Thursday, April 26, 2018

Branch Hoppers at Point Whitehorn 4/22/18

If you’ve ever been to Point Whitehorn, you might have noticed several bridges as you walk the trail to the beach. I certainly have. So, when one of the Branch Hoppers challenged me on the way back to the bus to guess just how may bridges there are, I guessed two. He “guessed” 19 and made a bet with me as to who was closer to the actual number. Turns out there are 19. Good guess?…not really. He knew there were 19 because he counted them on the way in.

I mention this because counting them could be considered a childlike behavior. At Wild Whatcom, we try to sweep away the distractions of our twenty-first century world in order to connect our Explorers to their natural environment. We call it wandering or, as we say it in our motto - Be Here Now. One indicator of that connection is the release of the pretenses and tensions associated with our wired existence and the reversion to such childlike behavior. Let’s take a look at what we did on Sunday to see how well we accomplished this objective.

We hiked…

We combed the beach…

We dug in the dirt, damming a tiny stream then releasing a “torrent” on the village we had created below, wreaking untold havoc on its unsuspecting occupants…

We sheltered from the cool sea breeze…

We cooked maple blossom fritters…

We lounged in the sun…

This was a pleasant adventure, replete with innocent play. Mentor Ellen and I (Steve was off getting recertified in advanced first aid to lead our longer backpacking trips.) saw more harmony within the group this outing than has sometimes been the case. Chalk it up to maturity; put it down to the beautiful natural environment; I’m leaning toward excellent mentoring! Whatever the cause, it went great!

This was our last outing of the 2017-18 year. 2018-19 will be the Branch Hopper’s last in Explorers Club (the Four Shields program awaits all who are interested in continuing — ask us for details). Next year’s schedule will be a bit different in that there could be fewer, longer outings, including an overnight or two. Service might look different as well. Details to follow when the schedule is complete.

I should know better than to accept a bet from an Explorer. Now I’m on the hook for a “treat” when we reconvene in the fall. It’s worth it, though, for the reminder to me to relax into the wonders of nature.

Photo gallery. Have a childlike summer. 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Branch Hoppers Discover Tinder Fungus and a Vernal Pool at North Lake Samish Trail

The Branch Hoppers arrived at the North Lake Samish Trailhead excited about the sunshine that was creeping over Alger Alp and Lookout Mountain. This outing location has become a classic for the group, they explore there at least once a season. The terrain holds the perfect mix of logging land where the boys can wander, learn to navigate, and work on skills with low impact together with a more established forest on it’s steeper terrain that offers considerable physical challenge, a pristine waterfall, and plenty of natural history mysteries.
Circling up in the parking lot for their opening meeting the mentors brought the Explorer’s attention to the group’s main challenge for the season, inclusion and interpersonal dynamics.
Setting up the intention to improve upon our circle time, group decision-making, and interpersonal relationships the mentors laid out three rules to help support the group. First to encourage the heart by supporting other group members, being genuine and caring towards one another, helping peers when needed, and keeping each other’s goals in mind. Second, don’t waste anyone’s time (including your own) by taking advantage of what is offered during the outing and listening when needed. Lastly to be here now, which is an Explorers Club motto that demands staying present and mindful during outings and group focused work. With the whole group on board for our three commitments they nominated a leader of the day, passed out jobs, and checked in about our skill focus for the year fire by friction.
With the intention of inspiring the group to continue their skill journey of fire the mentors passed around an object that looked like a piece of fruit leather and felt like suede. They went on to explain that the object was called tinder fungus. “Fomes fomentarius or Horse Hoof fungus is a polypore that grows on Birch tree snags. The name, Fomes fomentarius means, ‘to use as tinder’. It is extremely flammable and has a nice slow burn, which makes it excellent for starting fires”.
Elaborating the mentor explained that in 1991 hikers found the preserved remains of a naturally mummified man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BCE in a glacier in the Otzal Alps between Austria and Italy. Ötzi the 5000-year-old “Iceman” was found with a similar polypore fungus in his pocket. He is thought to have carried the mushroom to preserve fire, use as insect repellent, and as a bandage. How exciting to think that in harvesting, processing, and practicing the technique of using tinder fungus as fire starter we’re carrying on a tradition that is at least 5,000 years old. Connecting the Explorers to the natural history and stories behind Earth skills brings relevancy, responsibility, and an element of sacredness to learning this knowledge.

The process of turning the raw fungus into a usable tinder involves cutting the middle of the fungus (the Amadou or trauma layer) into thin slices, boiling it for a few hours with the ash of a Paper Birch tree, then pounding it flat with a mallet. The mentors brought a few Horse Hoff funguses to the outing for the group to process, but our aim for the day was to ascend the North Lake Samish trail and head out to a wetland where we would search out the fungus to harvest and process. We’d wrap up our day up with some hot chocolate and games.
With inspiration as our momentum the group headed up the trail in search of the wetland. The group did an excellent job trading off carrying the heavy water jug and equipment for boiling the fungus. As we climbed water poured out of the hillside through the creeks and drainages, and the sweet smell of fresh buds, flowers, and spring was in the air. We arrived at the top of the power lines sweaty and hungry so the group lunched.
Establishing a basecamp we headed North on a logging road. Unexpectedly the group discovered a second wetland to the West. Climbing into the thicket we pushed our way through the loamy undergrowth. The Explorers had discovered not just a wetland but also a Vernal Pool!
A Vernal Pool ecosystem is a temporary wetland area formed by fall and winter rains that hold the water in land depressions until late spring or early summer, when it dries up. The pool holds water long enough to allow some aquatic organisms to flourish, but not long enough for the development of a typical pond or marsh. The resulting winter-wet/summer-dry conditions result in the creation of the specialized, rare, and unique variety of flora and fauna that calls it home.
Skirting the pool the Explorers noticed what look like miniature shrimp swimming around in the shallows. They had discovered Fairy Shrimp! These tiny invertebrate typically hatch when the first rains of the year fill vernal pools.
Freshwater Fairy Shrimp are inch long crustaceans, which spend their entire lives in a vernal pool. They mature in about 41 days under typical winter conditions.
Toward the end of their brief lifetime, females produce thick-shelled "resting eggs" also known as cysts. During the summer, these cysts become embedded in the dried bottom mud and hatch when the rains come again.
Continuing our exploration we did end up finding a few Birch, but none that had tinder fungus. We headed back to our base camp and got our stove going while we carefully carved off the trauma layer of the Horse Hoof fungus. While it was boiling away the boys practiced igniting pieces of some already processed tinder fungus and eventually got a small twig fire going. We spent the rest of our day finishing out our skill process, following our interests, and enjoying the sunshine.
Circling up to give some thanks with a round of hot chocolate and reflect on our day we asked ourselves if we had held to our three commitments and how it changed the group dynamic during the outing. The mentors definitely noticed a marked improvement in the group’s support and care for one another and appreciated their demonstrated focus while working on the complex skill of fire. Each Branch Hopper walked away with a piece of tinder fungus for their fire kit and a new found fascination for the complex ecology that lives in Vernal Pools and our lowland forests.

For more pictures please visit the Branch Hoppers photo album from the day.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Branch Hoppers Discover Natural History Wonders at Tennant Lake Boardwalk

The Branch Hoppers arrived at Tennant Lake Park with some rowdy energy that needed corralling. After witnessing the group wrestling in the Cattails the mentors called for an opening circle to discuss the plan for the day. The mentors were excited to delve into the world of birds and adaptations with the Explorers.
The mentors handed out five slips of paper pairing off the group. Written on each slips was a specific bird behavior with an accompanying type of call. The Explorers task was to act out the behavior using the call. Silly activities like this are a great way for kids to begin to understand bird language and are simultaneously hilariously entertaining. Please ask your Explorer about the different five different types of birdcalls.
After an intro into bird behavior the mentors passed around a few wooden replicas of bird beaks. Each beak shape demonstrated how it was specifically adapted for a unique diet. There was a beak for crunching seeds, one with a long tongue adapted to catch bugs stuck in the sap of trees, one for sucking up nectar, and one for processing small birds and mammals.
The Mentors also brought along Wild Whatcom’s small collection of bird nests. The boys carefully examined each nest and were fascinated by the complexity and vastly different make-up of each one. One nest was quite relevant to our location; taking a good look at the Marsh Wren’s oval shaped nest woven out of cattails lined with plant down the boys made the connection to the grass they had been wrestling in and its necessity for the Marsh Wren’s survival. 
Once we were oriented to all things birds we passed out some binoculars and field guides while explaining to the group that we were headed to a mile-long boardwalk through the wetland. Before leaving we handed out some additional materials for an experiment to capture and ignite methane gas trapped in the wetland.
The boys then climbed to the top of the Tennant Lake observation tower overlooking the boardwalk. The platform vantage provided crystal clear views of Mt. Baker and the Twin Sisters. One of the Explorers commented that “he couldn’t believe that he had never been here “.
As we walked the mentors chatted with a few interested boys about the importance of wetlands for providing habitat, water purification, trapping sediment, preventing flooding, and allowing water to slowly seep into the ground table.
Arriving at the boardwalk the boys investigated a beaver lodge that was thought to be inactive. Getting close to it the Explorers estimated that it was fifteen feet in diameter and while looking noticing that every stick placed on top of the lodge had signs of fresh beaver teeth marks. How cool is that this lodge could be reclaimed and reused and to think how each stick was specifically placed with intention and care.
Heading out to the first viewpoint of the lake we pulled out our swamp gas experiment. Filling a two-liter bottle with water we placed the funnel in its mouth and submerged it in the water upside-down. Finding a long stick, the boys churned up the muck at the bottom of the lake and the methane bubbles trapped under the sediment started to rise to the top. Capturing it the water in the bottle was slowly replaced by the methane.
Capping the bottle of trapped methane under water boys grabbed a few strike-anywhere matches but soon realized that they did not have an ideal place to strike them. They resorted to using a flint and steal to ignite a little cattail fluff, which would then ignite the match head. Try as they might the wind was too strong to provide ignition.
Hiking along the boardwalk the group found a sheltered spot behind a cattail hedge and tried again. After multiple tries they were successful in getting a match to light, but failed to ignite the methane. The experiment was not a failure however because it provided the Explorers with an opportunity to work through the process and apply critical thinking. The practice of persistent problem solving is a skill that will benefit these boys throughout their whole lives.
Finding an open space on the boardwalk the group lunched and viewed some Coots feeding in the lake and a watchful Red-tailed Hawk perched in a Cedar above them. Once the group was fueled it was the perfect opportunity to transition into a sit spot. Tucking away in the solitude of the Sweet Gale and Pacific Willow some boys got quiet and listened to the Red-winged Blackbirds companion calling. As one of the mentors sat a Marsh Wren darted by and looked as though it was establishing it’s breeding territory. 
Grouping back up we walked the second half of the board walk and identified the beaver highways grouping the wetland and the sweet smelling “Pine Sol” like scent of the castor oil scent mounds used by beavers to establish their territory.
Heading over to the Hovander Historic Homestead the boys played games in the field and we ended our day by presenting a leadership model with an activity.
Making an X and Y-axis with rope in the field the mentors explained that the four quadrants of the grid represented different leadership styles. (Please see the visual aid for a breakdown of the four leadership styles.) Reading a bit about each style the boys were asked to place themselves in the quadrant that best represented them. It was fascinating how the boys placed themselves and they each had a chance to explain why they had placed themselves within the quadrant. They were then asked to place themselves in the quadrant that was most challenging for them to embody and the quadrant they were most likely to access when mentoring with the younger Explorers  
The Branch Hoppers really brought genuineness and focus to this activity and had some astute self-reflection. For all the silliness and lack of focus this group has demonstrated at times, this activity was a great reminder that there is self-assessment and awareness growing in these boys even if they are not always able to express it in front of their peers and mentors. Brain and I aim to continue to present this model to the group as a way for them to orient to and discuss leadership. Our hope it that it becomes common language that the group can use in real time.
For a majority of this outing the Branch Hoppers showed camaraderie and the group climate felt very bonded. However, during the leadership style activity a few of the boys made wise cracks about a few of the other Explorers personal examples. This type of humor has been growing in some of the group members along with subtle clicks and diverging interests. These behaviors are typical of middle school but will not serve our Branch Hoppers or stand in the confines of our programming. Brian and I have been talking about bullying, inclusion, and what qualities make a caring and concerned group member and leader throughout the season. There is a growing need for more direct and timely intervention strategies. Challenging, but beneficial, interpersonal work lies ahead for the Branch Hoppers.  
We hope to nip these behaviors in the bud while providing room for conversation, growth, and grace. As mentors Brian and I are honored to meet these challenges head on and are thankful to work through them with your sons in these formative years.
 For more pictures from our outing please visit the Branch Hoppers’ photo album from the day.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Art of Snow Caves II with the Branch Hoppers

The Branch Hoppers arrived at Cascades Montessori surprisingly energetic and alert in spite of the fact it was 8:00am on a Saturday. Hopping aboard our bus Moose we headed out Highway 542 in search of snow. Cruising along the North Fork of the Nooksack River the Explorers marveled at the Bald Eagles perched in the old growth.
Arriving at the upper parking lot of the Mt. Baker Ski Area the weather felt unusually warm and comfortable. Circling up at the backcountry gate the mentors asked for the group to focus for a safety discussion, and reminded everyone that venturing out into the backcountry during winter required careful tracking of weather and a heightened awareness of hazards that are present.
Together the group was challenged to remember what safety terminologies and guidelines we had discussed on our previous snow cave outings. We reviewed: backcountry travel and etiquette, avalanche prone slopes and their degree of angle, terrain traps and cornices, wind loading, storm slab, loose wet snow avalanches, tree well hazards, dehydration, protecting layers and gear in a wet environment, and sticking together as a group.
Building upon this knowledge the mentors gave a talk on the previous two weeks weather and snowfall in relation to: the daily temperature, amount of rain/snowfall, precipitation in relation to snowpack stability, wind direction and speed, direction of wind loading on slopes due to transportation of snow, NWAC’s detailed avalanche forecast and current level of danger rating, and recent observations skiers had made of in the backcountry.
The boys were anxious to get digging but the mentors needed to mention one other important point. We are very clear with the Explorers that just because they are learning information relating to avalanche awareness and backcountry winter travel that does not give them license to duck the ropes while at the ski area or venture out into the winter wilderness without supervision or an experienced adult.
Leading the charge the Explorers headed out on a path that offered a safe and efficient travel route to their identified snow cave building location. Stepping out of the boot pack to let a few skiers go past the boys sank up to their waists into the snow. Trudging, post-holing, and pushing their way up slope the group looked like a pack of sled dogs. It’s powerful to see the Explorers developing a familiarity and affinity for this landscape.
Setting up base camp the group honed in on a spot roughly on a twenty-degree slope with a deep wind deposited snow bank. Walking out a perimeter around the snow cave site as to not compress the snow, the boys used a probed and determined that the depth was roughly seven feet. Digging out a platform the boys excavated six feet vertically, throwing the snow down slope.
Initially the work went quickly. Outlining the entrance of their cave the Explorers used a snow-saw to cut blocks out of the wall until a shoulder-wide entrance to the cave went roughly three feet back. From this point the work of digging gets tough until the cave gets big enough to sit up in. Adding to the day’s difficulty was the mentor’s mistake in banking on the Explorers bringing extra shovels. With only two shovels at our disposal the work went slow and half the group played while the other worked.
Stopping for a snack the group cut out a small kitchen space with a wind block next to the cave and Brian set up a stove to make some peppermint tea. As our snow melted and came to a boil we sat back and looked out at Table Mountain while we basked in the touch and go sunshine. The mild weather came much to our surprise as NOAA’s forecast had called for rain and temps around forty, which can be miserable without the knowledge of how to stay warm and dry in those tough conditions.
The boys really enjoyed identifying the previous week’s avalanches across the valley. From a distance the mentors tried to help the group orient to the scale and size of the slides and if they looked to be natural releases or human triggered. Being in the presence of the mountains has the power to humble both mentor and Explorer alike as it provides a window into forces much greater than ourselves. This shift in perspective calls us to be present and engaged, increases our discernment, encourages forethought and reflection, and is restorative in nature.
One take-away our mentors have had time and time again with the Branch Hoppers is that they love being together in the mountains. Whether it watching the tea boil and the sun travel over the peaks, engaging in the skill of snow caving, or body sliding down the hill and throwing snowballs at each other, they couldn’t get enough!
We ended up making a snow cave big enough for one person and set-up a sleeping bag and pad inside to see what it would feel like to weather a night there. Demolishing our cave was seemingly more fun than building it! After making a sweep around our camp we made our way back to the wilderness rope line to gather up for a circle of thanks.
The Branch Hoppers were thankful for the opportunity to be in the mountains, for all the knowledge gained through the experience, for the creative medium of snow, for deep spring snowpack that provides us drinking water, for quality gear that enriches our experience, for pleasantly surprising weather, and for being reminded of the lesson that the hardest part is getting out the door and how that most of the time the experience is rich and rewarding. Brain and I are thankful to spend another day in the mountains with this fine crew of arriving adults.

For more pictures from our outing please visit the Branch Hopper’s photo album from the day.