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Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

May 19th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

Spring has come here in the upper Skagit River valley and our April showers have indeed brought May flowers. With the increase of daylight and clear days, the valleys in-between the still snow-covered mountains have turned bright shades of green. The shorelines along the river and its reservoirs are in great contrast against the dark, evergreen hue of the high slopes. While the waking up of the forest rejuvenates even the deepest winter doldrums, there are surprises along the forest floor that bring spring’s energy forth for those willing to go look.

Calypso orchid (Colypso bulbosa) on Sourdough Mountain Trail. Photo by Dan Dubie

Our spring wildflower bloom has begun and is now in full swing. A few weeks ago, as the spring sun started to warm the floors of our valleys and deep forests, the first plant harbingers of spring began to grow. Just as our migrating birds returned to their homes for the summer, our resident perennial and annual wildflowers began their annual strive for life. Quickly after the snow leaves, the first herbaceous flowers to arise are those with energy reserves stored in corms or “bulbs” beneath the ground. These flowers quickly get to work, growing a few leaves and showy flowers that attract the early spring flies and solitary bees. Examples of these are the glacier lily (Erythronium grandiflora), which is known to sprout through snow; the amazingly small calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa); and the bright white western trillium (Trillium ovatum), which shines like a light on our deep, moist forest floors.

» Continue reading Spring Wildflowers in the Upper Skagit

Photo Roundup: May 14 2017

May 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Photo by Alex Patia

North Cascades Institute Naturalist and graduate M.Ed. alumni, Alex Patia, snapped this photo of a Canada goose watching over her goslings near his front lawn in the town of Diablo. Canada Geese love to hang out on open lawns as they can feed on grass and (especially with their young) easily spot any approaching predators. These birds mate for life and pairs stay together throughout the year. Most Canada Geese do not breed until their fourth year.

Diablo Lake from the overlook off Highway 20. Photo by Angela Burlile

The North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center is right on the shore of Diablo Lake and it has been a fun little practice of watching it slowly change with the seasons. Much of the water in this lake is fed by glaciers in Thunder Creek Basin. Skagit gneiss (a mineral) or as we tell Mountain School students, ‘glacial flour’, is eroded by ice and flows down glacial streams, entering Diablo Lake. As the sun hits these tiny rock particles suspended in the lake, they reflect off this beautiful jade green color. In the spring and summer when runoff is higher, the lake gets brighter! The top photo is from this past week, the middle photo from December and the bottom photo from last July.

» Continue reading Photo Roundup: May 14 2017

Camping at Lightning Creek on Ross Lake

10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades

June 29th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Saul Weisberg and Christian Martin for The Seattle Times

Canoe the Skagit River
The Skagit is one of the great rivers of the west, supplying nearly 40 percent of the fresh water and wild salmon entering Puget Sound. A multiday trip down the Skagit River is a real gem. Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978, the Skagit drains an area of 1.7 million acres, including the most glaciated region in the Lower 48. I like to put my canoe in at Copper Creek in North Cascades National Park and paddle to the mouth where it empties into the Salish Sea. This trip takes three to four days and involves camping on gravel bars and beaches. The river gains momentum after the Cascade, Baker and Sauk rivers add to its flow, and you can finish a great journey by paddling up the Swinomish Channel for dinner in La Conner. Shorter day-trips can be made by paddling from Marblemount to Rockport or Rasar State Park.

 

Copper Ridge by Andy Porter

Backpack from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake
There are several long backpacking routes in the North Cascades. One of my favorites begins from the Mount Baker Highway, climbing Hannegan Pass and continuing north along Copper Ridge before descending to the Chilliwack River, climbing over Whatcom Pass and finally over Beaver Pass and down Big Beaver Valley to Ross Lake. A fire lookout, incredible views of the Picket Range and one of the best old-growth cedar forests in the range — this trip is hard to beat. Other great long hikes include the Devils Dome circumnavigation of Jack Mountain, or dropping into Stehekin via Bridge Creek from Rainy Pass.

Explore the Methow Valley
There are many different ways to explore this valley flowing off of the east slope of the Cascades. You can look for great birds and butterflies in Pipestone Canyon, cross-country ski in the winter, or mountain-bike on dozens of backcountry roads in the summer. Try Sun Mountain for beginners, Buck Mountain for a challenge.

 

climbing desolation

Paddle Ross Lake and climb Desolation Peak
Perhaps the most famous literary spot in the North Cascades is the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. This is where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 working for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he later recounted in “Desolation Angels” and “The Dharma Bums.” The lookout is still there, perched atop the 6,102-foot peak and commanding one of the best views in Washington. The Desolation trailhead on Ross Lake can be reached by canoe, by renting a small powerboat from Ross Lake Resort or by hiking the East Bank Trail from Highway 20. The lookout trail is steep — carry plenty of water — with views around every corner.

Hike to Hidden Lakes Peak
I was a backcountry ranger at Cascade Pass in 1979, and that trail and the view from Sahale Arm are close to my heart. However, to avoid the crowds I like to turn off the Cascade River Road before reaching the Cascade Pass Trail, at the short spur to the trailhead to Hidden Lakes Peak. It’s a beautiful trail to an old fire lookout, which is open to the public, and fabulous views of Cascade Pass and Boston Basin looking east across the valley. Hidden Lakes are surrounded by a veritable rock garden of giant talus boulders. Sibley Pass, accessible by a short scramble from the trail, is an amazing place to watch the fall migration of raptors overhead by the hundreds.

 

Mt. Baker, WA, USA. Mt. Baker Wilderness Area. 10, 778 ft / 3285 m. Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers. Black Buttes on the right. Lupine and Mountain Bistort Wildflowers on Skyline Divide. 4x5 Transparency ©2000 Brett Baunton

Explore around Mount Baker
There are many ways to explore Komo Kulshan, the northernmost Cascade volcano that looms ever-white over Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. Great trails start from Heather Meadows, but to avoid crowds I suggest you explore the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness or hike the lowland old-growth forest on the East Bank Trail of Baker Lake. Drive a bit farther to access Railroad Grade, the Scott Paul Trail and Park Butte. From this alpine wonderland, you’ll see the Easton Glacier and the Black Buttes up close and personal.

» Continue reading 10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades

Jack and Crater Mountain with flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

February 4th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort. This is part two of Lauren’s natural history project. Find part one here.

The Biome: Subalpine to Alpine
The alpine lifezone or biome is most often described as the area above or near treeline on mountaintops. In the North Cascades, the elevation range of the alpine zone is from about 6,400ft to about 8,530ft (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). The subalpine biome often shares many characteristics with alpine plant and animal communities as the boundaries between the two lifezones are rather indistinct (Billings, 1974). The varying topography blends these two biomes, making the assignment of plant communities highly subjective. Among the main features that designate an area as subalpine are the discontinuation of the forest and the formation of “scattered tree clumps in a meadow mosaic” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p.4). Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
These tree clumps are pioneers in harsh soil and growth conditions and “are normally short, with spreading branches, but [they still] retain definite crowns and do not develop the dense, low, thicketlike growth form known as krummholz” (Taylor & Douglas, 1995, p. 5-6). Krummholz is generally found on higher slopes and marks the beginning of the alpine zone (Taylor & Douglas, 1995). It would be much easier to assign general characteristics to these biomes if the mountain were flat ground with consistent weather patterns. However, nature provides large doses of interest and variety in vegetation patterns through vastly different slope aspects, substrate conditions, and extreme daily ranges in temperature, wind speeds, solar radiation, and water availability.

The combination of these abiotic factors creates many different habitats with microclimates and vegetation stripe communities occurring within those habitats. Fellfields are most common in the alpine biome, and are “characterized by rocky ground and dry soil, and are typically less than half covered by vegetation…Plants that grow here must be short in stature or they will be desiccated by freezing wind in winter and blasted by wind-driven sand in summer” (Visalli, 2014b, p.3). The constant frost action and avalanche potential acting on the slopes causes the soil to be unstable, poorly developed, and easily eroded as well, and pioneering plants must act quickly to establish roots when possible (Douglas & Bliss, 1977). Vegetation stripes can occur in the talus and scree slopes of fell- and boulder-fields, where soil and moisture has found a path of least resistance to percolate through or flow down and created a pocket of nutrients for plants to capitalize on (Douglas & Bliss, 1977).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 2

sunrise flowers

Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

January 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Lauren Ridder, graduate student in the institute’s 14th cohort.

Nothing can quite prepare the hiker for the beauty of a subalpine meadow in full bloom. The contrast of the delicate flowers’ vibrant colors splashed across a backdrop of jagged peaks provides a moment for reflection and appreciation for the stark beauty of Cascadia. As the other senses kick in and notice is taken of fragrance on the breeze and a buzzing at the feet, the connections between plant, animal, insect, soil, water, and air become all too clear. Those relationships observed between plant and pollinator have been shaped by innumerable abiotic factors over millions of years. Wandering through a high mountain meadow provides a brief glimpse into the fascinating evolutionary history of wildflowers and their pollinators.

A Brief History of Plant Evolution
While observing the beautiful complexity of a wildflower, it can be hard to imagine the selection process that led from a single-celled photosynthetic organism living in a vast, watery world to a flower living high on the flanks of a mountain. Constantly changing environments guided the expansion of the plant kingdom and resulted in the development of vascular systems, seeds, and flowers (Visalli, 2014b). The green algal common ancestor found success over time in the colonization of land through embryo protection and the growth of a more solid tissue system.
This tissue system, or vascular system, transports water and nutrients throughout a plant, and is a more recent evolutionary development that allows for survival in harsher, drier environments.

History of plants

This cladogram of plant evolution shows the development of plant systems and the diversification of the plant kingdom over time (Guertin et al., 2015).

» Continue reading Subalpine and Alpine Wildflowers and Pollinators of the North Cascades: Part 1

Sauk Cover

The Mountain Behind the Name: Sauk

December 8th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

The North Cascades Ecosystem has many features to discover for naturalists, students and day hikers alike. Behind all the charismatic megafauna and flora including bears, wolverines, Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks are the mountains that make it all possible. In this series, we take a look at the “charismatic mega-rocks” that make the North Cascades one of the greatest natural wonders of this nation. First up, Sauk Mountain.

Sauk Geo map

Geologic Map of part of the North Cascades courtesy of USGS

Geology

The above map is as informative to local geologists as scores are to musical composers. Each color represents a different rock type. The many rock types can be grouped into three different regions. The northeast part is the Methow Domain, containing “sandstone and conglomerates deposited by streams and shallow, fresh, and saltwater” colored in reds and greens. The southern and middle parts, named Metamorphic Core Domain, contain metamorphic rock that has been pushed toward the surface (colored in earthy browns and yellows).

And to the west, in the Western Domain colored in blues, contains a mixture of volcanic and sedimentary rocks. Mt. Baker, the second most thermally active volcano in the North Cascades, contributed so much to the geology of Sauk. Located 19 miles south east of Baker, Sauk is covered in mostly sedimentary and igneous rock.

Sauk Geology

Confluence of the Sauk (Upper) and Skagit (Lower) Rivers.

» Continue reading The Mountain Behind the Name: Sauk

New NW wildflower field guide for iPhones

July 26th, 2011 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Daniel Matthews

Editor’s note: Renowned Northwest naturalist Daniel Mathews, author of Cascade-Olympic Natural History, recently released a new field guide with a twist — “Northwest Mountain Wildflowers” isn’t the trailside book you might expect, but an iPhone app. Interested in this new format for field guides, we asked him to share some information on what the app does, what his motivations were in creating an electronic guide and whether or not he thinks there are any drawbacks to this technology.

I have released a field guide for iPhone and iPod touch, called Northwest Mountain Wildflowers, based on my books Cascade-Olympic Natural History and Rocky Mountain Natural History. It covers 514 species, illustrated with more than 830 photos, and it weighs nothing, or at least adds nothing to the weight of your mobile device if you’re carrying one.

It does not require being online or on a cell network, as the content is contained in memory, and it works just the same on iPod touch as on iPhone. (When the user does happen to be connected, they can use direct links from species pages to the same species in EFlora BC and the Washington herbarium website.)

» Continue reading New NW wildflower field guide for iPhones