New Tracks at the Environmental Learning Center: Winter Mountain School

Middle school students from Lopez Middle School sit excitedly on the wooden benches of the amphitheater for Mountain School orientation. Mittens and gloves fly into the air with eager answers when students are asked what they have seen driving in the school bus up-valley that morning – waterfalls, mountains, more waterfalls. Orientation continues, skits about respecting nature and each other ensue, and somewhere out of what was once a stunningly blue winter sky that morning, snow begins to fall. Cheers roar, and observations of fallen flakes on coat jackets begin. It is January, and Mountain School is in session.
January 9, 2012 marked the opening of a new Mountain School season – the first winter sessions ever at the Environmental Learning Center campus. Lopez Middle School and Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute joined staff and graduate students for four days of exploring winter ecology, looking for animals signs, tracking twigs, and playing in our mountain snow.
Students from Lopez had one thing on their minds when they drove across Diablo Dam: snow. Coming from the San Juan Islands where snow is rare, promises of snow covered peaks and sledding opportunities had students eager to be outside. Lopez students participated in the classic Ecosystems Explorations curriculum with a seasonal twist.

Lopez Middle School students explore trails at the Environmental Learning Center with graduate student Alex Patia. Photo by Jessica Newley.

Just as we do with all visitors to Diablo Lake, instructors spent the first day introducing students to the Learning Center habitat, talking about glaciers, rocks and the formation of this grand landscape. When instructors shifted the groups’ focus to the biotic elements of this mountain ecosystem, talk of winter began. Some groups honed their twig tracking skills, taking a closer look at branch arrangement, bud shape, and bark to identify plants without foliage in this frozen time of the year. Other trail groups found teachable moments in the frigid weather, brainstorming ways that animals “toughing out” the winter might adapt to the seasonal change in their surroundings.

Sledding on a closed-for-the-season Highway 20, just east of the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Jessica Newley.

The second day of the program involved a short bus ride up to the Ross Lake trailhead where snow marks the road closure for Highway 20. Lopez Middle Schoolers skated on the slippery snow and enjoyed laughs and falls as they looked for animal tracks and signs – a highly successful and extremely fun-filled winter afternoon in the Cascades. While standing around a bright fire at closing circle on the third day of their program, students reflected on the beauty of this place, on how lucky they were to have spent time exploring it, and what fun it was to play in the snow.

The Science and Math Institute from Tacoma, along with a two students from their sister school The School of the Arts, had an equally wintry but slightly different focus at the Learning Center this week. Over the course of their four days in the North Cascades, three trail groups explored this place using the winter season as a unique lens.
Students spent their first afternoon and evening getting to know this landscape a little bit better, delving into the natural and cultural history of the Upper Skagit. With a full moon only a few days earlier on January 8th, students were able to enjoy a walk to the dam under the stars.

Something that I will always remember about tonight was seeing both Pyramid Peak and Colonial Peak with stars gleaming behind. As we were on the dam, the moon began rising above the mountain within seconds. Amazing. Something that I have observed and experienced thus far is that we all need wilderness and nature to cleanse ourselves, or as John Muir says, “wash your spirit clean”. Being in the woods and nature brings out the best in all of us, and makes us more of a community and I could never exchange that for the world! Thank you, Mother Nature! – Megan, SOTA Student

SAMI students use a densiometer to determine whether canopy cover at their chosen site is suitable for their study of the pine marten.  Photo by Kiira Heymann.

SAMI’s second day in the mountains was spent learning about local carnivores and their habitat. After delving more deeply into a study on the pine marten, instructors took students out on trails to find suitable habitat and to set up remote cameras (left at those sites for the duration of the school’s stay) to see if they might catch a few martens in action.

My group and I hiked almost seven miles towards Ross Dam. It was invigorating and there was a lot of great conversation. We set up pine marten camera traps. We spread a HORRIBLY smelly concoction of cows blood and the juices from a skunk’s scent gland and spread it up and down the roots of a doug fir to attract pine martens. I learned a ton about them today! – Bethany, SAMI Student

It was said that you learn more in a week at the North Cascades Institute than in a semester in a regular classroom environment. Today that was proven! We encountered a strange ice formation on the ground called hoar frost! And the ice is in columns that appear “fluffy.” By sight it looks like cotton or a fungus but actually it is ice… Exciting stuff! – Scout, SAMI Student

A Lopez Middle School student discovers hoar frost on a fallen branch. Photo by Jessica Newley.

Day three had students out on the trail with Park Ranger Mike Brondi who provided students with insight about how North Cascades National Park manages landscapes, and had students working on a mini stewardship project pulling invasive species along the lakeshore near campus. The afternoon was spent with North Cascades Institute’s Jeff Anderson tracking animals on Thunder Creek.

I have come to realize that the tracks I leave are constantly changing. North Cascades Institute, and the wonderful piece of nature we are staying near, have started a new type of track for me. In the past, the memories or “tracks” I leave behind me have been very inconsistent and sporadic, ranging from deep holes, to barely visible tracks like the mouse tracks Katie, Allison, Scout, and I found today. Now I’m hoping to find a balance that I haven’t had before, to leave a track that someone would actually find worth tracking. – Sayge, SOTA Student

The final day provided an opportunity for reflection and discussion about SAMI’s work here at the Environmental Learning Center. After learning about animal tracks in the woods, students began to answer questions about what “tracks” they might leave as they continue on their journeys. Photos from the remote cameras were reviewed and results were discussed, and while no pine martens were caught in action, students were sure that after more time their selected sites would have yielded marten activity.

I think there are smaller or less obvious ways to leave tracks. Just the way I choose to live my life will affect other people. I believe that every time I take the time to know myself better and reflect on my own experience in the world, I am leaving positive tracks. I might inspire others with the smallest things that I don’t even intend to. I have experienced this a lot on this trip already. Sometimes for me it is the smallest actions or words of others that even just make me stop for a moment and think. These small things add up to a legacy. We are all connected, and I think we all have something to give. The most important thing is simply to be aware of how we affect others, and be aware of how we are in the world. – Hero, SAMI Student

The week ended with hugs and waves as the two schools departed across the dam, driving west back home towards Lopez Island and Tacoma. Staff and graduate students could not be happier with the first ever winter sessions of Mountain School, and hope that this precedent brings more snowy adventures to the Environmental Learning Center in the future.
Leading photo of Lopez at Diablo Overlook. Photo by Jess Newley.
This article is cross posted to North Cascade Institute’s Mountain School Blog.


  1. Mahan

    The ablitiy to think like that shows you’re an expert

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