From headwaters to sound

Faith and Penn Cove
My dreams within Environmental Education are like that of the Skagit River’s watercourse.
From its headwaters, my dream begins in the tiniest of raindrops, collecting in glaciers perhaps and trickling down to alpine streams. The dream builds to a river, solidifying as do the sturdier banks supporting the way of the water. Weaving out and around, the dream’s course is composed, at times, of rapids raging, then pooling in softer shallows. It exits the mountain peak domain to enter a gentler, more gradual flow—that of farmland and forest—though still bringing with it reminders of the lessons learned in higher places. The channel widens, as does my dream’s scope, the hint of salt in freshwaters. As river converges with ocean, a chorus commences. Ideas, like nutrients, swell. Life is rich, vibrant. Just as the Skagit River feeds the Salish Sea, so the sea replenishes the river.
I like to look upon this image—as it is as much a reality as it is metaphor—when reflecting on my journey and developing my aspirations as a graduate student and Environmental Educator. One of the highlighted features of the Masters of Education Residency at North Cascades Institute is the Leadership in Non-Profit Administration courses that we take, which connect us more closely with Institute staff and Board members, as well as allow us the opportunity to design our own non-profit organizations and connect with the communities for which we intend to serve. Currently, Cohort 9 is in the midst of developing these non-profit organizations. Just as the metaphor portrays, fellow graduate student Megan Magee and I are intending to implement the insight we have gained from the headwaters of the Skagit – the North Cascades Institute – to design a youth environmental and agricultural education non-profit that serves my home community of central Whidbey Island – where the river meets the sound.

Indigo and Coupeville Wharf

The M/V Indigo at the Coupeville Wharf, the expeditionary vessel for the SEA Program

On the sunny, spring-like afternoon of February 5th, Megan and I were given the opportunity to further connect the Skagit River to the Sound, and learn more about my home on Whidbey Island, by teaching aboard the 65-foot M/V Indigo—the primary vessel for the SEA (Service Education Adventure) Program. The Indigo was docked at the Coupeville Wharf in Penn Cove, just west of where the Skagit River enters Skagit Bay. The opportunity, provided by my seventh grade science teacher, Terry Welch, at Coupeville Middle School, had us on our toes, linking knowledge we had gained in the mountainous environs of the North Cascades to the marine waters of Penn Cove.
Aboard the Indigo

Chris Burt, skipper of the Indigo, welcomes students aboard

Florian and his film

Cinematographer Florian Graner showcases his film on local underwater wildlife

SEA Co-Directors Scott Ashworth, Chris Burt and Susie Richards, as well as staff cinematographer and marine biologist Florian Graner, were delighted to have us aboard, introducing 13 seventh graders and several family members to one of Penn Cove’s iconic sea creatures—the saltwater mussel.
Students identified unique geographic and hydrological factors that make Penn Cove a prolific place for mussels, like the gradually-sloping beaches, lower salinity content—due to the nearby influence of freshwater from the Skagit and Stillaguamish Rivers—and presence of the Olympic Rainshadow.
Megan and mussel

Megan Magee & Kelsi Franzen teaching about the anatomy of Penn Cove mussels


Coupeville lines the southern shores of Penn Cove as viewed aboard the Indigo

Mussels are bivalve filter feeders, and students dissected several specimens to identify the anatomy, as well as learned about the cultural influence mussels have had on past and present island people. The students had a chance to use nets to capture plankton- the primary food source for mussels – and watch them move under microscopes, as well as learn navigation techniques from the skipper – all the while the Indigo circling the cove, bouncing upon waves.

looking at mussels

Showing students mussel anatomy on dissecting trays

Microscope mussels

A student observes a saltwater mussel up close under the microscope

Navigation with Chris

Learning how to navigate a marine vessel with Chris Burt

plankton net

Gathering the plankton net

Everyone gathered at the bow for a closing circle and group photo in the winter twilight as we came to dock. Turning my head northeast, I noticed the clouds once veiling Mount Baker had diminished and the sun, setting in the west, cast across its snowy slopes a beautiful rosy-hue.
Indigo group

The Indigo group is all smiles

Smiles. Everyone had smiles on their faces. For me, my smile was for my love of teaching and for the opportunity to bring back the lessons I am learning at North Cascades Institute to my home ground.
To come full circle is my dream in Environmental Education, to connect the mountains to the sound, for I know that just as the Skagit River feeds the Salish Sea, so the sea replenishes the river.

Photos courtesy of Kelsi Franzen & Susie Richards.


  1. Megan Magee

    What an amazing day this was! Thank you for jumping at the opportunity and inviting me along.

  2. Terry Welch

    We’re so happy to have you and Megan along. Thank you for teaching a learning station and sharing your enthusiasm with my students.

  3. Denise Welch

    This is a beautiful article. I especailly loved “your dream”.
    I am Terry’s Mom and am very proud of BOTH of you.

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