Graduate Winter Natural History Retreat: Class in the snow!

Joshua Winter 2016
As the snow is melting and Spring is is coming in full force, winter’s grasp is quickly fleeting from our minds. It’s hard to imagine that just a month ago the 15th Graduate Cohort of the North Cascades Institute was on their Winter Natural History retreat in the Methow Valley, then a winter wilderness! The retreat was the second retreat we had taken this year, in which we delve deep into the natural landscape to get first hand experience with our local wilderness. In this particular trip we learned about astronomy, wolverines, avalanche science and even tracking. Our whole trip had us centered at the Skalitude Retreat Center located in the Methow Valley.
Skalitude Retreat Center

Skalitude Retreat Center located in the heart of the mountains.

After traveling for seven hours into the Methow Valley, for Washington Pass is closed in the winter, the road into Skalitude was the definition of a remote mountain road: covered with animal tracks, steep, and windy. The whole road was encased in a thick forest. As soon as we reached the retreat the trees opened up to showcase the excellent valley and the pristine snow! Living in Western Washington this winter made me forget how much I had missed feet of clean, beautiful snow.
Good meals

Good friends and good food! Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

We were greeted by the two caretakers of the center, Emma and Vick. For the next few days we got to know them and include the pair into our cohort. Featured above is the meal with homemade pasta and local greens. I never thought the first time I would make pasta would be in a remote mountain village during the heart of winter.
Drying out

Drying out after a long day! Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

Even though we were in the heart of the mountains, we were far from roughing it. After a long day of hiking and tracking it felt wonderful to dry out and enjoy the sun beating against the snow.

Lookout peak. Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

During our free time some of us went to Lookout Mountain Lookout where the whole cascade mountain range could be seen, most of it covered in snow. Each of us felt a new sense of awe with having our classes in this part of the mountains. Before we could really delve into this landscape, however, we first needed to learn about one of its most illusive residents: the wolverine.
Wolverines in the North Cascades
Wolverine Class

Stopping at the Methow Ranger District to learn about Wolverines.

We left our mountain retreat and ventured to the Methow Ranger District of the US Forest Service just a few miles away. We met with Scott Fitkin and John Rohrer to talk about these amazing carnivores that live here. They shared with us their nine year study (their most recent published study can be found at Wolverine Study 2014) in which they trapped wolverines, put tracking collars on them and then released them back into the wild in under 40 minutes.

Frontispiece. Wolverine a the Slate Creek run-pole camera station in Washington. Photo courtesy of the Methow Ranger District.

These ferocious mustelids (weasel family) are built for the snow.

  • Paws as large as a wolf for “snowshoeing” across any winter terrain
  • Frost resistant fur
  • Powerful jaws to cut through frozen carcasses
  • Amazing healing properties
  • and A metabolism to keep them running for days

John and Scott predict that there might be up to a few dozen in the North Cascades. Over nine years they have captured 13 distinct wolverines showing that the population, at least in the alpine climates, are here to stay. Even after working with these animals for almost a decade the two biologists were still amazed by these creatures. One, for example, was found with a cut in the skull so deep it looked like it might have some brain tissue damaged. They still put a collar on it, even though they were sure it was going to die. Two months later the wolverine was recaptured with no sign it had ever had an injury to the skull. Another traveled dozens and dozens of miles in under a week.
Even after nine years both John and Scott say we still need to learn a lot more about wolverines and are planning on doing a more expansive study in the years to come.
Scaling up a hillside

Annah Young climbing a slope that wolverines would run up. Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

Later that evening we met with David Ward, a local astronomer.  As a class we went in-depth into what was in the winter sky: Zodaical triangle, Jupiter, Orion and his fight against Taurus the bull. Every time I tried to capture what we were seeing, the beauty of the full moon ruined all of the night photography. It was nothing short however of a picturesque winter night sky.
Joshua Tracking

Joshua pointing out tracks. Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

The next day we traveled as a cohort to a snow covered forest service road: the perfect location for for some winter tracking! While strapping on cross-country skiis and snowshoes, Joshua reviewed with us the three types of tracks we were to find:

  • Plantigrade: Prints showcase the whole foot. Example, humans and bears.
  • Digitigrade: Prints showcase toes only. Example, wolves and mountain lions.
  • Ungulate: Prints show hoof pattern. Example, deer and elk.

With that in mind we set out to discover the stories that were out there. Was it walking, hopping, bounding? Where was it going? Can you see any other tracks in the area? These were just some of the questions that were rattling around in our heads as we tracked.
Car in Snow

Car left last fall covered in snow. The snow was at least two feet deep.

Tracking three members

Sasha, Adam and Ginna identifying tracks.

Tracks for Size

Some tracks can be absolutely minuscule! Squirrel tracks.

Sasha looking up

Sasha taking notes on local birds.

Joe Tracking

Joe Loviska getting deep in the tracking lesson. Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

Snow Shelters
Journey towards the shelters

200 yard trek to snow shelters. Photo courtesy of Aly Gourd.

As comfortable as our lodges were, we still had the joy of staying in snow shelters! The trek to our site was not far (about 200 yards) where we sculpted the snow for our means. For two whole afternoons we dug, sculpted and placed five shelters and a “groovy” kitchen.
Building Kitchen

Building the kitchen and seating for dinner.

The kitchen was large enough to have seating for the whole cohort and guests, cooking counters and food storage. Our crew spend hours on making the chairs just right, the cabinets just deep enough and the counters strong enough to handle any food preparation.
Art in Kitchen

Joe making art pieces for the kitchen.

Igloo (2)

Igloo making.

Top of Snow fort!

Quinzhee making.

Snow shelters might look similar but their methods of construction can very immensely. The Igloo (two pictures up) has builders sculpting snow blocks that are stacked on top of one another. A quinzhee, on the other hand, has builders making a giant mound of snow and then digging a space out. Each construction requires certain snow conditions to be made properly. We decided to showcase multiple styles of snow shelters to demonstrate the variety of construction types.
Sticks one

Porcupine method to carve out the inside.

Sticks two

Rob helping Aly with the porcupine method.

During the digging out of the quinzhee, builders use sticks to test the depth of the wall. Go too thin in one spot, and the whole structure could fall. Rob and Aly are showcasing this method, often called the Porcupine since the quinzhee has multiple sticks sticking out at one time.
Tent Platform

Building the platform for the tent.

Our snow tent had builders making a level floor with steps. While not as warm as an igloo or quinzhee, it requires much less time to construct.
Solo Shelter

Emily digging a snow trench.

If the snow is deep enough, builders can just dig straight into the snow. Taking the quinzhee idea to a new extreme, the snow trench can be a quick, but still warm alternative to a quinzhee.
Below are the completed snow structures. While each was different, everyone made it warm and safe through the night!
Solo (2)

Snow trench. Room for three.

Tarp outside

Kelty Tarp shelter. Room for six.


Snow tent. Room for three.


Quinzhee. Room for five.


“Iglarp” room for four.

As the sun was setting fast on our igloo, builders decided it best to “just throw a tarp over it.” The snow was not in the right conditions to build a proper roof so it was easy for just one night to have a quick fix solution. I personally spent the night in the “iglarp” (igloo+tarp) and it was very warm and comfortable!
Iglarp inside

Zachary showcasing the inside of the “iglarp.”

When we all finished our shelters a few of us had the joy of some Shed Riding! (video courtesy of Holli Watne). Now that all of our hard work was completed we had the joy of using all of our five shelters and kitchen.
Fire on Snow

Campfire stories.


Sharing a great breakfast in our snow kitchen.

Avalanche Science

Explanation of the snow tests we completed.

After a great night’s rest in the snow shelters we then ventured back out into the wilderness to explore some avalanche science. While not a replacement for a full Avalanches Course, the day gave us as a cohort some tools to use whenever we are out in the winter wilderness.
Avi Joshua

Picking our route for the day.

Avi class

Preliminary data collection.

Tracking to Avi Class

Using our tracking skills on the way to the snow tests.

Our own Annah Young took charge and instructed us on how to build snow pits and do strength tests (featured in the video above).
Annah Teaching

Annah Young preparing to teach her cohort a lesson on snow safety.

Snow Pit

Joshua showing us how to properly dig a snow pit.

Annah Snow Test

Annah demonstrating how to properly test the snow.

Its hard to imagine that it was just a month ago that we experienced a full winter adventure in the North Cascades!


  1. John Miles

    What a terrific blog post! A great testament to experiential learning. Very well done.

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