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Springing into Learning: Graduate Spring Natural History Retreat

June 9th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

At the Institute, the graduate students of the 15th cohort (C15) have been hard at work this past year teaching Mountain School, assisting in adult programs and visiting non-profits, all while finishing assignments and trying to find some sleep! Every season though, the graduate students leave all that behind to learn from experts in the field and be fully immersed into the wilderness of the North Cascades. Last fall we worked with beavers and hawks. In the winter we dived into snow ecology and wolverines. Just last week, we ventured out on our last natural history retreat where we tracked our natural neighbors, captured native bees and kept up with all of the birds!


Our first stop was with author, photographer and educator David Moskowitz. Since the fall we as a cohort had been using his book Wildlife of the Pacific Northwest as our go-to guide on all things tracking. Having a class with the man himself was an experience all its own.


Using some of our newly acquired tracking skills.

» Continue reading Springing into Learning: Graduate Spring Natural History Retreat


Prometheus in Paradise: Fires in the Methow Valley bring loss but reveal a committed community

August 13th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

The East side is burning. A certain degree of compartmentalization is required to brush away images of treasured places in flames, wildlife fleeing for their lives, and homes transformed into piles of blackened ash. At 270,312 acres as of this post, the Carlton Complex fire is the largest in Washington history. Over 2,000 firefighters representing 43 crews from all over the northwest have descended on the Methow Valley and Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The firefighting resources of the West are being taxed by at least 16 major fires burning in both Washington and Oregon.

These events are enormous in scope. Mine is smaller story. Heavy smoke, closed roads, and fear are diverting visitors from the summer paradise of the Methow Valley and pummeling the small local businesses that depend on the short season for the bulk of their annual revenue. Restaurants, hotels, outfitters, and farmers are watching the summer slip by, waiting for the people to come.

Undeterred by smoke or fire, I planned a weekend visit to my beloved Methow Valley to drop as much of my scant play money on the local vendors as possible. My journey East began with a hike around Maple Pass Loop, a local favorite for stunning alpine vistas with only moderate exertion. The smoke was heavy, obscuring the grander scene of Glacier Peak and the numerous towering spires of the North Cascades. It filtered the sunlight a red-gold and put the color riot of summer foliage in soft focus. With the greater peaks and crags masked in filmy sheets, my attention was drawn to sights in shorter view. I found myself lingering in the cool sinks of sparkling snowmelt cascades where monkey-flower (Mimulus Lewisii) and false hellebore (Veratrum viride) gathered. I was rapt by the myriad of butterflies and fuzzy bumble bees sipping from pollen cups.


Smoke obscures the greater mountain views, but draws attention to the smaller things.

This phenomenon of closer examination extended as I dipped down into Winthrop. After checking in at the North Cascades Mountain Hostel, I strolled to the Old Schoolhouse Brewery for dinner and a pint. The atmosphere was quite altered from my previous visits; there was no music on a Friday night, and families and fun-seekers were replaced by tanned and sooty folk in Carharts and T-shirts. Firefighters and Forest Service employees leaned on the bar, sipping well-earned cold beers at the end of a long shift. After a subdued meal, I strolled down to the banks of the Chewuch River. I passed a fire command post in an office building where people were busy on phones and radios, inspecting large maps tacked to the wall with silver push-pins. It was over 85 degrees at 8:30 PM with a thick grey sky. I wandered down to the irrigation canal and waded in up to my knees in the cold water. A cloud of tadpoles swam around my shins. A red squirrel scolded me endlessly as I invaded his watering hole.


A Red Cross Disaster Relief volunteer purchases goods at the Methow Valley Farmers Market in Twisp, WA.

» Continue reading Prometheus in Paradise: Fires in the Methow Valley bring loss but reveal a committed community

thirtymile memorial

The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology

October 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Terror surged silently through my viscera as I watched the swirling inferno twist red and merciless up the talus in the smoke-blackened darkness of night.

Trapped on a rocky, steep slope in a canyon without exit; that is how I would have perished had I been forced to make the same decision faced by five wildland firefighters in 2001. I had to control my breathing and disconnect myself from the story being read by our professor, Dr. John Miles, at the Thirtymile Fire Memorial up the Chewuch River Valley in Okanogan National Forest. Four of the five firefighters lost their lives in ways I dared not ponder while fleeing a storm of fire fueled by high temperatures, low humidity, and extreme drought. At the memorial, their faces stared smiling and youthful from the stone wall adorned with emblems, mementos and the remnants of weathered paper notes tucked under rocks of granite.

As graduate students, we were on our annual Fall Natural History Retreat, and this year found us traveling east to the Methow Valley to study both the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology. Before reading from John Maclean’s book, The Thirtymile Fire, Dr. Miles asked us what we would have done: taken cover in the stream or climbed high into the rocks? I chose the rocks, thinking that I would have been able to find a hole with enough depth in which to take refuge and preserve my life. I would have been wrong.

thirtymile memorialA patch from Whatcom County firefighters at the memorial site, weighted by two chunks of granite.

Fire: Prometheus’ great offering to humankind. Stolen from the gods and placed in our fragile hands of flesh and bone. Who knew what a frenemy we would find in the gift for which he paid such an eternal price? Our fear and fascination have persisted throughout time immemorial. Yet finding a balance between protection of property and fire’s greater purpose still mires our management practices.

Thirtymile exemplified a forest fire’s ability to be both a harbinger of deadly destruction and one of cleansing renewal. Charcoal and bone, the remnants of a once verdant forest protruded like skeletal fingers from the earth. The valley itself, however, was smeared with lime, gold, burgundy, rust and canary. Nature’s intrinsic instrumentation was evident. Fire swept away the abundant, dry understory. It ridded the land of pests and pestilence such as mountain pine beetle and laminated root rot. It held the key to unlock the serotinous cones of the lodgepole pine.

Then, from the ash, came Nature’s healers: lupine, fireweed and alder to fix nitrogen back into the soil and make way for the forest’s rebirth. The earth erupted in a symphony of color, drawing butterflies and hummingbirds. Dead tree trunks provided homes for invertebrates that became tasty snacks for woodpeckers and sapsuckers. Aspen, wild rose and other sun-loving species burst from the desolation, and among them began growing stout little conifers to begin the forest anew.

red barkRegeneration after fire: Aspen trees come in to a disturbed ecosystem early on and help fix nitrogen for the rest of the plant community, as well as offer important browse food for animals.

» Continue reading The Gifts of Prometheus : the natural and social dimensions of fire ecology

end of mountain school

Joining the pack

July 8th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I’ve spent two weeks at North Cascades Institute now, and I’m starting to feel like a member of the pack. But it took a while. I was thrown into a group house with five other people, many of whom had worked at the Learning Center for years. All of them had serious schooling and experience as naturalists—they could identify just about every plant in view with very little effort, whereas I would have lost a competition with just about every fifth-grade student that had passed through the 3-day Mountain School curriculum. So I kept quiet more than most, feeling my way into things. But being at North Cascades Institute is like being at camp: It doesn’t take long to get to know people. You eat meals together, you take arts and crafts classes, you go for hikes with strangers, you paddle a canoe, and you learn some new skills. And, yes, you even debate the merits of Rice Krispie treats, and discuss whether or not raisins belong in cookies.

June 14th was the final day of Mountain School, meaning the parade of fifth-grade students was coming to an end, and, as was the tradition, the Learning Center staff recognized the event with a small celebration. After some shenanigans, we ended up in an open field. Someone suggested we gather in a circle for an activity called “Rocks, Sticks, and Leaves,” then she led off by describing what rocked about Mountain School, what will stick with her, and what she’ll leave with. Most everyone reflected on the people they’ve met, the things they’ve learned, and they ways they’ve become better teachers. These people clearly think of each other as far more than coworkers, and it’s nice to be invited to complete their circle.

Trust_walkBlindfolded Mountain School instructors follow our Group Rentals coordinator down the trail during a game. Photo by Scott Kirkwood

» Continue reading Joining the pack

An Institute ode to summer

June 25th, 2010 | Posted by in Field Excursions

The transition from spring to summer has been a long awaited and hopeful one to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest this year.

This past week, our hopes have finally been fulfilled as the summer sun no longer conceals itself from behind overcast skies and the snow so prevalent upon the high peaks surrounding North Cascades Institute‘s Environmental Learning Center melts away to reveal the rocks of this rugged landscape. One of the best ways to take in and experience the summer in the North Cascades and Skagit Valley is to go hiking, to see places you have not seen before!

As a way to welcome the season of summer in the North Cascades and Skagit Valley, several staff, graduate students, and board members of North Cascades Institute hope to inspire you to enjoy this beautiful onset of summer weather by sharing their favorite hikes in the region of the Skagit Valley and North Cascades.

Ptarmigan Ridge Traverse – Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest

A favorite trail, after 40 years and perhaps 400 hikes! An impossible task! Nonetheless, one favorite takes me out the east face of Table Mountain from Artist Point, then onto Ptarmigan Ridge. The trail winds along the ridge, slowly rising as it traverses the east slope of Coleman Pinnacle, then winds around to Lasciocarpa Ridge and ends at The Portals. Pass through The Portals and step onto a Mount Baker glacier. The scenery on this hike—when it is not cloaked in fog and cloud—is simply amazing! On the way out, Mt. Shuksan looms over the left shoulder and Mt. Baker soars upward straight ahead. Marmots whistle and pikas squeak. Pink and yellow monkeyflowers nod over the trickles and seeps, and groves of lupine wave in the mountain breeze. If you know where to look, mountain goats are nearly guaranteed, resting in small groups in the meadows (or on snowfields on hot summer days), the nannies and kids in small herds, the billies solitary on shaded ledges in unlikely places often high on the rock walls and ridges. A winter trip out this trail is also possible, with skis the best way to go and always with an avalanche transponder. The winter scenery is fantastic, but the risks are a bit greater. Lots of people make it part way out this trail in late summer and fall. The section along the east face of Table Mountain is perhaps the most heavily traveled trail in the entire North Cascades, but most do not go beyond the fork to Chain Lakes. If you don’t want to share this remarkable place, go in winter, but do go!

~John Miles, North Cascades Institute Board Member

» Continue reading An Institute ode to summer

The magic of wolverine tracking

April 20th, 2010 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

North Cascades Highway is nearly open. The snowmobiles are put away, the traps are closed for the season and the wolverine crew has moved on to other endeavors. A few camera stations wait to be collected—hopefully holding a few late-season wolverine pictures on the memory cards. Yet there is one last aspect of the 2010 season that we all wait on.

Somewhere on a shelf in the office are vials with dates and GPS coordinates carefully recorded. Inside is blue desiccant and wolverine hair. In a drying box outside the office door is a collection of wolverine scat. This is the culmination of yet another aspect of the wolverine study in the North Cascades—following wolverine tracks to collect hair and scat.

To this end, members of the crew took several trips into the backcountry in search of the elusive wolverine. Multi-night trips. Backcountry skis and sunblock. Other people do this sort of thing for fun, but this was for science. Someone had to do it, right? In our defense, it is a bit of work. Heavy packs and cold nights. And a lot of GPS work. Everything had to be recorded—the exact route followed, any tracks encountered, and a plethora of details of weather and snow conditions. Not your usual backcountry trip in search of slopes of deep powder. A scientific expedition in search of wolverine tracks. But hopefully a few good turns in the process.

(Title) In search of wolverine tracks on the east side of the Pasayten Wilderness (Above) Brandon and Adam begin their search on the way to Sawtooth Crest

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Capturing the Cascades wolverine

March 14th, 2010 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

You would think it wouldn’t work.

First of all, the wolverine is an elusive creature. It inhabits the untrammeled heights of mountain ranges and is rarely seen or documented. So far this season, with ten traps open every day, we’ve captured just one wolverine. We’ve seen few tracks. But still, this winter we’re trying something new—getting photographs of the chests of wolverines. It is an idea only recently pioneered by Audrey Magoun, a wolverine researcher in southeast Alaska. And it is a brilliant idea.

Wolverines, it seems, have variable markings of light fur on their throats and chests. So variable, in fact, that each wolverine, if looked at closely, has a unique chest pattern. And therefore, with the right picture, we could tell them apart. A brilliant idea, truly, but in practice… It would seem that getting any picture of a wolverine would be a lucky convergence of circumstance, but to get a specific picture—a wolverine in a specific pose, well, it seems like wishful thinking. But then again, most great accomplishments start as silly dreams. The credit for the accomplishment of this silly dream lies to the north, with Magoun and her team of field people, who took an idea—getting pictures of wolverine chests—and made it happen. We’ve just followed their lead. But it is still exciting.

» Continue reading Capturing the Cascades wolverine