Chasing Winter: A Natural History Retreat

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.


The day starts with a brief class on avalanches and snowpack, and a discussion of the factors involved when evaluating the safety of backcountry travel. We all gaze longingly out the window, eager to play in the snow.

Soon we move on to the real fun: burying beacons and then conducting searches for them, all the while postholing in the fresh snow up to our hips. The soundtrack for the morning is constant beeping and a lot of laughter. I look up from my search once in awhile only to see another cohort member disappear from view, having fallen victim to a deep snow patch.

After dusting ourselves off, we head for the hills of Winthrop for snowpack analysis and a quick traipse up to the top of Cougar Mountain for a few of us. What a gift to crest the hill just as the sun dips behind the North Cascades.

WintHxCougarMtHeading up to our classroom for the afternoon
Liz examines a layer of snow
Cougar MountainAtop Cougar Mountain

We round out the day with a visit to Twisp River Pub for a talk on the study of grizzly bears in the North Cascades, hosted by the the National Parks Conservation Association, Conservation Northwest, and Western Wildlife Outreach. Once again I’m blown away by how environmentally-focused events draw such interest in the Methow Valley.


The day greets us with the promise of tracking. We bundle into the vans and head for Lost River Road where we tromp through the snow, distracted every few feet by a new print. Coyote, snowshoe hare, weasel, squirrel, and others we can only guess at. We meander through the trees until hunger drives us back in the direction of our lodging.

WintHxHikingOff to Lost River Road
WintHxTrioA break in the day

Our post-meal mission is singular: build shelter for the night. We separate ourselves out and get to work: a trench, a quinzhee, and some more modern methods: a tent and a megamid. We stay at it until the sun dips below the horizon. We marvel at the luxury of being able to walk up to the house, grab our belongings, replace sweaty layers with dry ones, and then return to our snow camp with stoves, fuel, and all proper supplies for the evening.

WintHxSnowKitchenMike and I dig out our kitchen
WintHxMegamidThe megamid
WintHxQuinzheeChelsea and Lauren inside the quinzhee


Most of us emerge from our respective shelters with the same assessment: best night of sleep we’ve had in ages. We enjoy a lazy morning in the (still!) dumping snow before trundling back inside for hot showers.

WintHxKitchenMorning coffee

After a lazy morning in the (still!) dumping snow, and delightful hot showers, we head off for Door No. 3 in Twisp where Laura Gunnip introduces us to the art of linocuts. For hours, our focus on our linoleum sheets is intense, and the silence is punctuated by Laura’s fantastic record collection and the occasional expletive when someone miscalculates the trajectory of their carving knife.

WintHxLino3Lauren sends her linocut to the press

The evening takes us to North Cascades Basecamp where we attend one of the most engaging lectures of my life, on a topic that deserves its own blog post: native bees. The hour is stuffed with information and more than a few moments of raucous laughter. Again: how did the Methow Valley draw all the best people?


Our retreat draws to a close, but not without first making room for one more talk. For this one, we drive to the Okanogan-Wenatchee Forest Service office in Winthrop where we meet with John Rohrer and Scott Fitkin to discuss the North Cascades Wolverine Project. Most of Cohort 14 feels quite an affinity for this creature at this point after assisting with the maintenance of monitoring stations over the summer and reading The Wolverine Way. John and Scott share their wealth of knowledge with us, as well as anecdotes (alternately sobering, inspiring, and hilarious) from the nearly 10 years of this project’s operation.

After we wrap up, we disperse. Some to other parts of the country, some back to Bellingham, and some of us head to the hills above Carlton with fingers crossed for more snow (it didn’t happen).

Another lovely retreat, another host of new experiences, and another week in one of our favorite places.


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