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Naturalist Note: February in the Mountains

February 25th, 2018 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“No winter lasts forever, no spring skips its turn.” – Hal Borland

February is the beginning of my favorite stretch of year – the transition from winter into spring, and then spring into summer.

This winter I am finding myself drawn to the lowland forests and deciduous banks of the Skagit River. My time upriver has been the most wintery winter I’ve endured; I am now accustomed to the semi-regular process of scraping ice and snow off my windshield, and wearing microspikes as I walk down the icy road of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. However, a walk in the forest feels like a visit with an old friend. It reminds me of my island home at the other side of the watershed, Deception Pass. Everywhere in the forest, signs of familiar companions are appearing and talking and that makes my heart feel much warmer, though my toes and hands are just as cold.

These interactions have also filled my journal with many, flowery ramblings. In between classes, and now Mountain School trainings, I try to take a walk outside and note changes in my environment. February is especially a time of rapid change – one day it can be cool and damp out, and the next day there’s seven inches of snow on the ground and slush in my boots. Below, I’ve noted some of the changes witnessed within my little sphere of the world this past week. What have you noted, too?

Recent Naturalist Notes: 

On February 16 – I heard a Varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius) sing outside of my partner’s cabin in Marblemount, while branches cracked from the weight of freshly fallen snow.

February 17 – During a rainy walk in Rockport State Park, I found Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis), or osoberry, breaking leaf buds all along the Suak-Springs trail.

Also spotted were young buds on the Vine maple (Acer circinatum), leafy buds of the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), and two of my favorite edibles popping up along the forest floor: Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and Siberian miner’s lettuce (Claytona sibirica). It’s only a matter of time until I can make a batch of nettle pesto!

And there were signs of moss reproduction everywhere, with the stalk-like shoots of the sporophyte popping up. The spore capsules are about ready to release spores that will grow into new moss. Next time, I will take my hand lens with me to get an even closer look.

On the drive home, I stopped at mileposts 100 and 101 to stand by the Skagit River. I saw three Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) at 101 and noticed the snow line on the mountains and grey clouds. It felt good to stand close to the talking river and listen to the eagles.

» Continue reading Naturalist Note: February in the Mountains

Seasons in the Skagit: Spring

April 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Happy spring everyone! Winter proved to be quite the formidable season. At the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center we experienced heavy weather events, slides in the Skagit Gorge and even a snowy Mountain School session. As we move into spring the days are longer, the sun shines a little more often and the buds are bursting on the plants in the Skagit Valley. It’s getting greener every day!


After a quiet yet eventful winter, the road to the Environmental Learning Center is becoming busier. Snow slides occasionally blocked travel routes upriver, rain fell persistently in the lower valley, and snow-covered leaf buds stayed dormant, waiting for warmer days. As early as January, however, signs of spring were emerging in the valley. As winter ended and spring began we saw some phenological changes in the Skagit:

    • Feb. 9: A snowslide closed SR 20 at Newhalem. All WA mountain passes were closed.
    • Feb. 18: American robins (Turdus migratorius) are seen up valley.
    • March 18: Two western meadowlarks (Sturnella neglecta), rare migrant birds in the Upper Skagit, are seen near Diablo on the same day as a Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus) and a red-shafted northern flicker (Colaptes auratus).
    • March 20: The official start of spring is marked by the Spring Equinox. Violet green swallows (Tachycineta thalassina) and Ruby crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula) are first seen in the Upper Skagit.
    • April 3: The daffodils (Narcissus) are blooming between Sedro-Woolley and Marblemount.
    • April 9: A black bear (Ursus americanus) was spotted in Diablo.
    • April 14: There are open leaf buds on a dogwood (Cornus s. occidentalis) in Marblemount.


Phenology at the ELC

As spring progresses, the 16th M.Ed. graduate cohort (C16) are busy documenting phenological changes on a weekly basis at the Environmental Learning Center and in Marblemount. Here are some of our findings and notable observations:

Indian Plum (Oemleria cerasiformis)

Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa)

Blue House plot (facing northwest)

Sharing the Changes

As we move further into spring I find myself easily overwhelmed with the innumerable changes happening all around. If you are like me and find the many overlapping birdsongs and clustered plants hard to differentiate, here are two helpful resources that will hopefully aid in your species identification: the Cornell Lab Bird Guide and the UW Burke Museum botany and herbarium collections. I hope this season brings renewed energy and spirit to all in the NCI community.

Written by Smokey Brine – Phenology Graduate Assistant 
All photographs courtesy of Smokey Brine 

Seasons In the Skagit: Winter

January 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Hello and welcome to 2017 everyone! I am very pleased to greet you in the new year and share with you some of the changes we have recently seen in the Skagit. As we start winter and a new cycle around the sun I invite you to embrace the beginning of our calendar year and perhaps start phenological practices of your own. Welcome to winter!

Highway 20 is very quiet in the upper Skagit. Massive icicles are hanging from the rocks in the Gorge. Most of the trees are bare and almost no birds are heard singing in the branches. Winter has settled into the Skagit Valley. As fall ended and winter began we saw some notable phenological events in our watershed:

  • Nov. 19: Four Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) feeding on fish carcasses across the river from Cascadian Farms. Eagle sightings are increasing.
  • Nov. 21: Washington Pass on SR 20 closed for the winter.
  • Nov. 25: Mt. Baker Ski Area opens for the season.
  • Dec. 3:Daniel Dubie (C16 M.Ed. graduate student) saw approximately 20 Bald Eagles at the Samish Flats!
  • Dec. 4: The first snow fell at North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.
  • Dec. 8: Nine Bald Eagles spotted on the drive between the Blue House and the ELC, two of which were juveniles.

Although it may seem quiet in the valley and upriver there are still many things changing around us, whether we notice them or not.

» Continue reading Seasons In the Skagit: Winter


Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

November 17th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Hello everyone! We are moving towards the end of fall and the beginning of winter in the Skagit Valley.  The leaves are falling from the trees here at Lake Diablo. As the days march slowly towards December we see the seasons changing all around us. The sun rises later in the morning and disappears behind the mountains early in the afternoon. The maple trees are close to bare. The Skagit gorge is awash with new cascades bolstered with fall rain.

Phenology at the ELC
What is phenology? Phenology is the study of cyclic and seasonal changes in nature, especially in regards to climate, plants, and animals. At the Environmental Learning Center and the Marblemount NCI property (the Blue House) we have several phenology plots that grads and staff regularly observe.  We engage with phenology in the graduate program by conducting weekly plot checks on a weekly basis. Here are some notable changes that we have recorded in some of the plants at the ELC:

A Pacific Flowering Dogwood (Cornus nuttalli) near Sourdough Creek displayed its dramatic transition with vibrant colors.



» Continue reading Seasons In The Skagit: Fall

Dogwood First Leaf

A Question of Scale: Plant Phenology Across Time and Space

September 5th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Joe Loviska, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

March 20, 2016. I’ve been keeping an eye on the western flowering dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) out in the parking lot of the Learning Center. It’s a small tree, maybe twelve feet in height. Its gray trunk and branches are spindly, filling out the vague shape of a mop standing on its handle. This dogwood grows at 1,220 feet above sea level on the west slope of the Cascades. It occupies a site that has good southern exposure, with dry, well-drained soil and a closed canopy of Douglas firs above. All of these facts and more dictate the beginning of the spring season for this particular tree, which is today. Today its leaf tips are poking out. Yesterday they were not. My friend the dogwood tree is awake.

Now it just so happens that today, March 20, the 80th day of the year (DOY), is also the vernal equinox. That is, the year-long wobble of Earth’s axis has tilted in such a way that the equator is squarely facing the sun. Translation? Equal amounts of day and night across the globe. In the Northern Hemisphere, this means the first day of spring, right in time for the dogwood to open its buds. Coincidence? You decide.

» Continue reading A Question of Scale: Plant Phenology Across Time and Space


John McMillan’s Cabin: Traveling the paths of ghosts

April 14th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Hannah Newell, a M.Ed. Graduate student of the Institute’s 15th Cohort

Where would one place their grave in these woods? And how could one bury themselves? These two questions came to me as I was half delirious with exhaustion, wandering around on the west bank of Big Beaver Creek along Ross Lake. My cohort member and work study compliment, Joe Loviska, and I were on a two day excursion into the Ross Lake Recreation Area to document wildlife and for him, phenological stages as our season turns to spring. I was on a personal quest as well. The previous months leading up to this trip, I had been in contact with a number of resources to lend a hand in my discovery of the history of trapping in this area of the North Cascades.

The trappers and homesteaders were few and far between in this vast landscape of pinnacle mountains and dense forests. One could get lost among the giant cedars and accidentally wander into a forest of Devil’s Club without notice until their fate was sealed with this prickled plant. This is not a forgiving land to those foreign or unprepared for their travels.

I had heard John McMillan’s name in my first round of research into the topic of fur trapping and soon started to hear stories of his cabin. All that was shared with me about the location of this cabin was that it is somewhere on the west side of Big Beaver Creek, before the marsh and after the stream.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Joe and I had the advantage of hearing about first hand accounts of finding the homestead through the use of roughly drawn maps and a faint trail that was previously used by McMillan and the Forest Service before Big Beaver Trail was established.


Trail map around Diablo Lake. Photo courtesy of the United States Forest Service.

We found this faint line of a trail that lead directly into a fresh patch of fluorescent green moss and downed trees. We had immediately lost the trail, but continued on to meandering through the woods experiencing the true wonder of wandering among the old growth.

» Continue reading John McMillan’s Cabin: Traveling the paths of ghosts

red huckleberry buds

A Phenology Fix

March 24th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

By Sasha Savoian, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

The shifting of seasons. Temperature begins to rise as the arch of the sun lifts. Winds push and pull pendulous crowns of Hemlock and Western Red Cedar while gusts careen through limbs of Doug fir. Rains drench the lichen and moss covered landscape. Sun surprises. Days overshadow night. Subtle, sweet scents of spring waft unexpectedly in a warm breeze. Buds begin to break. Robins appear overnight.

Red Huckelberry

A Red Huckleberry limb with breaking buds along the Diablo Lake trail at the Environmental Learning Center.

The shifting of seasons. Spring is recently arrived, but the harbingers have slowly appeared up here in the North Cascades at 1,200 feet: buds of Willow, Red Flowering Currant and Indian Plum awaken, the catkins of Hazel and Alder open and dangle in preparation of pollen release, Varied Thrush, Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Robins and Pacific wrens sing the morning alive, a frog note travels through the air at dusk. At least a few of us up at the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake are tuned to the frequency of phenology as we have eagerly awaited the firsts to unfurl. Phenology is essentially the study of seasonal cycles in the natural world, paying particular attention to the connectivity of the species within an ecosystem. Phenology encompasses events such as bird migration, phases of buds on trees and shrubs, hibernation and the hatching of insects related to changes in temperature, amount of sunlight and precipitation associated with shifts of seasons.

» Continue reading A Phenology Fix