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Place-based Learning Course: Paddling the Skagit River

October 16th, 2017 | Posted by in Field Excursions

In August, my cohort and I began our 7-quarter educational journey of earning our Master of Education degree. We are the 17th Cohort of students in the Graduate M.Ed Residency program through the North Cascades Institute and the Huxley College of the Environment at Western Washington University.

Before beginning our year-long residency at the Learning Center, we engage with the natural and cultural histories of the North Cascades region through field excursions. This intensive six-week course includes canoeing on the Skagit River, learning about local communities and sustainable agriculture, hiking in alpine areas, cohort community formation and a culminating 10-day wilderness backpacking experience. 

Below are pictures from the paddling portion of our Place-based Learning Field Course, along with excerpts from our group journal. Enjoy!

Big Canoe and Community August 9, 2017:

“With a little less smoke in the sky, Cohort 17 loaded into the Salish Dancer for a paddling orientation to Diablo Lake and the surrounding area. Before the canoe left the dock, we heard and saw two peregrine falcons – the fastest member of the animal kingdom – amongst the rocky cliffs of Sourdough Mountain.

The Cohort paddled through the Strait of Juan de P’orca up to the Skagit Gorge, stopping at Hidden Cove for lunch and a quick swim. Upon return to the boom around 1pm, the notorious afternoon winds picked up. Joshua described the winds as the mountains breathing.” – Rachael Grasso

Canoe Training on Diablo – August 16, 2017

“Today was a kind of grab bag, starting with some canoe training on Diablo Lake. Towards the end, it turned a bit dicey as the wind whipped up and caused quite the commotion on the water.” – Tanner Johnson

Learning how to properly carry canoes.

Day One on the Skagit – August 17, 2017

All smiles the first day!

“This afternoon we started our paddle down the Skagit River. After some last minute skills and safety instruction, we set off from the Blue House in Marblemount. Four hours later, we made it 12 miles down river and came to rest at Rockport. Along the way, we learned to eddy out, we traversed several sets of 1 and 2 rapids, and saw an amazing variety of wildlife.

Despite some valiant efforts, no one tipped over. Our chance to practice technique rescues will have to wait for another day.”

Day Two – August 19, 2017

Teamwork makes the dream work!

“The day was spent on the river floating (aka hard paddling!) down to Rasar State Park. It was inspiring to see our entire cohort working so hard even when our bodies were aching. In total, we paddled 22 miles!!! Along the way we saw a great many wonderful sights: a bald eagle eating a dead salmon, an osprey diving into the river on a hunt, many animal tracks in the mud (mink, river otter).” – Charlee Corra

Day Three – August 20, 2017

“Nested within the Skagit’s current, we travel as if a migration of waterfowl; calling to one another in formation and in floundering. What once began of the narrowly formed channel of our new home has opened expansively as valley, field and flood plain. Today’s mileage: 24.” – Zoe Wadkins

Day Four – August 23, 2017

“Today was our fourth day paddling on the Skagit, and our mileage count has now reached roughly 75 miles. Early in the day a juvenile bald eagle circled overhead of our canoes, which some people took as a good omen for the day. We noticed a “Sun-dog” encircling the sun, this phenomena appears as a perfect circular rainbow around the sun, and according to Dan (Dubie – Cohort 16) signifies there are ice crystals high up in the atmosphere.”

Launching off a gravel bar into the river.

“Along with flattening landscape came more clear signs of human development. We passed under I5 and heard the thundering sounds of cars traveling 70 miles per hour… A salmon so large jumped out of the water that Kira was convinced it was a shark. Soon we entered agricultural land; tonight we are camped at Viva Farms.” – Nate Tranche

Day Five – August 26, 2017

“Traveling the extent of a river by canoe was a spiritual and gentle way of moving. It allowed us to really see the landscape and experience such an incredibly diverse region. Along this journey, we also got to know the landscape of our cohort, all the tears and giggles, along with the acknowledgement of what is still to come. I have so much confidence in our group and look forward to understanding more about what Larry Campbell means by dig deep.” – Ashley Hill

Cohort 17 standing shin-deep in the Salish Sea after 80+ miles of paddling from freshwater to saltwater!

To see more pictures from the summer course, check out our Flickr page!

Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

October 9th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Written by Master of Education graduate Sasha Savoian

Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop are two of the most heavily-visited trails off Highway 20 in the North Cascades range, offering Chinese Teapots access to the unique subalpine ecosystem blanketed in blooming heather in the late summer months.

On the eastern flank of the mountains, the trail to Blue Lake winds through engelmann spruce forest singing with golden crowned kinglets and dark-eyed juncos, into a meadow thick with clustered white valerian, dangling meadow rue, purple lupine, and bell-shaped jacob’s-ladder. It then crests above treeline with spectacular views of Liberty Bell Mountain, Cutthroat Peak and Whistler Mountain toward the northwest. As altitude-loving larch trees appear, pink and white mountain heather pierce the edges of rocks along the trail leading to the aptly-named Blue Lake, where mountain goats are often spotted grazing on subalpine foliage 6,200 feet above sea level, a mere 2.2 miles from the trailhead.

Maple Pass in the North Cascades. Photo by Sasha Savoian

Maple-Heather Pass Loop travels 7 miles from the trailhead and back again through a shady forest of subalpine fir and spruce trees. Pacific wrens sing to an open Chinese Pu-erh Tea with talus fields catering to furry hoary marmots and peeking pika. Grey crowned rosy finch and clark’s nutcracker songs slide through larch trees above while hearty heather beckons below, filling gaps between rocks among dotted saxifrage, bugle-shaped penstemon, splayed phlox and deep red indian paintbrush atop 6,600-foot rocky Maple Pass–one of the best views of the North Cascades.

But this dynamic alpine ecosystem is fragile! With their woody stems and short growing season, heather is easily crushed. It takes only 50 booted steps to destroy plants that take upwards of 1,000-5,000 years to establish as a successful colony. Heather plants stabilize soil, prevent wind and water erosion, trap nutrients and control temperature in the soil to promote growth of other alpine vegetation.

Restoration projects on Blue Lake and Maple Pass Loop began in 2012 when the Methow Valley was chosen as one of 14 designated sites as part of the National Forest Foundation’s Treasured Landscapes, Unforgettable Experiences established to connect people and their communities to their forests and watersheds through community engagement and collaboration.

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Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

October 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Hanna Davis, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

There are various facets to graduate life at North Cascades Institute: taking classes, a teaching practicum, work study positions. And throughout every aspect, nearly every assignment of my residency this past year, a common theme has appeared: climate change. Specifically, how do we, as environmental educators, talk about climate change? It’s a topic that comes up so continuously in my work here that hardly a day goes by that I’m not talking about how to talk about climate change. So naturally, my natural history project is all about how we can improve climate literacy, specifically here at NCI.

If you’ve gotten a chance to look at NCI’s new Strategic Plan, you may have noticed the goal to “Strengthen the Institute’s impact and meet the needs of diverse communities by pursuing new opportunities for programs, partners and audiences [by]…integrating and expanding climate literacy throughout Institute programs.” Now, a strategic plan may seem like a mundane obligatory document, but if you can get past the admittedly dry language, you’ll find the heart of NCI: these are the values we believe in, the goals we strive for. So by including climate change literacy in this plan, we are saying: this work is crucial.

» Continue reading Stories of Change: Storytelling as a Means of Climate Communication

The World of Bird Migration

September 23rd, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Dan Dubie, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

The story of bird migration encompasses the whole world and the incredible journeys that take part on it.  Traveling via flight was mastered by humans just over a hundred years ago but for the avian world, it has been a home for much longer.  This miracle of flight has given birds the ability to inhabit all corners of the world but there is one catch, the seasons.  As we all know in the northern and southern latitudes there are winters when resources are scarce, weather is rough, and temperatures are cold.  On the upside in these same places the summers are warm, lush, and rich with food and space.  The apparentness of resources and food abundance only during the summer has not kept birds from occupying these areas.  Instead it has led to an amazing string of yearly events done my hundreds of species and millions of individuals called migration.  Due to the seasonal abundance of food and space during the northern summers, many species do a type of biannual migration which encompasses moving to northern regions in the summers to breed with the abundance of food and space and then returning back to tropical parts during the winter to wait for the spring journey to start again.


Northern Water Thrush. Photo courtesy of Dan Dubie

Though migration serves a vital role providing needs for breeding and rearing young, it can look different for different types of birds and within different landscapes.  In the high northern parts of our world there is almost exclusively found a common type of migration called complete migration.  This is seen when the breeding range of a bird species is completely different then the range they occupy during the winter.  Needing lower competition than would be found in the tropics and abundant food in order to rear their young, many species have evolved to fly sometimes thousands of miles to find that space and food in northern latitudes. Then due to the lack of food and harshness of a frozen land during the winter they return south where they live in communion with others in close quarters where food is present.  At this point they are not responsible for rearing young and space and competition is not an inherent issue as it is during breeding. Examples of bird types with complete migration include shorebirds, flycatchers, vireos, warblers, some raptors, vultures, cranes and herons, thrushes, pipits, grosbeaks, tanagers, bunting, some sparrows, longspurs, goatsuckers, swallows, orioles, loons, grebes, and many waterfowl.

» Continue reading The World of Bird Migration

Plight of the Pollinators

September 18th, 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 off.


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?”

» Continue reading Plight of the Pollinators

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

Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Stewardship Weekend at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center

August 16th, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County. While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trip and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Ambassadors will contribute blog posts covering their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Mia Villaluz, Tavish Beals and Maria Nuno, who share their experience participating in the Stewardship Weekend event at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Mia Villaluz

The North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center is the place people can go to participate in North Cascades Institute functions and classes. It is also a place that graduate students attend. Some people go here for fun! It is a multipurpose, beautiful piece of land. It sits just above Diablo Lake and has amazing views of the mesmerizing North Cascades mountain range. For me, the purpose of the stewardship weekend was to have fun first and foremost and to get outdoors and meet new people, while making a positive impact on the people and places around us. It was to help those who have helped all of us.

Youth Leadership Ambassadors exploring the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Mia Villaluz

Ambassadors were involved in all the Stewardship Weekend projects, from clearing trails to spreading wood chips in our amphitheater space. Photo by Tavish Beals

The North Cascades Institute is a nonprofit organization that creates amazing opportunities for people from all walks of life, ages 5 to 95, and it doesn’t stop there! The stewardship weekend was an awesome opportunity to get outside. We each participated in different activities to better the property We removed invasive species, did trail clearing, spread wood chips, leveled out gravel, made buildings firewise, and much more. Overall, we all got to know one another a little bit better, we met new people, ate great good, and made even better memories. I personally helped with the wood chips and trail clearing. It was a lot of hard work, but I pushed myself and had a blast meeting new people and working within my group, getting to know each person on a deeper level. The whole weekend was so exciting and each day  was beyond beautiful.

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Stewardship Weekend at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center