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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.

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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


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:

For more information, contact Karen Molinari at 206-382-6212 ext 12 or

Photos by John Gussman:


The Olympic Peninsula in Winter

January 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

I spent four days of my winter break on the Olympic Peninsula, at Fort Worden. It’s a family thing that we do every year. My aunt and cousin come out from New Mexico, my uncle and grandparents from the Seattle area, my parents and my grandma from Bellingham, my sister from Olympia, and me from the mountains. The 11 of us converge for four days in one of the old officer’s houses at the fort. Animated discussions about politics, school, and life spill over into walks on the beach, excursions into the hills, and cooking big family dinners.

Walking on the beach. Photo by Saul Weisberg.
Looking at the multitude of rocks, shells, and sea glass on the beach. Photo by Saul Weisberg.

I don’t remember who suggested Fort Worden as a place for these family gatherings, but it’s great. The fort is less than a 10-minute drive from downtown Port Townsend and is full of adventures waiting to happen. Created to guard against attacks from the sea, construction on the fort began in 1897, continuing until it finally closed in 1953.

Most of the old buildings, tunnels, and fields are open to the public which makes exploring the grounds feel like having a huge playground where anything could be found behind the next cement structure or at the end of a narrow, dark tunnel, leading gently uphill.

Old abandoned buildings and tunnels scattered across the hillsides above the offices and housing at Fort Worden. Photos by Saul Weisberg.

Grad school tends to reach into all areas of my life, whether I want it to or not, so I brought a pile of homework to do over break. Sitting in my favorite Port Townsend coffee shop on our second to last day, I drew the sunset over the water (pictured at the top). The next morning, we all stopped in there for a last cup of tea or coffee and a bite to eat before boarding the ferry. I was struck by the difference between this day and the previous day—sunny vs heavy clouds, colorful vs shades of grey. So typical of the Pacific Northwest…

The same view as the image above the title, but very different coloring. Colored pencil drawing by the author.
Leading photo: Colored pencil drawing of a sunset over the water in Port Townsend. Drawing by the author.