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Hey Bud

May 23rd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

You know when you’re waiting and waiting for your meal to be served at a restaurant so you finally get up to go to the restroom, knowing your hot plate of deliciousness will likely have been brought to the table when you come back three minutes later?

I recently pulled that trick, only with my ecosystem.

Having persevered through a winter of twigs and more twigs, the promise enclosed in leaf and flower buds has been an exciting tease for the past month or so, little green gifts wrapped up tight, tender morsels for herbivorous deer and my appreciative eyes alike. But, save for Ribes, most were taking forever to crack, much less unfurl wantonly in their photosynthetic glory. So I left for ten days of spring break at the end of April, confident that the forest from which I drove away would look nothing like the lush kingdom to which I’d return.

It worked! At this point, I can’t even hope to keep up with the explosive profusion of photosynthetic beauty, and this is just fine. Here’s a sampling of new growth in full force all over the Environmental Learning Center campus:

IMG_8040Vine maple (Acer circinatum) buds. Note the bright, licorice-red branches. These will turn green over time, an adaptation allowing the understory tree species to photosynthesize to its maximum potential even in low-light conditions or in the winter after it’s lost its leaves. Young green branches are flexible, and are used in making items such as snowshoe frames and drum hoops.
vine maple buds k. renzStill crumpled like damp, newly-born birds’ wings, fresh vine maple leaves frame dangling flower buds, all covered in fine, shimmering hairs.
vine maple flowers k. renzVine maple leaves, seven-to-nine-pointed peridot stars catching sunlight in the mid-canopy. The half-inch wide flowers will, if successfully fertilized, develop into winged fruits called samaras, commonly know as “helicopter seeds.”
IMG_8149There are a few black swamp gooseberry (Ribes lacustre) scattered around the wetter parts of campus. These small shrubs were propagated by the National Park Service from seeds gathered just yards away near Deer Creek and were planted as part of a successful restoration effort after the Environmental Learning Center was built in 2005. The detailed flowers are only about one-quarter inch big, and you can see the bulge at the base of the petals where the hairy fruit, purportedly very juicy and tart, will eventually form.
fresh mahonia k. renzOregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium): This year’s recently emerged, pliable, scarlet-tinged new growth on the left contrasts with the tough, leathery leaves from last year on the right.
alder buds k. renzRed alder (Alnus rubra) buds form on the young saplings that are growing at the edge of almost every road or significant path at the Environmental Learning Center. Why the profusion? Alder trees love disturbed sites, and are some of the first “pioneer” species that come into an ecosystem after land has been cleared. Since the buildings are less than a year old, this species is thriving.
4 beetles k. renz Beetle-mania! Iridescent cyan insects congregate on an alder leaf, munching away on the new growth. Several of the leaves in this grove between the parking lot and the office were the site of such six-legged shenanigans.
devil's club budRecognize these spines? New growth of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus), an exceptionally important plant to indigenous tribes along the Pacific Northwest coast. This species can be used for everything from perfume and deodorant (pulverized bark) to treating lice (berries) and rheumatism (roots and stems). A Mountain School student from the Swinomish tribe in La Conner said his mom makes paint from this versatile plant.
devil's club leaves k. renzPhyto-palms stretched upward toward the light, the devil’s club buds have burst into leaves that will eventually grow up to over a foot across. Mention of another local use for this plant was gleaned from John Suiter’s book, Poets on the Peaks (Counterpoint, 2002): To flog accused communists in the Skagit Valley during the Red Scare of the 1930s.
salal bud k. renzThe  tough, oval leaves of the ubiquitous salal (Gautheria shallon) frame the soft, blushy red buds that will later develop into smaller stems.
fiddlehead k. renz
Leading photo: Only three inches above the mossy floor, two gracefully coiled fiddleheads of lady ferns appear to confer: To grow or not to grow? (Apologies for the pterido-pomorphizing….)


All photos by author.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She readily admits she has a problem, an addiction to snapping photos of all things botanical, a pathological attraction to leafy supermodels.




diablo lake

Saying goodbye…for now

August 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Today is my last day of living at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center—my home since the spring of 2010 when I started working for North Cascades Institute as a Seasonal Naturalist. It’s also my last day as Chattermarks Editor, a post I’ve held since last September. Two big changes, and I’m not very good with change. I’m working on it. I know that the only constant in life is change, and I’ve become pretty comfortable with spontaneity over my past three years of teaching fifth graders in the woods. But bigger life changes are different from changing a teaching plan or trying to rein in unruly students. A year ago, when I wrote my first Chattermarks post as Editor, I knew this change was coming. I knew that eventually my year of living here as a graduate student would end and I would have to move back to Bellingham. But it’s still bittersweet.

playing musicLindsay and Nick playing music on my front porch, fall 2012. Photo by the author

Over this year I’ve grown as a student, a writer, a naturalist, a teacher…and so many other things. I saw my first-ever chainsaw carving competition. I’ve backpacked almost 50 miles in eight days with eight other people. I submerged myself in the ice cold glacial waters of Diablo Lake on my birthday—in January! I’ve seen a baby bobcat, heard barred owls nightly and pileated woodpeckers daily, and been woken up by thunderstorms so intense I thought the sky might actually fall on me. I spent two months on crutches. I wrote a children’s book about a science fairy who travels through space and time and I’ve journaled my way through three moleskin notebooks. I have shared more of myself with my cohort than I probably have with any other group of people.

chainsaw carvingChainsaw carving at the Sedro-Woolley Fourth of July celebration! Photo by Liza Dadiomov

» Continue reading Saying goodbye…for now

pyramid through trees

Seasonal transitions for a graduate student

June 21st, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Right now the Learning Center is transitioning from spring into summer, though the weather might not always show it. All of the graduate students in cohort 12, as well as interns, seasonal, and full time staff, are cleaning up from Mountain School and getting ready for Family programs, Adult seminars, and adventures in the backcountry with high school and college age students.

For me, it means floating between the Youth Leadership and Learning Center summer trainings, working to develop lesson plans, and creating workshops to facilitate with the incoming cohort of graduate students who have their first class next week. Officially, my position this summer (or, my “summer leadership track”) is Graduate Program Facilitator & Youth Leadership Adventures Support Graduate Assistant—which is a fancy way of saying that I’m helping out with the Youth Leadership program and working with the new grads.

It’s all really exciting and I’m looking forward to my unique summer leadership experience.

I’m especially excited to work with the incoming cohort. I like to reflect. I do it a lot—in my journal, by myself, with other people. Through this position, I get to watch another group of people go through most of the same experiences I went through last summer when I first started this program. I get to see them start out as 11 strangers and become a community. Just think about how much reflection that will enable me to do!

The role of Graduate Program Facilitator, or Community Facilitator, was developed last summer by one of the previous students who wanted to create more of a connection between the two cohorts. We overlap for about nine months so there’s actually quite a bit of time to form friendships, mentorships, hiking buddies, etc. But in the past that hadn’t really happened on a cohort-wide level. This last year, however, that changed. I think my cohort would say that we know our most recent predecessors pretty well. I hope I can help facilitate that same feeling with the next one.

Leading photo: Pyramid Peak, through a canopy of Douglas fir trees. Photo by the author


Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.




Backyard bird sightings

June 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

“There’s a bird outside the window,” I said. “I think it’s a Spotted Towhee.” I turned to look at my dad who was cooking at the stove. “Is that the right name for them…? I can’t remember if that’s the new name or the old name…”

“A Spotted Towhee?!” My dad sounded excited. He dropped the wooden spoon onto the counter and quickly walked over to look out the window over the sink. “Wow,” he said, “and look! There’s a baby!”

There was indeed a baby—fluffy, slightly disheveled, and not as distinctly colored as its parent.

“Look—it can’t fly yet,” my dad went on. I looked. It was hopping around on the lattice archway. The parent bird flew back and forth between the lattice and a nearby tree, but the baby stayed put, hopping, a couple of times nearly falling through the square holes.

baby towhee behind leavesTry as I might, I couldn’t really capture the baby Towhee on film. Everywhere it hopped, there was always lattice or leaves in the way. Photo by Ryan Weisberg
Spotted Towhee babyThis is what they look like without lattice and leaves in the way… (photo courtesy of Google images)

My confusion over old names and new names happens a lot with birds. The Spotted Towhee was formerly known as the Rufous-sided Towhee, before it was discovered to be a different species than the Eastern Towhee. Now both birds have different names. The same thing happened with one of my favorites, the Winter Wren, which now refers to the Eastern species, while Pacific Wren is our Western species of the little brown bird.

Though I do enjoy the company of small birds with beautiful songs, I can only identify six of the small-to-medium-sized variety of birds by sight, five of which I also know by ear. I would say that I’m working on this, but that would be only half true. I seem to enjoy learning about birds when I’m able to just pick up little bits of information. If I sit down and try to study it, I lose interest. Not so for plants, but for some reason this is how it is for me with birds. I guess the birder inside me is still a work in progress…

Leading photo: Adult Spotted Towhee. (courtesy of Google images)


Ryan Weisberg is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Ryan grew up here in Washington, exploring the natural areas around Bellingham and in the Cascades. Ryan is the Chattermarks editor this year during their residency at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.



Diablo Lake overlook, North Cascades Highway

The inside scoop on group rentals

May 26th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

So, what are Group Rentals?

Great question! In a nutshell, it’s a unique program that gives you the opportunity to create your own custom event at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.

If you’re in search of a venue to host your next business conference, board retreat, wedding or most any other kind of gathering, the Learning Center is the perfect location. Our sustainable, Silver-LEED certified Learning Center is more than simply a place. It’s a retreat inside a national park, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, old-growth forests, glacial lakes, and a stunning display of biodiversity

learning center at night


» Continue reading The inside scoop on group rentals

geneva stewardship 1

What does stewardship look like?

May 16th, 2013 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

At Mountain School, we try to teach our students how to be stewards of the earth. When we visit the students at their school a few weeks after they came to Mountain School, we try to get them to make connections between the environment out here in the mountains and the environments closer to their home and their school. At some of these post-trip visits the students participate in stewardship activities at parks near their school. We wrote about this back in 2011 when we first began facilitating these stewardship events.

Here are some shots from the Sunnyland Elementary stewardship event at Memorial park in Bellingham. The students, their teachers, and Institute staff removed blackberry, mulched and planted red-osier dogwood and Sitka spruce. They also got VERY muddy!

sunnyland stew 1


» Continue reading What does stewardship look like?

bird fest 1

Fourth Annual Migratory Bird Festival at Whidbey Island

May 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Saturday, April 27th marked the fourth annual Migratory Bird Festival, a day that brought together 113 people of all ages at Fort Casey State Park on Whidbey Island. This celebration of spring and migrating birds was hosted by North Cascades Institute, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the International District Housing Alliance, and the Mount Vernon Police Department. Despite overcast weather, the day turned out to be a huge success filled with games, exploration, and learning about the cultural and natural history of the area.

bird fest 2Youth Leadership Adventure students joined the International District group for a fun game about migration

One group consisted of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Filipino elders from the International District in Seattle accompanied by youth who assisted by translating what was being said. The second group was Kulshan Creek, a group of enthusiastic kids from Mount Vernon who are primarily Hispanic and range from age 8-16 years old. The third group included high school students who will participate in North Cascades Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures this summer.

bird fest 3The group circles up to learn about migratory birds in the Pacific Northwest

» Continue reading Fourth Annual Migratory Bird Festival at Whidbey Island