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You Are Here : A Weekend of Maps at the North Cascades Institute

March 6th, 2018 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

This post is a guest contribution by Anders Rodin, a cartographer and participant in The Art of Drawing Maps class at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center. For the weekend of February 23 – 26th, he learned more about map drawing with the talented artist Jocelyn Curry. You can view a gallery of past artful maps produced in Jocelyn’s class here.

“I sense that humans have an urge to map–and that this mapping instinct, like our opposable thumbs, is part of what makes us human.” – Katherine Harmon

I was driving East on the North Cascades Highway Friday morning through the snow, when I suddenly realized I was further up the road than I had ever been. A sense of excitement came over me. I was exploring, I was on new terrain, seeing things I had only ever seen on maps with my very own eyes. Winding up the road past the rushing Skagit River I finally came to the turnoff for the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center a few miles from the end of the road, and made my way slowly across the Diablo Dam.

Crossing the frozen Diablo Dam; photo by Anders Rodin

Several months before, I had seen a postcard in the Skagit Land Trust office from the North Cascades Institute with a list of the classes and workshops they were offering in the upcoming year. A friend leaned over my shoulder and said, “Look! A map class! You have to take it.” And so I signed up.

The Art of Drawing Maps was a chance for me to spend a weekend in the mountains, focus on creative work, and crank out some maps I had been thinking about making. It turned out to be so much more than I was expecting. Not only did I have the chance to work in a studio with a dozen other incredibly inspiring people, I also had the chance to meet several staff, enthusiastic Base Camp program participants, and resident graduate students on campus. I was happily surprised at the dining hall and the incredible food prepared by the amazing kitchen staff. And I briefly met Elvis, the residential Raven, who laughed at us once we became stranded at the Institute due to an avalanche four miles down the road. I think some of us were a little too adamant about tempting the avalanche as the snow piled up and the avalanche became a real possibility…did we forget to knock on wood?

Art supplies in Sundew; photo by Marissa Bluestein

» Continue reading You Are Here : A Weekend of Maps at the North Cascades Institute

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Wolverines: A Natural History

August 29th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Tyler Davis, graduate student of the Institute’s 15th cohort.

Wolverines are elusive creatures that are primarily found in the far reaches of wilderness areas. These animals are symbols of the wild, strong and seemingly fearless. They are also a source of fear stemmed from misunderstandings. Sadly, there is still a lack of knowledge about the behaviors and needs of wolverines; however, natural resource managers are now trying to find the best ways to enable wolverine survival through behavior, distribution, and needs assessment studies. There are still important things we have to learn in order to better understand this animal, but with the relatively recent increase in wolverine research, there are some incredibly important pieces of information that should be considered.

Gulo gulo, which translates to glutton glutton, was the Latin name given to wolverines by Linnaeus. They are the largest land dwelling member of the Mustelid, or weasel, family. These animals are built to survive in winter dominated climates. With their Latin name in mind, one might not be surprised to find out that these wolverines have one of the strongest jaws in the world.

Their strong jaws enable them to rip meat off carcasses, even when frozen, and they can crush through bone in just one bite. This is not to say that wolverines are mindless savages, eating whatever comes their way. In fact, they are highly intelligent creatures. They have even been known to stand on their back legs using one of their paws to shield their eyes from the sun while scanning an area.

» Continue reading Wolverines: A Natural History

Copper Peak And Glacier Peak, Looking To The Southwest

Hope Within Wildness

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

Written as an essay for the Conservation Psychology class at Western Washington University.

“In wildness lies the hope of the world.” John Muir

Today, our world faces many problems that can seem overwhelming and almost too much to bear. In a world facing issues such as climate change, terrorism, racism, poverty, hunger, etc it is easy to become distraught. When we are exposed to multiple media sources each day and countless advertisements we start to lose the ability to cope and think for ourselves. Far more dangerous than any social or environmental issue are the issues of ignorance and apathy plaguing society. In the world of environmental work the weight of these issues can become overbearing and lead to anxiety, depression and a sense of helplessness that prevents us from doing our work effectively. It is important in times like these that we do not lose hope. Hope is the antidote to apathy, and when apathy is eliminated ignorance can be as well.

In this paper I will discuss how hope might be our greatest weapon to defeating our world’s problems today and how we can prevent a sense of hopelessness when society tells us there is none remaining. I will discuss how we must look to wildness for inspiration and how in wildness some of our hope can be restored. Spending time in nature and preserving our wild areas can foster hope in a seemingly hopeless world. It is important that people in environmental work are able to find success stories and sources of inspiration to restore their hope so they can in turn fight apathy and ignorance and restore hope within others.

Unfortunately, studies indicate that learning about global problems can trigger profound feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness (Eckersley, 1999; Hicks & Bord, 2001; Holden, 2007; Searle & Gow, 2010; Taber & Taylor, 2009; Tucci, Mitchell, & Goddard, 2007). It is important then that we seek out sources of hope and inspiration to help guide us and keep us motivated in challenging times. It can be difficult to find these sources, especially in environmental work. “Conservationists live with a high degree of negative emotional experience as part of their daily awareness of the problems that ensue from human degradation of the natural environment…Prophecies of a doomed planet may not only miss their intended audience but may also cause extreme emotional distress among those working in environmental advocacy” (Fraser et al, 2013).

According to Cheryl Hall, “ Gloom and doom foster despair and resistance, they worry instead of hope and motivate to change” (Hall, 2013). Stress in environmental work is rooted in knowledge and beliefs, specifically with environmental loss (Clayton & Myers, 2009). It is important then that people in environmental work find some stories of environmental gain and success to rekindle hope. Finding success stories that they can grasp on to and keep them motivated is vital to eliminate feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. Even in bleak times such as these, stories and symbols of hope do exist. Success stories associated with the endangered species act and the preservation of wilderness are stories that, when looked at correctly, can rekindle our sense of hope to keep us motivated amongst the doom and gloom.

» Continue reading Hope Within Wildness


Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines

December 12th, 2015 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Bill Gaines has been at the forefront of the grizzly bear recovery efforts in the Pacific Northwest for 25 years. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and chat with him about the historical struggles of recovery efforts, the impacts of other carnivores in the North Cascades ecosystem and the role education must play in order to successfully implement recover efforts.

Mike Rosekrans: What initially got you interested in bears?

Bill Gaines: I finished my undergrad and went into my Masters pretty quickly where I studied harlequin ducks, so I really wasn’t a bear person coming out of school. I’d always been interested in bears, but it was something I never had the opportunity to focus on. I then went to work for the Forest Service where I was on a crew that was collecting information about habitat for bears in the North Cascades as part of an effort that started in the mid-80’s and ended in the early-90’s to evaluate whether the Cascades had the capability to support a recovered population of grizzly bears. I was working on the habitat side of that process as a field crew person. The fellow who was leading the habitat evaluation wound up moving after a few years, so in the late 80’s I found myself taking over the role of the leader of the habitat evaluation component. It then became pretty obvious to me that I needed to immerse myself in bear biology and ecology.

I began going to different meetings where I got to meet all these interesting people from all over the world who got to work with bears. I immersed myself in the literature, and had an opportunity to get involved with research on black bears in the Cascades for my PhD dissertation. This really gave me the opportunity to get into the research side and get out in the field and track bears around and start learning about how they behave here in the Cascades.

I got to be very intimate with many of the parts of the Cascades and had black bears radio collared on the eastside and the westside. So it was four years of field research that really became a dream job! That got me hooked on bears and I started to become more and more fascinated with their ecology, their intelligence, and their behavior. After I finished my PhD, I became involved with the development of the recovery planning for the grizzly bear in the Cascades.

MR: How important is it to reach the younger generation, who will ultimately be the future managers, to just go out and to educate the general public?

» Continue reading Patience and Persistence: An Interview with Grizzly Bear Biologist Bill Gaines


Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications

July 21st, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Chelsea Elizabeth Ernst, Candidate for Master’s of Environmental Education

The North Cascades are a rugged and dramatic landscape that offers habitat to thousands of plant and animal species and is an epicenter for biodiversity in the contiguous 48 United States. The ecosystem within North Cascades National Park (NOCA) is a popular location for mountaineers and naturalists alike. Many of the people who visit NOCA come hoping to see one of its charismatic megafauna, including American black bear, grey wolf, or the elusive wolverine.

However, an often-overlooked group of organisms that thrive in the Park are amphibians. Not only are these creatures fun to search for and fascinating to study, they are an important contributor to the NOCA ecosystem. Wild and preserved places like NOCA offer amphibians a large landscape in which to thrive, in a world where their numbers are rapidly declining due to anthropogenic effects. Proper research, public education and management strategies can help maintain healthy populations in a group of organisms that are incredibly sensitive to human activity and global climate change.


Western redback salamander

The Importance of Amphibians to Ecosystems and People

Due to the nature of amphibious life cycles, being both aquatic and terrestrial, they occupy multiple trophic levels — as predators, primary consumers, detritivores, cannibals, and either specialists or opportunists — and provide a variety of ecosystem services. (Hocking & Babbitt, 2014, pg. 6).

As larvae, many salamanders and frogs are aquatic and regulate nutrient cycling in streams, ponds, and riparian areas. Nutrient cycling contribution by amphibians is apparent in every stage of their life cycle: from eggs that do not hatch providing nutrients to larger riparian consumers to tadpoles scraping diatoms off of rocks. As adults, they can comprise a large portion of the biomass aquatic ecosystems.

Amphibians also play a role in providing ecosystem services that affect people. Frogs often eat insects that that are capable of spreading disease among humans. Culturally, frogs have been important as a clan totem for Native American tribes such as the Tlingit in Alaska. According to the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Center website (2011):

The frog is a sign to our people to put away the winter activities and prepare for a new season. The frog symbolizes cleansing, peace and rebirth. In Northwest Aboriginal Culture, a Frog is a great communicator and often represents the common ground or voice of the people. A Frog embodies magic and good fortune connected with shaman or medicine man and with spiritual and therapeutic cleansing. Frog’s songs are believed to contain divine power and magic. Frog is a messenger and communicator between species being valued for his adaptability because he freely travels between and survives in two worlds land and water, inhabiting both natural and supernatural realms. (Animal Symbology)

Frogs and salamanders have been important throughout history to humans physically and spiritually. They also provide nostalgia for many folks who enjoyed tromping about riparian areas as children in search of amphibious friends.

Western toad

Amphibians’ Environmental Sensitivity

Amphibians are considered indicator species in the ecosystems they inhabit. When their populations decrease, it is often the first sign to humans that other organisms are at risk and that that ecosystem may be unhealthy. Certain aspects of amphibians’ physiology and ecology make them particularly sensitive to changes in ecosystems. As a result of these sensitivities to largely anthropogenic-induced fluctuations in their habitats, Hocking and Babbitt (2014) write that “amphibians are currently the most imperiled class, with approximately 41% of more than 7,000 amphibian species on the planet threatened with extinction” (pg. 1).

Because amphibians require water during part or all of their life cycle, climate change has a substantial impact on them. In the west, important amphibian habitats like high alpine lakes and montane wetlands are drying and warming (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014). Their physiology makes them sensitive to climate change, among other environmental factors. Amphibians breathe cutaneously, absorbing moisture through their skin as part of their respiration process and to stay hydrated. They are ectothermic and require water to regulate their body temperature.

In addition to climate change, deforestation can affect this balance of moisture in ecosystems. Amphibian populations are also sensitive to UV light (Adams et al., 2005), diseases like Chytrid fungus (Chestnut et al., 2014), habitat fragmentation (Pilliod & Wind, 2008), and the introduction of non-native species to habitats (Ryan, Palen, Adams, & Rochefort, 2014).

With the variety of anthropogenic factors that have negative effects on amphibians and the increasing human population, the cause of worldwide amphibian vulnerability is clear. This highlights the importance of amphibian research in relatively untrammelled habitats like NOCA.

Amphibian Habitats in North Cascades National Park

» Continue reading Amphibians of North Cascades National Park: Their Importance, Sensitivity, Habitats, Threats and Management Implications


Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez

April 29th, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Indira Mejia-Chavez was born in Mexico, but her mom raised her and her two younger siblings in the Skagit valley, where she lives today. Her first experience with North Cascades Institute was in 2004 when she attended Mountain School with her fifth grade class. Now 21, Indira still has a vivid memory of that first experience with North Cascades Institute.

“Mountain School was a whole new world I’d never seen before…and it was pretty cool,” she remembers. “We were exposed to a natural setting, we made our own bracelets, tasted healthy food that we didn’t know could be made (because you know, it has to be bad for you to taste so good)!”

She recalls how going to Mountain School brought everyone in her class together more. The cliques that were already starting to form in her class were broken up by the trail groups; everyone was able to mesh together and bond.

And her favorite activity at Mountain School? Water quality testing!

“I really liked putting two and two together,” she explains, “if the water isn’t producing animals, then the water isn’t good quality. It just made sense. I still remember the guy that was leading us told me, ‘You’re very smart, you could be a scientist.’”

For a time, Indira thought she wanted to be a community police officer, but she realized that she wants to do something she loves, and share that love with others. Her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water quality. Although she is taking a break from school after several terms at Western Washington University, her current academic and career plans are at the intersection of biology, teaching, and water

Although Indira’s initial experience with Mountain School made a big impression, she didn’t stop there. In 2009, she participated in North Cascades Institute’s North Cascades Wild program. Two years later she was back at the Institute for our Cascades Climate Challenge program (the two programs are now combined into our Youth Leadership Adventures program).

Between the two courses, Indira spent over a month in the backcountry of the North Cascades pushing herself to overcome the challenges that everyone experiences when placed far outside their comfort zone and the familiarity of home and family.

“When I went on North Cascades Wild,” she says, “I spent a lot of time focusing on the negative – this is so hard, I wish we’d take a break – I complained a lot! With Cascades Climate Challenge, I knew what to expect and didn’t want to miss out on anything. It was so beautiful and I didn’t want to get distracted. I grew so much from the opportunity to lead others.”

» Continue reading Path for Youth: Indira Mejia-Chavez


Place-Based Resolutions

December 31st, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Seconds past midnight, all bubbles and kisses. December’s fading moments transition into the cacophony of January, offering an annual reincarnation, ushering in a fresh year of open-ended possibility. Like blushing buds on winter’s twigs: Potential, unstoppable.

(For the next couple of weeks, at least.)

In terms of the new year — unlike most considerations — I’m a traditionalist. Being a powerfully symbolic time, the opportunity to create resolutions, and to reflect upon my variable successes with the almost done ones, is one too juicy to pass up. Two thousand fourteen is no different. Though the standard intentions, namely, “Play more guitar,” and “Stop being so neurotic” are obliged to make their repetitive appearance, I recently found a more measurable, but still challenging, way to test my resolve, one that will hopefully yield better results. It stems from the first post I wrote for Chattermarks, in which I wondered: How do we get to know our place (and, with a wink of the impatient, also asked if can we speed this relationship up)? I still haven’t found an answer, but the inquiry did prompt me to revisit a document called the “Bioregional Quiz.”

salmon carcasses RenzTaking care not to get any rotting flesh on her feet, the author stands amidst dozens of salmon corpses on the banks of the Skagit River near the Newhalem campground in North Cascades National Park. The anadromous fish travel upstream to the pools of their birth, lay the eggs of the next generation even as they begin to decay, then promptly die, in the process nourishing all the life of the upper valley. Photo by Samantha Hale.

Bioregionalism is best described by novelist Jim Dodge in his 1990 essay, “Living by Life.” Most simply, it’s a movement — part philosophy, part politics —  looking to natural systems as the point from which we should organize ourselves, our neighborhoods, our government, our spirituality. This could mean we consider, for example, watersheds, the shift in plant and animal communities from one region to another, topography, or human culture as the bases for decision-making, as opposed to arbitrary lines drawn on a map. Famously championed by Dodge and poet Gary Snyder, bioregionalism is radically place-based.

The questions such an approach requires one ask are essential ones and, I think, are the discoveries and explorations environmental educators seek to encourage in their students all the time. Let’s do it:


Modified and augmented from Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley, CoEvolution Quarterly #32, Winter 1981

1.) Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.

2.) How many days until the moon is full? (plus/minus a couple of days)

3.) Describe the soil around your home.

4.) What was the total rainfall in your area last year?

5.) When was the last time a fire burned in your area?

6.) What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before you?

7.) Name five edible plants in your region.

berries C13 backpack Hale
Wild alpine blueberries and savage salmonberries will soon mix with some oatmeal and sugar to make a mid-trip crisp on Cohort 13’s summer backpacking adventure. Photo by Samantha Hale.

8.) From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?

9.) Where does you garbage go?

10.) How long is the growing season where you live?

11.) When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?

12.) Name five conifers in your area.

13.) Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.

14.) What is the land use history of where you live?

15.) What primary geological event/process influenced the land form where you live? (Bonus: What’s the evidence of it?)

glacial valley Slate Mtn. Hale

Evidence of former glaciers can be found all over the North Cascades in U-shaped valleys such as this one looking out from Slate Peak in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. Photo by Samantha Hale.

16.) What species have become extinct in your area?

17.) What are the major plant associations in your region?

18.) From where you’re reading this, point north.

19.) What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

20.) Name some beings (non-human) which share your place.

21.) Point to where the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.

22.) Are there plans for massive development of energy or mineral resources in your bioregion?

Dam HaleDiablo Dam: When living at the Environmental Learning Center, it’s impossible to forget where the energy comes from. Photo by Samantha Hale.

23.) What is the largest wilderness area in your bioregion?

24.) Name five people in your neighborhood. What do they do?

25.) Where are the parks, open spaces or wild areas in your town?

26.) What are some of the main materials your house is made of?

27.) How much gasoline do you use per week, on average? What are the various ways you use to get from Point A to Point B?


The pace of things to come? Biking around Lopez Island, dreaming of paradise. Photo by author.

28.) What is the oldest building in your community? The newest?

29.) Are there any hazardous waste sites in your community?

30.) Where does your sewage go?

31.) If there is a place you walk to regularly, is there an alternative route you can take instead, just to mix it up? How many different ways could you get to the same place?

32.) Where does your favorite restaurant get most of its food from?

33.) What advocacy organizations are in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

34.) Does your town have a domestic animal shelter? A wild animal one? Do they ever need volunteers?

35.) Do you have a food bank or homeless shelter in your community? Do they ever need volunteers?

» Continue reading Place-Based Resolutions