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Chasing Winter: A Natural History Retreat

February 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

One of the highlights of this my time in this graduate program so far (seven months!) has been our seasonal natural history retreats. In the fall, Cohort 14 went over to the Methow Valley, which is quickly becoming our favorite place, and spent a week camping outside of Winthrop. We hiked, explored, skinned deer at the start of hunting season with Katie Russell, learned about the Methow Beaver Project, and counted migratory raptors with Kent Woodruff of the Chelan Ridge Raptor Migration Project, part of Hawkwatch International.

From February 2nd through the 6th (or 8th, for some of us), we tucked ourselves away in the woods near Early Winters Campground in Mazama, WA, and ventured into the snow each day to learn new skills and enjoy one of the few places in the state where winter seemed to be in full swing.


Most of us don’t arrive until the evening. How cruel of a joke it seems to be that we drive for eight hours from Diablo… only to end up just 50 miles away from the Environmental Learning Center. We rejoiced, however, when we crossed Stevens Pass and saw snow for the first time in weeks. It gave us a taste of the winter wonderland that awaited us in the Methow Valley. But our restless legs were soothed by the sight of fat, fluffy snowflakes falling on a silent stretch of Highway 20 once we traveled west out of Twisp. The whole van fell silent: mesmerized by the calm.

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White Peaks, Bluebird Skies, Flapping Wingbeats

February 27th, 2012 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

As graduate students spending a year at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, winter is a contemplative and focused time – a time of respite from teaching Mountain School programs to work on group projects for our nonprofit and curriculum classes. This work, along with an in-depth research project on a Natural History topic of our choosing, comprises the bulk of our academic studies.

This kind of project-based learning allows for us to structure our studies around time spend outside naturalizing and exploring the winter world of the Cascades. A canoe paddle on Diablo Lake breaks up hours of writing and research while giving us a chance to feel inspired by icicles clinging to rocky cliff ledges near Thunder Knob. A hike up to Buster Brown Field allows us to the breath in the deep, crisp air while listening for golden-crowned kinglets that have just returned from their winter migrations. Feeling reenergized, we are able to focus again on the work at hand.

As much as we cherish these opportunities to explore the natural world just outside our doorsteps, sometimes we need time away in different places altogether where new adventures, learning, and inspiration can occur. Cohort 11 recently returned from just such an adventure: A three-day Winter Graduate Retreat at Mount Rainier National Park and the Skagit Flats.

A red fox curled up in the snow. Above, the moon rising in an alpine glow sky at Mount Rainier. Photo by Jess Newley.

We began the retreat with bluebird skies and a four-hour car ride that landed us at the base of Mount Rainier. Many of us were so eager to begin our adventure at the Park that we drove straight up to Paradise Meadows on the southwest face of the mountain at 5,400 ft. After orienting ourselves to the winter ecology, glaciology, and geologic history of the Park at the Visitor’s Center, graduate students dispersed to explore this singular volcano in the Cascades Range. In just a few short minutes of hiking around, a number of us turned to see a red fox sauntering along the trail beside us. We gasped, looking around in wonder as a second fox, this one a silver morph of the first, came quietly behind it. Both had their noses to the ground, and neither seemed to be paying us, or their proximity to the parking lot of Paradise, any mind. These habituated foxes were simply out for a dusk perusal of their territory and feeding grounds. Having never seen a fox at such close distance myself, I was delighted. We watched them for a time, following their trails into the trees. Looking up, we spotted a porcupine in a subalpine fir above our heads munching on needle buds and dropping pellets onto the snow. An hour at the Park and already the wildlife count was up! Our first day ended with a stunning sunset and alpine glow across the wintery beauty of Mount Rainier.

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A Snowy Exchange with Environmental Educators

February 1st, 2012 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

“We need someone to plan the second portion of our three part Instructor Exchange with the graduate students and teaching apprentices from IslandWood and Wilderness Awareness School immediately after winter break.”

 Um, okay.

In less than two months, three novice event planners would host a group of 60 environmental educators at their secluded home in the mountains. What now? Dreams and plans, of course!

This meeting of the minds happened January 14th – 16th at the Environmental Learning Center tucked up in the splendor of the North Cascades National Park. We are lucky to have a landscape here along Diablo Lake that is quite beautiful and unique – our own special place we call home and love to share with others. This was the driving undercurrent behind what we hoped our weekend would be together.

Some friends from IslandWood and Wilderness Awareness School exchange exclamations during a breakout session. Photo by Jess Newley.

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New Tracks at the Environmental Learning Center: Winter Mountain School

January 18th, 2012 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Middle school students from Lopez Middle School sit excitedly on the wooden benches of the amphitheater for Mountain School orientation. Mittens and gloves fly into the air with eager answers when students are asked what they have seen driving in the school bus up-valley that morning – waterfalls, mountains, more waterfalls. Orientation continues, skits about respecting nature and each other ensue, and somewhere out of what was once a stunningly blue winter sky that morning, snow begins to fall. Cheers roar, and observations of fallen flakes on coat jackets begin. It is January, and Mountain School is in session.

January 9, 2012 marked the opening of a new Mountain School season – the first winter sessions ever at the Environmental Learning Center campus. Lopez Middle School and Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute joined staff and graduate students for four days of exploring winter ecology, looking for animals signs, tracking twigs, and playing in our mountain snow.

Students from Lopez had one thing on their minds when they drove across Diablo Dam: snow. Coming from the San Juan Islands where snow is rare, promises of snow covered peaks and sledding opportunities had students eager to be outside. Lopez students participated in the classic Ecosystems Explorations curriculum with a seasonal twist.

Lopez Middle School students explore trails at the Environmental Learning Center with graduate student Alex Patia. Photo by Jessica Newley.

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