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Winter Birds of the North Cascades

February 1st, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Here in the northern reaches of one of the Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets most rugged and remote mountain ranges in the continental US, winter has brought traditional snows and a quite cool December. For many, winter in these mountains means cold rain, snow, and brief glimpses of sun. The landscape for the most part is asleep, resting under snow waiting patiently for the return of the sun and the life of its warmth. Not all are asleep and if you know who to look for, the forest and rivers are busy with our winter friends.

Birds are amazing creatures and even in these remote snowy mountains, glimpses of them can be seen on a daily basis. Winter is a time of scarcity but for the birds who can eke out a living here, the competition is low.  

Members of the finch family, common throughout northern North American, are regularly found here during both winter and summer. Two species that I have seen throughout the winter are the Pine Siskin Spinus pinus and the bright showy Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra. Both birds are exclusively seed eaters. The crossbills have highly adapted bills that cross over themselves and are used to pry open conifer cones, as their tongue then reaches in and grabs the seed.  Pine siskin have thin strong bills for prying into small cones such as hemlock and for extracting the small seeds of birches and alders. These two species are some of the stars here during the winter and can be noticed quite easily due to their highly vocal flocking habits.

A male red crossbill. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Pine siskin. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

» Continue reading Winter Birds of the North Cascades

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Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

June 2nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

All photography courtesy of Adam Bates, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Youth have a unique skill in creating adventures out of anything. So even though I had been to tree planting on Cornet Bay and the Migratory Bird Festival with the Kulshan Creek Neighborhood Program, both large and expansive day trips, our last trip to Rasar State Park felt no less adventurous!

The day started off wet. That might seem ubiquitous living in western Washington but we had been without rain for two full weeks at this point. The rain was a welcome change from weeks of dry, hot, sunny days.

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Observing snails and slugs.

» Continue reading Soaked with Knowledge: Kulshan Creek at Rasar State Park

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Snapshots of Paddling on the Skagit

February 11th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

While the Broncos and the Panthers were playing the biggest football game of the year, almost two dozen of us living in the upper Skagit valley traveled down the Skagit River. In our “paddling crew” included members from the Institute’s 14th and 15th graduate cohorts, North Cascades Institute Staff and students in the Remote Medical International class living at the Environmental Learning Center for a month or so. Here are a few of the best “snapshots” of our adventure down the Skagit from Marblemount to Rockport.

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Making sure everything we wear is waterproof before hitting the water.

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Our canoes ready for launch!

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Echoes from the Dam

January 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Imagine yourself standing atop of Diablo Dam in the early morning of a crisp, winter day. Behind you five ravens are circling near a patch of trees lining Diablo Lake. One of the Seattle City Light boats speeds on in the distance quickly becoming quieter and softer. As you open your mouth to let the cool mountain air fill your lungs time seems to slow. When you finally expel the air out you hear this:

Mountain Call

Earlier last week Hannah Newell and I, both students at the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate Program, went atop of Diablo Dam to study how sounds move throughout our mountain corridor. The valley that the Skagit river made over thousands of years is very drastic in our neck of the woods. Toward the mouth of the river the Skagit is met by mostly flat land. As you venture towards the headwaters the surrounding slopes become more and more drastic with hundreds of feet of elevation difference over a very short distance.

Diablo Dam Echoes

Skagit River Valley at Diablo Dam. Photo courtesy of Google Earth.

This topography makes for extreme echoes when done in the correct spots. Diablo Dam provides the perfect height and distance from each side so that when the sound moves down valley it has the most room to exist. After experimenting at different spots on and around Diablo Lake, I found the middle outcrop of the dam was the perfect spot for echo calling.

» Continue reading Echoes from the Dam

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Transition Trek 2015: At the Confluence of the Graduate Residency and Campus Programs

November 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Adventures

For the North Cascades Institute’s 14th cohort of Graduate M.Ed. students, it was a year marked with adventure, struggle, triumph and togetherness.

Our cohort is a very tight-knit, close community where we all share our various skills and talents with one another to make for a more comfortable and enjoyable living arrangement, and family for that matter. From Petra’s primitive skills to Kelly’s crafting projects and to Kevin’s rock climbing, we each bring something special to the group, sharing our lives, talents, hopes, dreams and abilities with one another to improve and enhance each other’s lives and to make the world a better place.

After a year of living in the North Cascades — a year that saw “fire and rain and sunny days that we thought would never end,” to quote James Taylor — it was time for our cohort to transition to the second year of the program at Huxley College of the Environment on the Western Washington University campus. (After a cohort does the residency program at the North Cascades Institutes’ Environmental Learning Center for a year, they “trek” down to Bellingham to finish the degree.) It seemed only fitting that leave our homes in the mountain for the city of Bellingham by traveling the river that connected us from the Environmental Learning Center to our new home on the Salish Sea: the mighty Skagit River. We realized that eventually our time at the Environmental Learning Center and campus portion in Bellingham would merge into one, and a river runs to it.

» Continue reading Transition Trek 2015: At the Confluence of the Graduate Residency and Campus Programs

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The Skagit River Permanent Restoration Project

April 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Whoa! Wha….?!

Sometimes one’s path is rerouted as they are traveling upon it.

Or so it can seem. It was early January, and we graduate students had recently returned to the Environmental Learning Center from a month away at various winter vacation destinations. We were crammed into a North Cascades Institute mini-van, traveling west on Highway 20 to our organization’s down valley headquarters at Sedro-Woolley. Suddenly, just east of Rockport near milepost 100, the road turned beneath our tires. Instead of rolling past the front of the Cascadian Farms stand at 45mph, we realized we were driving behind it. We checked to make sure we were still on the asphalt, hadn’t off-roaded into neatly planted rows of now leafless berry vines. The two Cascadian Farms structures with the whimsically sweeping roof lines were still there, but we had been re-routed for a different perspective. The whole carload of us did a double-take: Had we all collectively gone mad?

Nope. Rather, we were in the midst of a Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) project to repair the Skagit River shoreline. Oh.

The “Skagit River Permanent Restoration Project” is a $10.2 million effort to attempt to permanently remediate the unstable river bank, an issue the state categorizes as a “Chronic Environmental Deficiency”. During five previous years – 1993, 1994, 2004, 2006 and 2007 – emergency rock buffers were installed temporarily as a quick fix. But WSDOT seeks a long-term solution to this problem of massive erosion, and they have a plan.

» Continue reading The Skagit River Permanent Restoration Project

An Upriver Life: The Skagit Beyond Highway 20

December 17th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The North Cascades are full of secrets. One must have a specific intention to discover the scenic treasures of the peaks, and that intention is usually accompanied by a backpack, several days of supplies, strong legs, and fortitude. Some treasures are only available for viewing from one particular point, on one obscure trail, after one has hauled body and gear up several thousand vertical feet. Although the drive along the highway is loaded with landscapes that suspend the breath and inspire the imagination, those who choose to linger a while and explore will reap the greater reward.

The same highway twists through dwellings that serve as no more than mile markers to most travelers. A few sporadic gas stations and convenience stores denote the entry to and exit from places that would be missed if one sneezed or got a bit of dust in one’s eye. However, these places that line the highway to the North Cascades hold their own magical secrets. Just as travelers are rewarded for finding their way beyond the sole strip of bitumen through this wild and scenic space, so do delights await those who choose a side road, and saunter rather than a sprint through the surprising upper Skagit River Valley.

Concrete, Washington

Like many, I had mentally reduced the small town of Concrete to what was visible from the highway: a small market, a few gas stations, a speed limit not to be tested by risk-taking passers through. The town’s name did not inspire exploration. My assumptions were tested at a meeting of the Upriver Poets (a story for another time) when I was told that there was a remarkably good, entirely gluten-free bakery hidden on the town’s main street.

An adorned lamp post in downtown Concrete, WA

Time Warp: An adorned lamp post in downtown Concrete, WA with Sauk Mountain in the background. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

One sunny Sunday, I drove to discover this aberration. I turned right off the highway and left onto Main, and stopped dead in the middle of the street with my brow furrowed and my head cocked to one side. Street lamps were adorned with wreath and garland, Christmas lights draped every fanciful store front, and people were walking around in Dickens-era frocks complete with top hats, tails, and petticoats. I peered into the rear view mirror to check for any obvious signs of temporal disturbance, and seeing none, I continued down the whimsical lane. I soon discovered that it was the exact day of the annual Christmas parade, wherein townsfolk dressed in period costumes and a variety of events filled the day with fellowship, entertainment, and Christmas Spirit. It was incredibly pleasant to discover two things: the lovely little downtown filled with cheer, and that I had not passed through a quantum anomaly (although that might have been really cool).

Upon arrival at the 5b’s Bakery, I was again taken aback. The bakery was a beautiful open space filled with natural light and delightful aromas. The pastry cases, counters, and freezers were bursting with tempting treats of every variety. To the left there was a full espresso bar and soda fountain that provided coffee drinks, milkshakes, and old fashioned sodas to complement any baked good.

5b’s was started by the Beals family: Em, Walter, Lizzie, Bowen, and Tavish. Em Beals was diagnosed with celiac sprue disease 18 years ago. Her twin sons, Bowen and Tavish were diagnosed when they were four years old. Em’s mission for the 5b’s was simple: to make delicious food to satisfy every craving while being dedicated to a 100% gluten-free facility with no risk of cross-contamination. She makes sure that people who live with celiac disease still get pizza, cookies, and birthday cake. The bakery also serves lunch specials including soup and sandwiches. I partook in a tasty soy latte and a scrumptious pumpkin cookie.

Em Beals, part of the family that runs the 5b's Bakery

Mama Bee: Em Beals, part of the family that runs the 5b’s Bakery. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The 5b's bakery features a wide variety of all gluten-free treats

Good and Gluten-Free: The 5b’s bakery features a wide variety of all gluten-free treats. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The staff of the 5b's Bakery whip up coffee drinks and lunch for patrons

Busy Bees: The staff of the 5b’s Bakery whip up coffee drinks and lunch for patrons. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Shortly thereafter, I learned of a Celtic Christmas concert being held at the Concrete Theater. In 2012, the community rallied around the historic theater, and raised over $53,000 from individual donors and grants to obtain a digital projection system with 3D capability. In addition to delivering first-run major motion pictures for the community, the theater also serves as a venue for live performance and fitness classes.

The theater was warm and inviting inside with a myriad of concessions for the theater goer. The performer was Geoffrey Castle, who plays an electric violin with flair and talent. He brought with him his entire five-person band plus special guests Beth Quist of Cirque du Soleil and Don the Bagpiper. Even Santa Claus made an appearance, and rightfully so, because that show rocked. Castle is an exceptional performer and is accustomed to considerably larger venues and crowds, but he played with enthusiasm and often left the stage to walk up the aisle and interact with audience members.

The Concrete Theater in Concrete, WA

The Concrete Theater in Concrete, WA. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Valarie Stafford and her staff welcome concert-goers at the Concrete Theater

Valarie Stafford and her staff welcome concert-goers at the Concrete Theater. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Geoffrey Castle and his band perform at the Concrete Theater

Geoffrey Castle and his band perform at the Concrete Theater. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The concert truly felt like a community affair, with friendly greetings amongst audience members prior to the performance. Valerie Stafford is the theater’s owner, “The community has been absolutely amazing at supporting the theater. They attend our movies regularly and take part in lots of our other events. I also use the facility for Encore Fitness, and have a great following of fitness fanatics at my classes.”

Rockport, Washington

Head nine miles east of Concrete and slow down, or you might miss this place where the Skagit River runs wide and the eagles come in droves each winter to pluck plump salmon from the pristine waters. Howard Miler/Steelhead Park provides river access and wildlife interpretive trails with views of the sublime Eldorado Peak and its giant glacier to the East.

Just south of Highway 20 is Blue Heron Farm and Nursery. This local staple has been around since 1979 and has provided farm fresh fruit, vegetables, bamboo, and plants to the community. The farm is also home to National Park Service ranger-extraordinaire, Mike Brondi. Above the barn, Mike built an extraordinary space for Tai Kwon Do, meditation, and Yoga. Classes are provided by local instructors by donation, and the space has been well appointed with mats, blankets, blocks, and meditation cushions as a result of the generosity of participants. The intention behind the space was to provide a venue for spiritual practice and recreation that was not cost prohibitive. Truly a community space, the Rockport Yoga Studio is for and by the people of the upper Skagit.

The well-appointed Rockport Yoga Studio

Plenty for All: The well-appointed Rockport Yoga Studio. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

The Rockport Yoga Studio provides Tai Kwon Do, Meditation, and Yoga classes by donation

The Rockport Yoga Studio provides Tai Kwon Do, Meditation, and Yoga classes by donation. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

A singing bowl at the Rockport Yoga Studio

A singing bowl at the Rockport Yoga Studio. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Marblemount, WA

Hidden a mile or so up a gravel road along Diobsud Creek you will find Marblemount Homestead. There, Corina and Steve Sahlin raise their three children on five acres of farm and forest land. Corina was born and raised in southern Germany where she learned the art of cheese making from the ubiquitous artesian cheese makers in her homeland. As a child, Steve spent ten years in primitive Papua New Guinea where his parents served as missionaries. The simplicity and happiness of the people of Papua New Guinea inspired Steve. He became passionate about wilderness and tool crafting, and brought that passion to the upper Skagit where he teaches bow-making and wilderness survival classes. Corina raises goats and teaches classes in cheese making and goat husbandry. She makes and sells goat milk soaps and hand knits and felts beautiful hats, scarves, and other garments which she sells on her Etsy webpage.

Corina Sahlin and her daughter, Eva milking their goat

Having a Goat Time: Corina Sahlin and her daughter, Eva milking their goat. Photo by Corina Sahlin

From left: Kai, Eva, Corina, Lukas, and Steve Sahlin

A Homestead Family: From left: Kai, Eva, Corina, Lukas, and Steve Sahlin. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Steve Sahlin displays a bow  and arrow he crafted. Sahlin teaches bow-making classes at his home

Survival Skills: Steve Sahlin displays a bow and arrow he crafted. Sahlin teaches bow-making classes at his home. Photo by Corina Sahlin

A selection of hand-felted hats made by Corina Sahlin

Colorful Toppings: A selection of hand-felted hats made by Corina Sahlin. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Steve and Corina believe strongly in the power of community and they feel fortunate to have found a close community in their neighbors. When their oldest boy, Kai, wanted to learn to play the fiddle, Corina was supportive, but skeptical as to where a teacher could be found and considered the challenge of commuting long distances for lessons. When her neighbors learned of Kai’s interest, one gifted the boy with a fiddle, and another has provided lessons while refusing any kind of compensation. Last year, community members came together to create the Marblemount Community Market where local crafters, including Corina, offer their wares and musicians provide entertainment at the Marblemount Community Hall. Steve and Corina believe that strong community bonds and relationships happen organically, and that they cannot be forced. They have happily made Marblemount their home for nine years.

Road’s End

When I first arrived in Diablo as a North Cascades Institute graduate student this past September, I felt overwhelmed by what appeared to be a remote and isolated place. I had left behind irreplaceable friends and a rich community in Eugene, Oregon. However, when I took the time to linger a while, and when I made the commitment to stay for my winter break and seek out the community I hoped was here, I was blessed to find an abundance of creativity, warmth, and connection hidden just beyond the highway.

Lead Photo: The Skagit River from Howard Miller/Steelhead County Park. Photo by Elissa Kobrin

Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.