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Restoring Our Treasured Landscapes

September 15th, 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 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 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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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

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

Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Kayaking Bellingham Bay

July 28th, 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 and photographs that highlight their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Alora Richards and Lorena Ochoa, who share their reflection of the Ambassador Program and their final trip kayaking on Bellingham Bay.

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Alora Richards

The Youth Leadership Ambassadors are a group of high school students that go on stewardship field trips and college tours. This program helps us learn more about college and the college application process. Our last Youth Leadership Ambassador field trip was June 10th and we went kayaking in Bellingham Bay. What I learned during my kayaking experience was that I don’t like deep water and most boats are made for taller people. I also learned that kayaking is super fun and I might have a new hobby.

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Kayaking Bellingham Bay

Youth Leadership Ambassadors Trip Report: Western Washington University

June 20th, 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 and photographs that highlight their adventures throughout the year here on Chattermarks.

Appearing for the first time on Chattermarks are Inna Mayer and Aaron So, who share their experience visiting Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Youth Leadership Ambassador: Inna Mayer

In late April, the Youth Leadership Ambassadors went on a trip Western Washington University. There, I learned about the Huxley College of Environment. Western Washington University is one of the colleges I’m interested in attending and I was happy to find out about their great Department of Environmental Studies. Steve Hollenhorst, Dean of Huxley, talked about the college and what interested him the most in the environmental field. It was special to hear what it meant to him to be a part of one of the oldest environmental colleges in the United States.

Youth Leadership Ambassadors taking a tour around the Western Washington University campus. Photos by Inna Mayer and Aaron So.

During the second half of the day, we got to attend the annual Earth Day event that the Environmental and Sustainability students and staff at the university put together. There were many speakers at the event and I was surprised and inspired at all the steps that these people took for conservation efforts. It was an eye-opening experience to learn what I could do to help out.

About Inna Mayer

My name is Inna Mayer and I’m a junior at Mount Vernon High School. I was adopted from Russia and I love the Pacific Northwest and getting involved with almost anything in the outdoors. Last summer, I participated in the eight day Outdoor Leadership trip with Youth Leadership Adventures. Taking on a leadership role in the outdoors provided a great experience to learn how to communicate and get through the day as smoothly as possible. It was a little intimidating to have the responsibility of leading my group through all the days planned activities. I had made a personal short-term goal for the day, which was to be able to look back on the things that went well and see improvement. Overall, I learned that it’s ok to ask for help.

Last fall, I attended the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit and found out about the Youth Leadership Ambassador program. I joined the Ambassadors because I wanted to continue my involvement with the North Cascades Institute.

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Youth Leadership Ambassador: Aaron So

For our fourth trip, the Ambassadors of North Cascade Institute went to Western Washington University. Located in Bellingham, we had the opportunity to meet the Dean of Huxley College of the Environment, Steve Hollenhorst. An advocate for program, he also serves the board member for the North Cascades Institute. Frankly, without his keenness for the program, it would not have existed.

While at the college, we toured the campus with Emmanuel Camarillo, a North Cascades Institute graduate alumni. At WWU, Emmanuel advises students academically, coordinates their peer mentor program and advise the Blue Group (Western’s student club for undocumented students). With Emmanuel, we were able to gain more insight on the college life, visiting the dorms and cafeteria. After eating lunch in one of Western’s dining halls, we listened to Tina Castillo, a WWU Admissions expert.


Listening to Dr. John Francis at Western Washington University’s Earth Day celebration. Photo by Aaron So

For the second half of the day, we participated in a student led day celebrating Earth Day. There were 7 local speakers who gave short talks of various areas of sustainability, ranging from food waste to transportation. We ended the day with a notable keynote speaker, Dr. John Francis, who spoke of the day’s theme, “Turning Empathy Into Action”.​​​​​​

About Aaron So

I’m Aaron So and I’m 16 years old and I’m currently attending Burlington-Edison High School. A few of my hobbies pertain sports like swimming, tennis, and volleyball. To be quite frank, I’ve never really been outside into nature for long periods of time nor have I ever had the chance to see nature for what it is. I joined the Ambassadors in hopes of experiencing new things and seeing new sights.

Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!

June 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Melissa Biggs, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

Everyone, meet Chompers!  In October 2016, during the fall natural history trip, my cohort helped the Methow Beaver Project volunteers to release the last 3 beavers of the season.  So much fun! We carried the beavers for several miles and released them at Beaver Creek. When we opened the cage, Chompers went right into the water.  It was fascinating to watch the three beavers explore their new environment.  This summer, the Methow Beaver Project workers will locate Chompers and the other two beavers to record their journey since the fall. This experience made me more curious about beavers and their role in the ecosystem. As I did more research, I realized how awesome beavers are!

Beavers are so wonderful that they are known as environmental engineers.  Beavers are known as a “keystone” species because of their large effects on landscapes.  It only takes a few beavers to transform a watershed entirely.  Beavers, with the exception of human beings, do more to shape their landscape than any other Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets! Beavers are also a “foundation” species because their presence and their creations, such as dams, allow other plants and animals to exist.  

Beavers’ creations are essential to its environment for many reasons.  First, beaver dams are natural filters, as they capture and store much of the sediment.  Streams that have been shaped by beavers have 10 times greater purification capability than streams without beavers.  Also, beaver dams store water, thus leading to the increased size of wetlands. Beaver dams can help mitigate the effects of drought and the loss of wetland and riparian habitats due to their abilities to store shallow groundwater and retention of surface water behind dams.   This is important because almost half of endangered and threatened species in North America rely upon wetlands.  Also, freshwater wetlands have been rated as the world’s most valuable land-based ecosystem.  Beaver ponds increase both the water we can see on the surface and also what is stored beneath the pond.  This helps increase the riparian area and vegetative productivity.  Not only do beaver dams store water, they also help slow down the water flow, which is why they are known as ‘nature’s speed bumps.’  They reduce stream velocity and power, which helps reduce erosion rates and the amount of sediment carried downstream.  This effect across the upper watershed could provide more time for flood planning, protection and evacuation of high risk, residential areas.  Beaver ponds also help stabilize the water temperature both in the shallow and deeper areas – they help cool down streams, creating better conditions for fish, especially trout.  Last, but not last, beavers’ modification on watersheds help increase organic material, such as cut wood and flooded plants, sediment with nutrients attached and more water surface area for photosynthesis to occur, which results in more aquatic biodiversity and food for fish.  Without beavers and the role they play in watersheds, most of the biodiversity that are associated with wetland habitats would disappear.


Chompers in his cage right before he’s released! Image courtesy of Melissa Biggs

» Continue reading Who Cares About Beavers? We Do!