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A Wintery Return to the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center

January 3rd, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

While there were hints of winter prior to our holiday break, there is no question now that winter has arrived at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. Graduate M.Ed. students who live on campus returned today to find drifts of snow reaching the heights of their roof, carefully avoiding the ‘roofalanche’ zones that we were warned of in our winter safety training. Thick down jackets, gloves, hats, scarves, boots and yaktraks are the uniform on campus now. The high today was 15 degrees with expected sunshine for the rest of the week. Sun somehow makes these freezing temperatures a bit more bearable as it is such a rarity these days. Taking its time to rise over the mountains that surround Diablo Lake, it isn’t seen until sometime after 10am and then disappears behind Pyramid Peak only a few hours later.

The inevitable cycles of nature have also shifted the energy around campus. In the fall there is a lively, vibrant spiritedness from families and children participating in programs or Mountain School. Now it has been replaced by the quiet, undisturbed stillness of winter. I feel this every day on my drive from Marblemount. Cascades that gave motion to the mountainsides are now walls of ice; the constant flow of traffic and caravans of motorhomes coming over the pass has ceased and trickled down to seeing just a car or two over the entire 21 mile drive up Highway 20.

Despite the restful nature of winter, there is still life to be found at the ELC! Graduate students continue their studies and a new season of conference and retreats begins shortly. The following photos were taken today as we settle back into our home in the North Cascades.


Title photograph of Sourdough Creek, looking out towards Diablo Lake and Pyramid Peak.
All photos courtesy of Angela Burlile.

Angela Burlile is a graduate student of North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and the current web resource editor graduate assistant. Growing up in Alaska, Angela feels most at home surrounded by mountains, glaciers, and turquoise rivers, making the North Cascades Institute a perfect fit. In her free time, Angela enjoys exploring the world, meeting its many inhabitants, sharing cups of coffee, climbing mountains and catching the sunrise.

DiabloLakeMountains

Nature Notes: Winter in the North Cascades

February 16th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

by Chelsea Ernst, M.Ed. Graduate Student

The west side of the North Cascades is experiencing a fairly warm winter, sending the snow line higher than usual for this time of year. Snow down in the Skagit valley has melted completely, reminding staff and grads at the Learning Center of the carpet of green moss that lines the lowland forest floor.

On January 3rd, when a few graduate students returned to Diablo Lake after winter break, 10 inches of fresh snow fell. The layer of new, fluffy snow lent itself to easy snow tracking, and several ungulate and small mammal tracks were sighted on the Diablo East trail. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
The following day, the melt began and more students and staff steadily returned to their mountain home and workplace. Here are some of their observations from January and February.

January

SnowBridgeFrozen surface of a pond on Thunder Knob Trail
  • Jan. 4th: above freezing temperatures and rain at the Learning Center turned snow piled high on steep roofs into roofalanches.
  • Jan. 9th: a juvenile and an adult bald eagle dove at each other mid-air near Cook Road in Sedro-Woolley.
  • Jan. 11th: snow geese still gathering in wet fields near Sedro-Woolley and Concrete.
  • Jan. 12th: a pileated woodpecker was heard at the Learning Center.
  • Jan. 15th: the sounds of Deer Creek became softer as less water from higher elevations makes its way down into the valley.
  • Jan. 20th: the sun was out at Diablo Lake!
  • Jan. 21st: the surface of a pond on Thunder Knob trail was frozen.
  • Jan. 25th: with the sun out and temperatures in the 50s, staff and graduate students paddled out on Diablo lake. They saw an American dipper, buffleheads, and common goldeneyes.

February

ThunderKnobPondSnow bridge over Early Winters Creek near Mazama, WA
  • Feb. 1st-8th: graduate students traveled to the Methow Valley and naturalize on the notably colder and snowier east side of the North Cascades.
  • Feb. 10th: three female elk were spotted near Concrete.
  • Feb. 11th: two harlequin ducks floated on Diablo Lake.
*All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
Mushroom

Nature Notes: Phenology of the North Cascades Ecosystem

January 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute’s resident graduate students have the unique opportunity to live at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center for the majority of the Environmental Education graduate program. Living in North Cascades National Park has more than a few perks. The backcountry is just a few steps outside of our back door and thousands of plant species and a diversity of wildlife are our neighbors. Living here also allows us to experience first hand the phenology of the surrounding ecosystem. As part of our graduate work, we take note of these environmental changes as we experience them. It may not be possible to accurately convey the magic of this experience, but we combined a brief list of our observations from autumn 2014 in an attempt to do so.

September

LarchNeedle

Larch needles beginning to turn on Maple Pass
  • In mid September, the vine maple leaves at the Learning Center began turning.
  • On the 21st a pika was seen dragging a false hellebore stem across Heather Pass trail.
  • Among the talus slopes near Heather Pass, a Northern flicker was heard and later sighted. Larches at Heather/Maple Pass were just on the brink of turning.
  • On the 27th black bear tracks were observed in the snowfield below Colonial Glacier.

October

Hydnellumpeckii

Hydnellum peckii mushroom, certainly one of the most striking we’ve seen!
  • First week of October: the area around the Learning Center received record rainfall.
  • Early October: Summer Chinook salmon observed spawning in the Methow River.
  • Oct. 20th: pikas observed in talus slope below Cascade Pass.
  • Oct. 22nd: Sourdough Creek started flowing into Diablo Lake.
  • Mid to late October: the upper Skagit Valley’s array of fungal species were in full display.
  • Oct. 25th: the Oregon grape plants around the Learning Center trails no longer had berries.
  • Oct. 27th: black bear was seen on the Learning Center campus.
  • Oct. 28th: three mule deer (two does and one yearling) seen on the Learning Center campus.

November

  • Throughout the month: snow geese observed migrating down the Skagit Valley.
  • Nov. 11th: snow goose mates and goslings seen during a paddle on Diablo Lake, and black bear tracks were seen at Sourdough Camp.
  • Nov. 14th: a pika peeped at Heather Pass, and big leaf maple leaves crunch under feet at the Learning Center.
  • Nov. 22nd: bald eagle seen circling Ladder Creek Falls area in Newhalem.
  • Nov. 23rd: Highway 20 closes access to Washington Pass due to several slides and heavy snow.
  • Nov. 26th: first snow at the Learning Center (1200 feet).

December

IceandSnow

Iced over roads by Buster Brown field
  • Dec. 2nd: multiple mammal tracks observed in the snow and mud on Diablo East trail: rabbit, possibly mink or fox, and deer.
  • Dec. 5th: almost stepped on a Douglas squirrel frantically running across path by the library at the Learning Center.
  • Dec. 12th: a windstorm and increased risk for landslides in the Skagit gorge caused graduate non-profit class to be dismissed early, and grads headed down valley for winter break.
All photos taken by Chelsea Ernst.
End of Mountain School

Seasons Change: Phenology and the end of Mountain School

November 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The changing seasons are a big deal in the North Cascades. 

This may seem like an obvious statement for an environmental learning center, but one in which I find more truth every day. As a person who spent so many formative years in the Middle East, a place where the changing seasons simply meant a change from “really hot” to “unbearably hot,” living in a place with four distinct, beautiful seasons brings a whole new set of knowledge.

As the new graduate student cohort (C14!), we spent our first few months at the ELC being introduced to this new, diverse ecosystem and the regular cast of characters around here. We learned the differences between fern types, how to tell a Mountain Hemlock apart from a Western Hemlock (it’s hard!), and all the types of ground cover we should try to avoid trampling in our excitement to explore. But we were also introduced to a concept still very much on our minds: phenology.

A quick internet search tells me that the definition of phenology is the study of plant and animal life cycles and how they are influenced by seasonal changes in climate, elevation, as well as changes from year to year. After a glorious late summer, it feels as if we’ve ramped up into phenological hyperdrive.

Sourdough Creek, which has been dry since our arrival at the ELC in late July, suddenly started flowing in late October, and it felt like a rite of passage for C14. Our first experience of the changing tides and our own evolution within this program. The waterfall at the top of the Sourdough Creek Trail which had slowed to a trickle with a dry stream bed over the summer now flows with a deafening roar. Suddenly we understand how avalanches and rock slides happen here. Green, leafy canopies that shaded us from the intense sun during our first grad school meetings gave way to picturesque golden walkways, then to skeletal brown arms that seem to reach for the sky in search of the elusive November sunlight. The pikas we once heard while passing talus slopes on campus have quieted down for the winter. Even Diablo Lake which greeted us in July with shades of turquoise, emerald, and serpentine now matches the color of the sky – a mix of blues and grays.

BusterBrownTrailNov14

Aside from these beautiful, and occasionally stark, phenological changes we’ve witnessed, another major change has taken place: the end of the fall season of Mountain School. Cohort 14 got the sink-or-swim introduction to grad school, moving without rest from a month-long field expedition to a two week fall training at the ELC, and then into six weeks of teaching hands-on science curriculum to over 900 of western Washington’s fifth graders.

Much has been written about Mountain School over the years in Chattermarks, and with good reason. Along with the flora and fauna at the ELC, these energetic 10 and 11 year olds bring such a sense of life and activity to this ecosystem. For six weeks we taught lessons on rocks, the water cycle, and different biotic elements of this area, and found our own lessons changing with the seasons. We marveled right along with our students at the first sight of snow on Pyramid and Colonial Peaks, and then at the lowering snowline or, as I put it, the inescapable advance of winter. Our teaching flow and our choice of group games changed as sunlight waned and temperatures dropped. Hikes to the waterfall became less frequent, often being replaced by indoor lessons accompanied by hot chocolate.

PyramidNov2014

Mountain School ended for the season on November 7th, the same day as the start of the Youth Leadership Conference. While the YLC deserves its own post, I will say that the theme of the conference – reflection and planning ahead – felt like a perfect way to mark the transition into the winter at the ELC. We too, staff and graduate students alike, are reflecting on the past weeks: lessons learned, experience gained, and goals for next season. We are planning for our own hibernation as programming at the ELC slows down and grad students turn our attention to non-profit management and curriculum design.

Very appropriately, just two days after the end of the Youth Leadership Conference and on the second day of the ongoing WildLinks Conference, we saw our first flakes of snow.

We are grateful for an amazing fall season of Mountain School, for the time to reflect and learn (indoors!) for the winter, and excited for the first 2015 session of Mountain School to begin which will, undoubtedly, carry with it a harbinger of spring.

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Red red

October 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Simultaneously crispy and cozy, the first days of autumn belong to the poet.

All the seasons are lovable in their own way, and each claims my favorite when that quarter’s beginning day of solstice or equinox finally spins around. Yet there’s something about fall, its fading light and muted yet still burning colors, that is especially good at invocation. Symbolically, it’s that last call before the witching hour of death—bare branches, brisk, dark, truncated days–the one guarantee we get besides birth, one our modern industrial culture is predictably loath to appreciate. If winter is the cold end, spring the new beginnings, and summer just carefree fun, fall is the reflective calm. Books could be written devoted to the beauty of maple leaves coasting whimsically to the ground, Crayola palettes inspired by the browns and ambers and goldenrods and crimsons of October. Both are probably out there.

A few nights ago, during the first big storm since graduate Cohort 13 arrived at the Environmental Learning Center, a new meaning of the season struck me with a boom. The lightness of falling leaves may be a quintessential image, but what about the heaviness of falling trees?

IMG_5908

Fellow grad, Tyler, and educator extraordinaire Kevin followed the sound of the crash and discovered a red alder lying prone and broken across the Sourdough Creek Trail, not far from campus. Later, out with our first week of Mountain School, we all had to cross a tangle of more alders sacrificed to the storm just past the Fawn Creek Shelter. Though my non-ecological mind immediately sentimentalizes, “Oh, poor trees,” I soon remember this North Cascades forest community is composed of at least as many horizontal, decaying logs as it is healthy standing ones. The cycle is complete: easy to see and obvious to teach.

The inside of the tree, now splinted, is easy to see as well. This is a benefit, as it offers a visual on why this species was named as it is. Red alder, or Alnus rubra, translates to “red red.” According to Pojar and Mackinnon’s trusty Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, ‘Alder’ seems to be a variation of Old English or Old High German words for ‘reddish-yellow;’ ‘rubra’ is red in Latin. Redundant or emphatic? It matters little, for now I have in situ evidence when I tell students the bark is used to make a red or orange dye. My other favorite regional field guide, Daniel Mathews’ Cascades-Olympic Natural History, says the Salish have techniques to boil, chew, or urinate on cut bark to make and fix the color. This potent bark is also medicinal, used against tuberculosis and as an anti-biotic wash for skin wounds. The wood is reputed for being among the best for smoking salmon.

It is hard to ascertain this vermillion-ness from the standing trees, though, for on the surface their trunk is a mottled combination of white and grey, and moss. The trees’ thin layer of outer bark is greyish-brown, and the patchy effect is from the white crustose lichens using the alder as a reliable host. These lichens are also easy to check out, eye to apothecia, when having to negotiate the fallen trunks. Nature explodes in details.

IMG_5905The sage green is a foliose lichen (think, “foliage” aka “like a leaf”), and the white is the crustose lichen (think, “like a crust”) that forms the patchy texture of red alder bark. Notice the apothecia, the tiny circular reproductive structures of the fungal partner of the lichen. Photo by author.

It really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise that the species causing the midnight raucous was red alder. They grow fast and aggressively, but they die young, considered an old tree at 50 years. In their short time, though, they offer an invaluable natural service, partnering up with bacteria that live on their roots and “fix” atmospheric nitrogen that is normally unavailable to plants. In many ecosystems, including the Pacific Northwest, nitrogen is one of the biggest factors limiting plant growth. Not only do the bacteria thus provide some nitrogen for the soil and the host alder, but the alder leaf litter is nitrogen-rich, fertilizing the forest floor and preparing the system for later successional species, such as Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock, as it decomposes.

The Red red tree: a pioneer, a friend of the lichen and bacteria, an important plant resource for human cultures. And for the poets among the alders, stepping over all this on the trail, another pleasant reminder of a favorite season.

Leading photo: A bigleaf maple leaf (Acer macrophyllum) rests in the fresh break of a fallen red alder. Photo by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is currently one of two editors of Chattermarks. Until March 21, autumn is usually her preferred seasoning.