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Better with Beavers: How partnerships with a rodent are helping restore watersheds in the Pacific Northwest

October 15th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Rob Rich

“In the beginning, there was nothing but water and ice and a narrow strip of shoreline,” says the oral tradition of the Nuxalk, the coastal people who have lived for millennia near present-day Bella Coola, British Columbia. As the last ice age waned 12,000 years ago, their ancestors found home in that fertile rim of land and sea. And as temperatures rose, the once-frozen land must have churned in a vast soupy spillage, learning with ice-melt the forms we now call river, stream, pond. In this great thaw, when the earth emerged soaked and naked and surging to green, I trust a beaver knew what to do. I trust beavers were there, and also farther south in present-day Whatcom County, Washington, where I live. Before the county – and the creek, town, and lake – took the Whatcom name, I trust beavers were near the creek mouth and fish camp the Nooksack people dubbed Xwótqwem after the sound of water dripping, fast and hard.

» Continue reading Better with Beavers: How partnerships with a rodent are helping restore watersheds in the Pacific Northwest

Studying Moths in the North Cascades

September 29th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Nick Engelfried, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort

To my mind, it isn’t truly spring in the lush, green landscape on the west side of the Cascades until the first half-white carpet moth (Mesoleuca gratulata) has flown. This small insect, with its delicate wings of white, gray, and dark brown, is a sign that sunny days and warmer weather have finally arrived.


Mesoleuca gratulata. Illustration by Nick Engelfried

I chose the hundreds of moth species in the North Cascades as the subject for my in-depth study of a natural history topic at North Cascades Institute this spring. I was drawn to moths partly because of their vast diversity—there are some 11,000 species in North America, far more than the 750 or so butterflies—and partly because of how deeply underappreciated they are. If you spend time outside in western Washington, you’ve probably seen an M. gratulata at some point—but most people who take time to notice it at all will likely mistake this day-flying moth species for a small butterfly. Most moths are even less noticed, due to the nocturnal habitats, nondescript colors, and tiny size of many species.


Platyprepia virginalis. Illustration by Nick Engelfriend

This spring, I embarked on a project to seek out moths wherever I could: below lights on the outsides of buildings after dark, hiding on the bark of trees and walls by day, and—for day-flying species—flitting across trails in patches of sunlight in the North Cascades forest.

I identified as many moth species as possible, including those I found this spring as well as specimens collected last summer and fall. I relied on Jerry A. Powell and Paul A. Opler’s excellent reference book, Moths of Western North America, as well as the expertise of editors at the citizen science website Butterflies and Moths of North America (BAMONA).

In addition to seeing as many species as I could myself, I generated a list of all moths from eight target families reported on BAMONA from Whatcom, Skagit, Okanogan, and Chelan Counties. This list includes nearly 150 species. For reasons of feasibility, I confined myself to “macromoths,” largely ignoring the smaller and even more numerous but very tricky to identify “micromoths.”

One of the most rewarding parts of studying moths this year has been following the emergence and disappearance of different species as their “flight periods” come and go. Most moths in the North Cascades live in this region year-round, but for much of this time they reside only in the egg, larva, or pupa stages. The length of the adult phase ranges from months in species like the tissue moth (Triphosa haesitata)which overwinters as an adult and emerges to fly in very early spring—to only a few days in the giant Ceanothus silk moth (Hyalophora euryalis), which lives just long enough as an adult to mate and lay eggs.

» Continue reading Studying Moths in the North Cascades

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

Lessons from Desolation: Youth Leadership Adventures in the North Cascades

September 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

By Rebecca Zhou, Youth Leadership Intern 2017

12 days, 12 miles by canoe, 35 miles by foot, and a group of 12 girls. During the 12-day Science and Sustainability trip with Youth Leadership Adventures, students and instructors alike had the opportunity to dig deep and learn something about themselves. I believe that the fact it was an all-female identifying trip really helped with that. It helped create a safe space for each person to learn, grow, and be vulnerable with one another.

One such example of this includes our Challenge Day hike up Desolation Peak. Each Youth Leadership Adventures trip has a Challenge Day, or an exceptionally difficult day of physical activity. Instructors frame Challenge Day as an opportunity for students to push themselves outside of their comfort zones and grow both as individuals and as a group. On this Challenge Day hike, we gained 5,000 feet of elevation over the course of the 7 miles of trail from Lighting Stock Camp, and then we turned around and hiked back. Many students had never been on a hike before, much less a hike of Desolation’s magnitude. Even for myself as an intern instructor, this was a challenging hike.

The day started off cold and crisp at an early 5:00 am. We ate our granola, did our morning stretches, tucked things under the vestibules of our tents. Shortly after we set off we hit our first bump in the road–finding the way to the trailhead! All twelve of us stumbled groggily into an occupied Lightning Creek Camp trying to figure out if we had to pass through the camp to get to the trailhead. Eventually, we found our way. By 8:00 am, we got to the Desolation Trailhead. The overall spirit of the group was cheerful and excited. Everyone was determined to reach the goal that was decided unanimously the previous night: get to the summit. 

» Continue reading Lessons from Desolation: Youth Leadership Adventures in the North Cascades

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

New hand-illustrated North Cascades National Park map

June 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Xplorer Maps Releases Hand-Illustrated North Cascades National Park Map, Donates Percentage of Map Sales to Ongoing Park Support

MISSOULA, MT – Xplorer Maps, the creators of hand-illustrated maps of national parks and travel destinations throughout the world, announced today that it has released the newest fine-art map, North Cascades National Park, highlighting jagged peaks topped by more than 300 glaciers, cascading waters in forested valleys and abundant wildlife.

Purchase online now >>

World-renowned artist Chris Robitaille, co-founder of Xplorer Maps, illustrated the map using an antique, old-world style and featuring the iconic images from the national park located in Washington. The map features geographic marvels like Mount Shuksan and the Picket Range while paying homage to hikers, skiers and bikers who enjoy the park’s many recreational opportunities.

The map was produced in partnership with North Cascades National Park Service Complex and the North Cascades Institute, a conservation nonprofit based in western Washington that works to inspire and empower environmental stewardship through transformative experiences in nature.  Xplorer Maps will donate a percentage of proceeds in perpetuity from map sales to the Institute to support youth education opportunities to help create the next generation of public lands stewards.

» Continue reading New hand-illustrated North Cascades National Park map