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Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata): A story…

July 18th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Ginna Malley Campos, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Long, long ago, when ice and snow covered the land as far as the eye could see, we speckled the landscape. Only a few of us grew here and there.  But soon came a time when the ice  and snow began to retreat. And as it did, ever so slowly, so we followed. Growing along the rich wet soils left behind, we became more and more abundant along the Pacific Northwest.  In some places, we made up to half of all the vegetation in the forest. We grew and we continue to grow, but of course never without giving back!

We gift our sapwood to Black Bear when they roam the forest hungry, waiting for Salmon to arrive. Our saplings we gladly offer to Deer and Elk, whom depend on this for survival.  Our foliage has been home to numerous mosses and lichen. Our shade provides habitat for fern, salal, and devil’s club. We give Earth carbon from Sky by befriending special fungi through our roots.  Forest creatures gift us in return in many, sometimes invisible ways. Salmon travels unimaginable distances bringing the gifts of Ocean deep into the forest.  Bear and Eagle bring their decaying bodies to our feet, and with them we grow stronger and we continue the cycling of all.


Deep Forest by Ray Troll

» Continue reading Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata): A story…


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


A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

June 30th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

Come every fall, winter and spring quarter, the graduate students in residency at the Environmental Learning Center leave for a long weekend dubbed the “Natural History Retreat.” It is a chance to explore a novel, neighboring ecosystem beyond the North Cascades we teach about and love on a daily basis. Last autumn, in the midst of a government shutdown, we quickly cavorted to the Methow Valley; in winter, we slept, to the extent we were able, in hard-earned snow shelters on Mt. Rainier’s Paradise. This mid-June, we headed for the one Washington national park we had yet to discover: Olympic.

But backup for a sec. Before it seems grad school is all fun ‘n’ games, it’s essential to clarify that the term “retreat” is a bit of a misnomer. Try “concentrated, highly efficient learning experience” instead. There were no hot tubs nor Swedish massages. Rather, like wolverines — those elusive weasels capable of covering six miles per hour whether traversing rivers, flatlands, or the steepest vertical relief — we were on a mission to cover as much territory in as little an amount of time as possible. In three days, we traveled from the Environmental Learning Center to Port Townsend, and eventually to the Hoh Rainforest, pit-stopping along the way to engage in multiple natural and cultural activities.

wooden boats pt townsend K. RenzInside Port Townsend’s Northwest Maritime Center. Smells so good, like wood and varnish and salt. Photo by author.

After a four-hour long end-of-season Mountain School debrief, we zoomed to sea level to catch the ferry out of Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Before we knew it, we were attired in orange dry suits and talking like pirates on a long boat in Port Townsend. We sailed and rowed around Port Townsend Bay, captained by Kelley Watson, former commercial salmon fisherman and organizer of the Girls Boat Project, and assisted by Chandlery Associate Alicia Dominguez. The quick trip was a success, and our tiny craft failed to collide with the giant ferries or picturesque sailboats in the midst of their weekly Friday night race. A graduate student in education herself, Watson told us Port Townsend had recently passed the “Maritime Discovery School Initiative.” As part of the community’s commitment to place-based education, all students would get a first-hand exposure to the maritime trades. Our collective graduate cohort eyebrows raised in unison as we heave-hoed through the salty sea: Jobs?

wooden boats III pt townsend K. RenzDown from the mountains, on the sea: From L to R: Katie Komorowski, Sarah Stephens, Elissa Kobrin, Samantha Hale, Joshua Porter, and Alicia Dominguez. Photo by author.

» Continue reading A Trip to the Olympic Peninsula

lichen close up Katherine

A-Hunting for the Details

January 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Today I went on a hike looking for wildflowers. I failed, miserably. But this was accounted for in the strategic plan, a given before I’d even cinched my shoelaces or threw on a daypack.

You see, it’s the middle of winter in the North Cascades. What else would one expect? But as an amateur naturalist with a penchant for all things botanical, the landscape can be a little — dare I say it? — boring. Emerald is pretty, and serves a photosynthetic purpose, and brown ground holds the nutrients to support the whole thing. But recollections of the summer’s subalpine petal-rainbow are haunting. Perhaps this admits a shallowness on my part, a doltish attraction to the obvious, a stubborn attachment to the reproductive parts and advertising wiles of plants, commonly known as flowers.

monkshood with bee KatherineMonkshood (Aconitum spp) and pollinator engaged in nature’s busy dance as seen on the Rainbow Lake Trail last August. This genus contains some of the most poisonous plants known to humans, containing an alkaloid that paralyzes the nerves and can fatally lower body and blood temperatures.

Last season was hardly so harsh: the fall brought mushrooms, which, though of a different kingdom, were close enough. But this new year, even the characteristic mega-fungi have melted back from whence they sprung. Twig ID, a tradition around these parts, is just not gonna cut it; lichen and moss are fascinating, but only do it for so long. Does anyone really want to read a blog post musing on the dozen different shades of Oregon grape?

cranberry scone fungiFall offered all sorts of intriguing decomposers, like this toasted marshmallow mass of mushroom, commonly called “bleeding tooth fungus” (Hydnellum peckii), which smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. Seriously.

The problem is the solution, as permaculturalists say, so what’s the remedy? Not too long ago while living in a dynamic though often ridiculous city, I grew into an expert at glimpsing the tiny things ignored by most: the swollen poppy growing solo next to a street tree near the 101 overpass, October’s spiders weaving webs in the monster trumpet vines, the aloe vera growing, appropriately, outside the tattoo shop. I needed to return to the details, big and small, of the North Cascades. I decided to stroll up the familiar trail to Sourdough’s waterfall.

It worked. An afternoon of re-kindled love, demonstrated by bounding back to the Environmental Learning Center with camera in hand, all smiles, as though returning home from a successful hunt on the savannah. Some samplings:

cedar reflection KatherineReflections on the seasonal cedar swamp near the Pi Shelter. Notice the animal signs on the trunk on the right.
lichen "roots" KatherineMembranous dog-lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Check out the orange apothecia, which are the fruiting bodies from the lichen’s fungal partner and will eventually release spores. Also of note, the quarter inch rhizines, which do not help in water or nutrient absorption like plant roots do, but do serve to anchor the lichen to its substrate. It’s a fascinating little world, eh?
fungi on fungi KatherineFungi on fungi! I’d been paying attention to this shelf fungi on an old snag since coming to the Environmental Learning Center in late August: It always looked and felt very solid and unchanging. Add enough rain and time, and even the toughest decomposers start to get decomposed, too.
hanging roots KatherineLike a sleeping sloth of the Pacific Northwest, dangling roots and dirt clods invite the imagine against a backdrop of Doug fir forest.
Oregon grape KatherineOne of several manifestations of Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), with a pale strand of fructose lichen caught in its spiky leaves. The primary understory species in the forest on the way to the waterfall, Mahonia provides most of the non-green hue in the wintertime forest up to the waterfall. The leaves can burst a crimson hue, spontaneously and randomly, after the plant is a couple years old.
lichen rock fall KatherineA miniature world of lichen and moss tumbled down with some mini-boulders from the perennial rock fall along the trail. Linger at your own risk.
de-barked KatherineAnother animal sign? A strip of bark harvested to make a traditional Salish basket? A weather-induced injury?
"lake"reflection KatherineYes, that is blue sky! As seen from the surface of the seasonal puddle-pond at the junction of the Sourdough Creek and East Diablo trails.
cedar disintegration Katherine Even giants disintegrate: The vermillion spire-snag of an old cedar crumbles slowly but surely onto the trail.
rattlesnake plantain KatherineEvidence of flowers — hallelujah! The bright green, basal rosettes of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia ) on the banks of Fawn Creek offer a rare instance of soft, living leaves in January. Come late spring, stems of small, cream-colored flowers that look like tiny orchids will grow on a tall spike emerging from the center. Early settlers believed that this plant could be used to treat rattlesnake bites because the markings on the leaves resemble that species’ scaly skin.
witches butter KatherineA candidate for the “Brightest Organism in the Winter Forest”, witches’ butter glows like fungal gold. Note its neighbor on this alder twig, a species of avocado-green crustose lichen — a combination reminiscent of 1970’s kitchen appliances.
ELC with sun KatherineA small piece of Sourdough Ridge gets illuminated beyond a lodge at the Environmental Learning Center.
Leading photo: False pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea), a type of club lichen found on open sites, grows its upright “clubs” for reproductive purposes — notice the powdery, pale green grains (aka soredia) on the cup’s edge, awaiting to be dispersed by rain or wind. This one was found on that dry and rocky south-facing slope as one starts the immediate climb to the waterfall.

All photos by Katherine Renz

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. This is her official call to all fellow botanizing freaks to the North Cascades this coming spring. Maybe we can start a club?

KatieK. w/flasher tree

Late Morning, Rainy, Wabi-Sabi Writing

January 17th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

How often are you given the task to slowly, silently develop your awareness of beauty? Even more rare, perhaps, to be mindful of this tempting trait as it resides the incomplete, imperfect, and impermanent nature of, well, everything? And to think about how you fit in, just maybe, to this struggle, this destruction, this temporality? The eight members of the North Cascades Institute’s Graduate M.Ed. Program (a.k.a. “Cohort 13”) were recently privileged to be assigned such a “wabi-sabi” meditation — an appropriate request considering we live in a national park full of obvious beauty, are in a contractual agreement with the gods of the Masters degree to be writing all the time and are trained professionals in landscape observation. Additionally, we were graced by a day of instruction from Tele Aadsen, our writer-in-residence, neighbor and occasional Chattermarks contributor. She handed us our wabi-sabi writing prompt on yellow slips of paper, and unleashed us upon the rainy trails. Varied and place-based, we thought you might enjoy this sampling of what we came up with. —Katherine Renz


By Katie Komorowski

The trees, they are not perfect. They don’t all stand up straight in rows. Their branches aren’t all equidistant or hold the same number of leaves. They bear scars just like us. Take the one who’s tattooed, carved into with the initials, “MT ‘hearts’ ST”. I wonder if they are still together? Their mark is. Dug into this alder and scarred over, proof that trees are not pure but tough.

Or how about that tree that looks like a flasher whipping open their trench coat to expose their goods? Bark folded out like the cover of a book, nearly square and so unnatural. It screams of wildness and reeks of desperation.

And what of that mottled, old Doug Fir? Thick bark that used to be almost chocolate colored, now flecked in white lichen, with moss growing on it like a shaggy beard. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
So aged, so dignified in its mossy, lichen mess; this tree wears it like a disguise, camouflage to blend in with the lighter trees around it.

These imperfections breathe character into the woods. Each one so different than the last, though to a passerby they’d appear the same. Only when I stop to look and really see each one do I get a glimpse at the story. How is this tree’s life different than that one’s? Neighbors though they may be, each one carries a strong identity.


By Sarah Stephens

sarah listening rainGraduate student and musician, Sarah Stephens, listens to an unlikely orchestra.

I sit between the compost shelter and the maintenance shed, orchestra seating. The sky is a gray curtain. Members of the ensemble race toward the main stage. By the time I arrive the concert has already started. A steady pat pat pat pat of drips fall softly onto decayed leaves, fixing the rhythm. Just below the edge of the roof lay a pile of six long pipes; the stage is set.

The musicians take turns cascading off the roof to play their single note before rolling along the pipe to begin rehearsal for their next performance. Dozens sound at a time — plip plip tt tt plip plip tt tt, ding, din din ding, din din, ta, ting ting ting ting ta, ting ting ting ting: a metallic medley. It’s a light and celebratory piece played for the majority of this venue’s season. I’ve come right in the middle. Thought it would be a good way to start the new year.


I went looking for humble

By Kaci Darsow

I went looking for humble.

“Don’t write about the fancy things,”

She had said.

I walked and walked

Listening to the raindrops tick against fallen leaves.

Everything felt humble in this weather.

I could look closely, write mindfully

On any of these things.

The drooping sword ferns

The moss covered, dripping branches of Maple

The frozen slush on the log, battered by rain

The shadow of a snag,

Its rotten bole fallen away, laying before it

An empty sheath of bark still standing.

There was a quiet, resilient beauty to it all.

But the closer I looked, the more I understood,

All these things were incredibly grand.

An obvious, striking, remarkable beauty

Filling important roles in the community,

Their existence supporting the survival of it all.

These were not the impermanent, imperfect or incomplete.

They were the essential beings.

Not simple, overlooked or rejected,

The sought out, the celebrated, the infinitely complex.

I walked on.

The steep trail, my many layers

The cold air

Making my breathing heavily labored.

Drops of moisture ran down my face

Into the corners of my eyes.

I couldn’t tell if they were sweat or rain.

They tasted like both.

Finally, I found a dry patch of trail

Under a Hemlock and Doug Fir.

I sat down to scribble away

But was stopped

By the large drops landing on my page.

I looked up,

But none fell on my face.

I looked down,

Three more large drops splattered my ink.

My hair was dripping with sweat

And probably rain too, as I forgot my hood.

As I returned to write

A thought flashed through my mind.

Is this what I need to be writing?

These are words on a page,

Written by my pen.


Most certainly yes.

A simple start


An Hour in the Rain

By Tyler Chisholm

I came here to write about mountains. But today you can’t see the mountains.

There are hints of them, giant boulders amid a river of clouds. I watch as fluid clouds flow between rock mounds, briefly forming patterns before destroying them as they move gracefully down valley. The weather is indecisive today, fluctuating between misty rain, heavy rain, and even a wintery mixture of slushy bombs pelting the ground with something not quite snow-like. As I walk down the trail on a “wabi-sabi walk’, as the writing folks call it, searching for inspiration (since the mountains are too elusive to cooperate), my mind embodies the indecisiveness of the weather. I see inspiration in every leaf, stump, stream, and moss-covered tree. My mind becomes a running dialogue, flowing like the river of clouds, then switching abruptly to a new topic, just as the rain. The wabi-sabi continues like this, with every turn of the path discovering new subjects until I finally turn back, slightly discouraged.

It is only then that I truly accomplish the goal of the wabi-sabi: I observe for the sake of observing. Heading back down to my cozy apartment, splashing through slushy puddles in my bright pink rain boots, I realize my indecisiveness is not due to a lack of inspiration, but due to an over-stimulation of motivation.

tyler in puddlePink rain boots ready, Tyler Chisholm demonstrates her inspiration AND motivation at the first available puddle.


Lakeside Landing

By Elissa Kobrin

I picked a bad spot, oh man, this is the worst possible spot. But I landed here and I liked the look of the lake. It was so hard to take root: many rocks, not much duff, but there was plenty of water, and we Western redcedars love water.  Every moment was a struggle – too much sun! I had to stretch and bend to get cool in the sparse shade on very hot days.

At ten years old, I’m not looking very good. I see my reflection taunting me from the surface of the water. I look skinny and spindly. My bark looks more like an alder than a cedar, bare and pale. . .so very naked in spots beaten by wind and sun. My needles are so sparse, clustered in goofy bunches at my feet with a sickly yellowing crown at my head. Not enough nutrients here, not enough shade.

The lodgepole pines have done their best to help with encouragement. One leaned over to grow between me and the most open angle of the relentless summer sun. Not one other of my kind is here, having found deep shade and soft soil up the trail toward the mountain. The Douglas firs and the lodgepoles love it here. So many babies growing robust and green! But I am sick, yellow and thin. I will not live 500 years like my mother or grow tall and deep green like my father. I will survive here as long as I can, because I do love the look of the lake.

elissa with cedarElissa Kobrin examines the yellowing needles of her new friend, a Western redcedar, still hangin’ in there on the shore of Lake Diablo.
Leading photo: Katie Komorowski imitates the “flasher” paper birch she found to be so wild and desperate along the Deer Creek Trail.

All photos by Katherine Renz.


Cohort 13 is currently experiencing a rather mild North Cascades winter while in residency at the Environmental Learning Center. When not in class, they’re out exploring, creating non-profit organizations, and wabi-sabi-ing their way toward changing the world.