belonging to Ceratopogonidae, are completely harmless to people. Midges and other flies are among the most under-appreciated of insects, but they are an important part of the ecosystem and their ability to be active in winter testifies to their tenacity.

» Continue reading Winter Insects in the North Cascades

Weekly Photo Roundup: January 29 2017

January 29th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

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

Photo by Jihan Grettenberger

Jihan Grettenberger, a graduate M.Ed. student at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center, came across some cougar tracks while walking down the Diablo East Trail this weekend.

Photo by Angela Burlile

The temperature really warmed up this week! Giant icicles began to break off onto the road between Highway 20 and Diablo Dam but were cleared away quickly thanks to Seattle City Light.

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: January 29 2017

North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

January 27th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017

Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.

This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.

Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

Weekly Photo Roundup: January 22 2017

January 22nd, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

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

Photo by Angela Burlile

The sunshine from last weekend continued on early in the week. We were treated to this beautiful alpenglow on Sourdough mountain, driving across Diablo Dam on our way to the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

Photos by Ash Kunz

Graduate M.Ed student, Ash Kunz, captured these icy photos of Thunder Arm on Diablo Lake. Portions of Thunder Arm have frozen over but still be cautious if you plan to venture out on the ice.

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: January 22 2017

2017 Instructor Exchange

January 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

On January 14th, the M.Ed graduate students of Cohort 16 (C16) welcomed students and staff from Islandwood and Wilderness Awareness School to North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center for the first of three gatherings that make up the annual Instructor Exchange. Every winter, this exchange offers instructors the chance to meet others in the environmental education field and share and discuss what we do within our own residential learning programs.

In the next coming weeks, the exchange will continue with trips to Islandwood’s Urban Environmental Education M.A.Ed program in Seattle, Islandwood’s Education for Environment and Community and Living graduate program on Bainbridge Island and Wilderness Awareness School in Duvall, Washington.

North Cascade Institute M.Ed graduates waiting to lead an orientation and campus tour for Islandwood and Wilderness Awareness School students.

For our time at the Institute ELC, we offered a series a break out sessions and recreational activities, each led by C16 graduates. The break out sessions provided us the space and time to delve deeper into topics that we each felt passionate behind and were eager to talk with those that could offer new insight and perspective. Session topics included:

  • Place-Based Learning
  • Best Practices and Program Comparison
  • Phenology
  • Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
  • Ecological Identity
  • Climate Change Literacy in Environmental Education
  • Activism-Oriented Environmental Education

» Continue reading 2017 Instructor Exchange

Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

January 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Hello and welcome to 2017 everyone! I am very pleased to greet you in the new year and share with you some of the changes we have recently seen in the Skagit. As we start winter and a new cycle around the sun I invite you to embrace the beginning of our calendar year and perhaps start phenological practices of your own. Welcome to winter!

Highway 20 is very quiet in the upper Skagit. Massive icicles are hanging from the rocks in the Gorge. Most of the trees are bare and almost no birds are heard singing in the branches. Winter has settled into the Skagit Valley. As fall ended and winter began we saw some notable phenological events in our watershed:

  • Nov. 19: Four Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on fish carcasses across the river from Cascadian Farms. Eagle sightings are increasing.
  • Nov. 21: Washington Pass on SR 20 closed for the winter.
  • Nov. 25: Mt. Baker Ski Area opens for the season.
  • Dec. 3:Daniel Dubie (C16 M.Ed. graduate student) saw approximately 20 Bald Eagles at the Samish Flats!
  • Dec. 4: The first snow fell at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.
  • Dec. 8: Nine Bald Eagles spotted on the drive between the Blue House and the ELC, two of which were juveniles.

Although it may seem quiet in the valley and upriver there are still many things changing around us, whether we notice them or not.

» Continue reading Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

Weekly Photo Roundup: January 8, 2017

January 8th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center


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

Photo by Jihan Grettenberger

On Monday, graduate M.Ed student Ash Dina Kunz, got creative in her transport methods from the parking lot to graduate housing at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

Photo by Hanna Davis

With winter in full swing, we’ve sectioned off portions of the Institute ELC due to ‘roofalanche’ risk. The sign reads “Roofalanche Zone-Trail Closed”, just in case you weren’t sure!

Photo by Melissa Biggs

Graduate student, Melissa Biggs, had to dig her car out from the Institute ELC parking lot after leaving it for several weeks while she travelled to Maryland for winter break.

» Continue reading Weekly Photo Roundup: January 8, 2017