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Polly Dyer: NW conservation hero passes away at age 96

November 23rd, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

In the North Cascades, a mosaic of public lands—national, state, and provincial parks, national forests, wilderness and recreation areas—protects many of the region’s most beloved areas. It’s easy to take their stewardship for granted—few today would argue against preserving natural treasures like Mount Baker, the Picket Range, Cascade Pass, and Suiattle River—but in truth, Washingtonians owe a great deal of gratitude to early visionaries like Polly Dyer.

Without Dyer and her ilk, imagine what might have been: Clear-cuts in the Stehekin Valley. A half-mile-wide open-pit copper mine in the shadow of Glacier Peak. The ancient cedars of the Little Beaver Valley drowned underwater. And elsewhere in the state, a ski area, tramway, and golf course on Mount Rainier; the Hoh River valley excised from Olympic National Park and sold for timber. Instead of the most primitive stretch of coastline in the Lower 48, a scenic highway running along the beaches from La Push to Shi Shi.

Dyer’s six decades of writing letters, organizing volunteers, attending meetings, serving on committees, and lobbying legislators in both Washingtons have helped keep some of our most spectacular landscapes intact. And in the era before social media, virtual meet-ups, and online petitions, those conservation efforts required a lot of legwork, fundraising, face-to-face negotiations, and pots of coffee.

Born in Honolulu in 1920, Pauline Dyer saw a wide swath of America as her father moved around the country following Coast Guard postings: Seattle, New York City, Connecticut, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Florida, and finally, Alaska. Summers at Girl Scout camp introduced her to the natural world, but the raw wilderness of Alaska provided what she later called “the basis for my whole life since.”

She met her husband, John, on the trail, and together they explored coastal areas like Glacier Bay in a sixteen-foot skiff, reading John Muir to pass the time. They moved to Berkeley, hiking the Sierra Nevada and becoming active in the Sierra Club, before finally settling down in the Seattle area in 1950, where the Cascades to the east and Olympics to the west fueled their passion for hiking, climbing, and conservation. Polly joined The Mountaineers and chaired the club’s Conservation Committee; established the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Sierra Club, the first chapter outside of California; helped lead the Olympic Park Associates; and cofounded the North Cascades Conservation Council.

Preserving wild places has been Dyer’s undying passion. “It is a priceless asset which all the dollars man can accumulate will not buy back,” she testified before the US Senate, in support of what would become the Wilderness Act of 1964. With fellow conservationist Howard Zahniser, she is credited with the elegant definition of wilderness enshrined in that legislation: “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Discussing her innate love of wilderness, Dyer exclaims that nature brought her “almost unbounded joy. I wanted to stretch out my arms and bring it all up close to me. I felt that it was literally a part of me.”

» Continue reading Polly Dyer: NW conservation hero passes away at age 96

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A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

June 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Come every fall, winter and spring quarter, the graduate students in residency at the Environmental Learning Center leave for a long weekend dubbed the “Natural History Retreat.” It is a chance to explore a novel, neighboring ecosystem beyond the North Cascades we teach about and love on a daily basis. Last autumn, in the midst of a government shutdown, we quickly cavorted to the Methow Valley; in winter, we slept, to the extent we were able, in hard-earned snow shelters on Mt. Rainier’s Paradise. This mid-June, we headed for the one Washington national park we had yet to discover: Olympic.

But backup for a sec. Before it seems grad school is all fun ‘n’ games, it’s essential to clarify that the term “retreat” is a bit of a misnomer. Try “concentrated, highly efficient learning experience” instead. There were no hot tubs nor Swedish massages. Rather, like wolverines — those elusive weasels capable of covering six miles per hour whether traversing rivers, flatlands, or the steepest vertical relief — we were on a mission to cover as much territory in as little an amount of time as possible. In three days, we traveled from the Environmental Learning Center to Port Townsend, and eventually to the Hoh Rainforest, pit-stopping along the way to engage in multiple natural and cultural activities.

wooden boats pt townsend K. RenzInside Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. Smells so good, like wood and varnish and salt. Photo by author.

After a four-hour long end-of-season Mountain School debrief, we zoomed to sea level to catch the ferry out of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Before we knew it, we were attired in orange dry suits and talking like pirates on a long boat in Port Townsend. We sailed and rowed around Port Townsend Bay, captained by Kelley Watson, former commercial salmon fisherman and organizer of the Girls Boat Project, and assisted by Chandlery Associate Alicia Dominguez. The quick trip was a success, and our tiny craft failed to collide with the giant ferries or picturesque sailboats in the midst of their weekly Friday night race. A graduate student in education herself, Watson told us Port Townsend had recently passed the “Maritime Discovery School Initiative.” As part of the community’s commitment to place-based education, all students would get a first-hand exposure to the maritime trades. Our collective graduate cohort eyebrows raised in unison as we heave-hoed through the salty sea: Jobs?

wooden boats III pt townsend K. RenzDown from the mountains, on the sea: From L to R: Katie Komorowski, Sarah Stephens, Elissa Kobrin, Samantha Hale, Joshua Porter, and Alicia Dominguez. Photo by author.

» Continue reading A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

sherisnowshoeing. John Harter

Quietude

May 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Highway 20 opened last Thursday at noon after six months of being closed — as it is every winter, due to heavy snows and avalanche danger over the pass — between Milepost 134 at Ross Lake and Milepost 178 at the Early Winters Information Center. This year, it took clearing crews almost six weeks to move the snow that had fallen up to 35 feet deep. The opening is a cause for celebration: East side, we’ve missed you! Yet there is also a tinge of lamentation, for the “road closed” season is a unique time in the North Cascades, one characterized by near impeccable silence.

Though those of us at the Environmental Learning Center live, work and play in a remote, backcountry national park, the effects of May through November’s steady stream of vehicular traffic on the acoustic environment is hard to ignore. Through the winter, residents and visitors hear the rhythm of the rain and the schulumps of snow sliding from needled branches above. As we orbit into spring, the sounds of nature change. The road closure’s sustained quiet is perfectly timed with the re-arrival of migrating birds, and the clean air is enlivened with the complicated call of Pacific Wrens, the monkey-like laughter and jackhammering of Pileated Woodpeckers and the dive-bomb buzzing of Rufous Hummingbirds.

The absence of murmurings from internal combustion engines offers the opportunity for a heightened level of sensory awareness, whether to auditorily observe the Park with adult ears or to facilitate listening activities for Mountain School students. “What’s the quietest sound you can hear?” instructors often ask trail groups. What about the fir cone scales gnawed away and dropped in a pile by industrious Douglas squirrels, or the various sounds water makes as it flows and dribbles and pools over the landscape? The cracking of a bud’s petals or the birth of a baby bird? “Road Closure” time is the ideal season for “sound mapping,” as well: Choose a spot to sit with pencil and paper, draw an “X” in the middle representing yourself, then listen and draw what you hear, notating it on the page in relation to your sit spot.

deer ears Molly FooteFifth graders from Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary using their “deer ears” to better hear the sounds of nature along the Deer Creek bridge. Photo by Molly Foote.

It is typically trying-slash-impossible to convince trail groups of ten fifth graders to close their mouths for any significant stretch of time with the goal of really listening (and the amount of talking and enforcing that trail instructors usually have to do toward such ends makes these attempts rather ironic). But the forest is a busy place; when one’s ears are opened and the machines given a rest, this becomes immediately apparent, sometimes to the point of epiphany.

Even without Highway 20 traffic, though, we are never far from reminders of the pace, size and sonic magnitude of contemporary existence. Many years ago, I spent 48-hours on a wilderness “solo” near the Dirty Devil River in Utah. While I sunned on slickrock, battling beefy ants and timing my day by the pale pink evening primroses that opened with the setting sun, I also became quickly acquainted with the flight paths of commercial jets. Respite from reminders of human civilization — the subtle or the bludgeoning — are hard to come by these days.

So difficult that Gordon Hempton, a western Washington-based acoustic ecologist, believes there may be fewer than a dozen places left in the United States where one can be for 20 minutes without hearing noise from human activity. He bases his argument, in part, upon his extensive listening experience, including a cross-country “sound tracking” tour in 2010, after which he co-authored One Square Inch of Silence: One Man’s Quest to Preserve Quiet (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). “It is our birthright to listen, quietly and undisturbed, to the natural environment and take whatever meanings we may from it,” Hempton writes on his website. “By listening to natural silence, we feel connected to the land, to our evolutionary past, and to ourselves.”

dark-eyed Junco Alex PatiaCan you hear this Dark-Eyed Junco taking a bath? Photo by Alex Patia.

Hempton also founded “One Square Inch,” an independent research project located in the Hoh Rain Forest of Olympic National Park. Here he has identified – you guessed it – one tiny spot entirely free of noise pollution. It is marked by a small, red-colored stone that was given to him by an elder of the Native American Quileute tribe and is now placed atop a mossy log. The idea is that since a loud noise, such as that of a passing aircraft, impacts several of the surrounding square miles, designating a noise-free space, even one just the size of a postage stamp, with have its own rippling effects.

Ironically, one can find directions to this project on the “One Square Inch” website. (the exact coordinates are 47° 51.959N, 123° 52.221W). How long will this acoustically pristine site maintain its quietude as listening hikers pay homage? The scritchy scratch of synthetic hiking pants, the vocal appreciations of friends on trail, the beep of some technology one forget to turn off? A worthy conundrum, indeed.

Noise pollution has become a noted environmental issue over the past couple of decades. Not only do some humans seek solace away from anthropogenic noise, but it is critical for wildlife who depend on auditory signals for survival functions such as feeding, migration and breeding to not be bombarded with extraneous sounds. As Hempton said in a 2010 interview in The Sun: “The problem is that humans are often oblivious to the natural balance of sounds that has been established since the beginning of time. Imagine we’re gathered to hear a symphony, and a handful of people are running vacuum cleaners or perhaps playing their own instruments without any regard to the orchestra. That’s how human sounds often come across in a wilderness environment.”

Where is the quietest place you can think of? What are the sounds that impact it? Is it secure in its silence, or threatened? What are your favorite sounds?

As I join the party and drive to the east side, revisiting my favorite places in the Methow Valley, I’ll remember to consider my own contributions to the acoustic ecology, and try to open my ears ever wider to catch nature’s callings over the clamoring cars.

on the eastside.Elissa KobrinThe author on the east side in the fall, demonstrating how to communicate the presence of something especially cool in nature without making a sound. Photo by Elissa Kobrin.
Leading photo: Sheri Harter explores the closed side of a wintertime Highway 20 on snowshoes. Photo by John Harter.

 

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She likes to Enjoy the Silence: All I ever wanted/All I ever needed/Is here/In my arms.

 

 

sitka spruce with moss

Graduate students explore natural history on the Olympic Coast

May 1st, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

My cohort-mates have heard this a few times by now, but I’ve been to the Olympic Coast four times and despite its reputation for tempestuous weather, I’ve had blue skies each time. I must be pretty lucky. But then again, so many fortunate things happened on Cohort 12’s spring Natural History Retreat that “lucky” probably should have been the theme of the whole trip.

For one, despite arriving at the ferry terminal at the exact time the boat should have been floating away from the dock, we still somehow made it on board. This initial triumph colored our moods for the rest of the trip—we beamed as the boat sailed towards menacing rain clouds that obscured most of the high Olympic Peaks.

trackingTracking, on the shores of the Elwha. Photo by Hillary Schwirtlich

» Continue reading Graduate students explore natural history on the Olympic Coast

ElwhaRiver-gussman

Elwha: rebirth of a rainforest river

April 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

It’s been hardly a year since the last concrete remnants of the Elwha Dam were removed and already the rebirth of the rainforest river is underway. While most people watching the Olympic Peninsula experiment have been excited about what they hope will soon move upriver—steelhead and all five species of Pacific salmon—the first chapter in the river’s restoration has been more about what is moving downriver: sediment, up to 34 million cubic yards of it in total, with the motherlode of that amount still trapped behind the 2/3rds-demolished Glines Canyon Dam.

“Scientists recently learned there was about 41 percent more sediment trapped behind the dams than originally thought,” reports The Seattle Times’ Lynda Mapes, who recently published Elwha: A River Reborn, “and that the river is transporting more mud and wood than they expected.”

The flushing of the river’s channel, after being pent up behind two dams for the last 100 years, is creating new ecological dynamics that have scientists scrambling to keep up. Fish are adapting to murky waters by pioneering new side channels and feeder streams. Riverbank erosion has been chaotic and unpredictable. And down at the river’s mouth, where the Elwha’s glacially-fed freshwater merges with saltwater at the Strait of Juan de Fuca, all kinds of interesting things are happening: dramatic loss of kelp beds under smothering sand, making way for ecologically-valuable sea grass pastures; a new sand spit emerging, one-third of a mile long and expanding; reinvigorated habitat for important species like sea smelt and sand lance.

It’s only the beginning of an audacious experiment, the demolition of two century-old dams and restoration of a river, a $325 million endeavor that will open up more than 70 miles of pristine spawning habitat. It’s the largest dam removal project in the world, undertaken in a part of the world renowned for harnessing its raging rivers for hydropower, shipping and agriculture.

» Continue reading Elwha: rebirth of a rainforest river

“Elwha Restoration Revealed” at WWU, April 10

April 3rd, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Join NatureBridge, the WWU Huxley College of the Environment and the North Cascades Institute to hear about the historic Elwha Dam removal and restoration project in Olympic National Park Wedneday, April 10, 7 pm, at Western Washington University Room AW 204.

For the first time in 100 years, the Elwha River is beginning to flow free. As the first chunks of the dams concrete were removed in September of 2011, the river and surrounding ecosystem began to heal: vegetation has emerged on the newly exposed deltas, Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
sediment and nutrients are reaching the Straits of Juan de Fuca and salmon returned last fall!  Restoration!

The dam removal is ahead of schedule with the lower dam removal now complete, with the upper dam likely to be fully removed by the end of 2013.  Each day reveals new images and insights for researchers monitoring this historic event.

Find out how the restoration efforts are progressing from:

  • John Gussman, filmmaker, shows selections from his documentary film in progress, Return of the River.
  • Dr. Jeff Duda, U.S. Geological Survey – Western Fisheries Research Center, shares current research on the freshwater, estuaries and marine ecosystems before and after the dam removal.
  • Stephen Streufert, Pacific Northwest Director, NatureBridge, explains how the Elwha Restoration project has become an ideal laboratory for schools to connect in-class learning with real world experiences at the NatureBridge campus.

FREE EVENT – Registration requested: http://elwhawwu.eventbrite.com/#

For more information, contact Karen Molinari at 206-382-6212 ext 12 or kmolinari@naturebridge.org.

Photos by John Gussman: www.elwhafilm.com

 

Learning to Love the Rain

June 4th, 2012 | Posted by in Adventures

It only takes a few days in Forks, Washington, to be dead sure that the town is the rainiest place in the lower forty-eight. And that is exactly where we were headed for our Spring Graduate Retreat. To quell any suspicions that we were visiting for the purposes of Twilight histeria, let me say that while the prospect of vampires and warewolves may have been an exciting addition to our adventure for some, their anticipated sighting was far removed from our journey’s intent.

One of my fellow cohort 11 members aptly described the rejuvenating effects of our recent spring retreat as: “How I stopped worrying and learned to love the rain.” An elementary recollection perhaps, but one ripe with meaning for the 14 graduate students at North Cascades Institute who spent four days camped near the rainy coastline of the Olympic Peninsula. The purpose of our retreat was three-fold: to offer us a respite from a busy spring of teaching Mountain School, planning curriculum, and working on Natural History topics, to provide an opportunity for continued exploration of the natural world and, perhaps most importantly, to deepen our connections with each other and have fun together.

After nearly a year of crowding  under trees as we drip water from our noses and our fingertips, we have all learned to stretch our definitions of fun. On this particular retreat, fun was found in many forms. How fun, to sketch the ocean’s horizon line as droplets of water hit our journal pages; how fun, to play touch football on the beach as wet granules of sand stick to our feet; how fun, to cook dinner under the jankity cover of a tarp as the rain whittles away at the woven plastic overhead; how fun, to huddle around a campfire and laugh together as water drips down our backs; how fun, to fall asleep to the sound of rain on tent surfaces; how fun, to wake up surrounded by a puddle built of last night’s downpour; how fun, to watch a sucker hole widen just long enough to warrant the happy shedding of rain gear; how fun, to recognize the urgency of rainfall as the requisite of life found in the wild diversity of the Olympics.

Beads of rain caught poetically in the intricate web left by a spider. Photo by Colby Mitchell.

Our adventure began with a ferry ride to Port Townsend. It wasn’t but a few minutes blithely spent on the windy deck of the boat before we were shouting out the names of shorebirds spotted through binoculars – rhinoceros auklets, pelagic cormorants, and the famed marbled murrelet! Our naturalizing was already off to a great start. After disembarking from the ferry and heading along the north coast of the Olympics for a time, we stopped at Tongue Point to do some tide pooling. Being a naturalist of the mountain variety, I, for one, was giddy to be spending the afternoon exploring life below the water with others of my cohort who were far more knowledgeable about marine wildlife than I: California mussels, chiten, sea anenomes, hermit crabs, periwingle mollusks, gooseneck barnacles, kelps, and sea weeds – to name just a few of the myraid of species we discovered. It was deep breathing interjected with wild explanations of excitement as we examined the intricacies of tidal life while looking out across a great expanse of blue.

» Continue reading Learning to Love the Rain