Monday, February 27, 2017

An Exploration into Human Impact and Fire at North Galbraith Mountain Trailhead

It had been two years since the Branch Hoppers explored North Galbraith Mountain Trailhead. In the spring of 2015 the Branch Hopper’s began their carving journey in a valley tucked just southwest of the Birch Street entrance. The boys stood at the trailhead greeting passing mountain bikers, excited to reconnect with the place and delve into the skill of fire making.
The group hiked back into the forest for about ten minutes until they found a desirable place for an opening meeting. With only seven Explorers present handing out jobs was a breeze and the boys worked well together to come up with a plan for the day. The mentors were anxious to teach the group the advanced skill of fire by friction and had purposefully picked the outing location due to the semi recent logging that occurred and the opportunity to harvest off of its timber piles.
Hiking down a fresh mountain biking trail the group came to the edge of the logging clearing only to find a Black-Tailed Deer. The group was quiet and still as they watched the deer grazing on the grass and saplings that had sprung up in the clearing. It was a great chance to talk with the Explorers about the animals that lived on the fringes of the forest. Deer, porcupines, squirrels, raccoons, and crows are just a few of the animals that have learned to thrive and adapt in landscapes where broken sections of the forest canopy exist.
Walking through the logging land the boys said they felt like they were in Mordor from Lord of the Rings and marveled at the massive piles of cedar, maple, alder, and Douglas fir. The mentors told the boys to be on the lookout for a piece of seasoned cedar and Red Alder that was small enough to cut with a pack saw. This was also a great time for the boys to learn how to harvest Cedar bark from downed trees and stumps. The mentors
cautioned the group that this was not something we wanted to take from any living Cedar trees. It was challenging for the boys to identify the Alder from the Maple in piles with the similarity of their bark patterns. It was also fascinating for them to look at the ring patterns in the clean chain saw cuts of large Cedar stumps.
We carful navigated the log piles which were slippery due the misty precipitation falling from the sky; it seemed to saturate and permeate everything including us! We soggily carried the resources to the forest edge while tracking this problematic landscape. The group found a wealth of invasive species which seemed to cover the entire landscape, not to mention the ground water run off that flowed brown with the mixture of mud and topsoil.
It was at that moment the group realized that the valley which they had learned to carve and played Spider’s Web in underneath the shade of Vine Maples and Sword Ferns was also in fact one and the same as the valley they were currently in. Although they didn’t express it in so many words the heaviness and uncertainty was palpable. This was a great time to talk with a few of the Explorers about turning problems into possibilities and recognize that just like the deer we were using the altered landscape to harvest in its temporary larder.
What could we learn from this? First to recognize that our society needs to harvest some wood to build infrastructure, but in applying our mottos slow is fast and fast slow and all things are connected understand that we need to do so much differently and with much more thought and consideration. Turning the problem of logging into a sustainable possibility lies with our future generations ability to help influence and change these practices as a caring and aware community.
Arriving at the clearing’s edge we lunched and began to process the wood in preparation for our fire making kits. Splitting the wood was arduous and the group, including the mentors, seemed to lack awareness for the saturating mist that engulfed the forest. Taking stock, we realized that everyone’s layers were soaked and the boys were beginning to look cold. It seemed as if we were starting to lose our focus. A few boys worked on a shelter with the branches of a toppled Douglas fir while others took shelter under the umbrella-like branches of a mature Cedar tree while working on making a tinder bundle.
It was at this moment that the mentor had a revelation! Rather than persuading the boys to all work on fire by friction kits, allowing them to follow their own method in fire making would give them the focus and motivation to learn. Just like the BEC staff has preferred methods for making fire, so do the boys. It is our role to support and nourish those passions as mentors.
Our goal over the course of the next few outings will be to get the Explorers set up with their personalized fire making kits so that they can become proficient with them. It is far less important that the boys know every technique to making fire than it is that they internalize one method which could end up saving their lives in a survival scenario.
Holding to our commitment to have a sit spot we walked up the trail to the location where we held our opening meeting and spread out. Circling up after our solo time we went around the circle and shared our thanks and stated our intention to pursue a preferred method of making fire.
The Branch Hoppers have really been performing these last few outings. After five year in the program they have hit their stride as a group. They are working collaboratively and making an effort to including one another. Furthermore, they are vocalizing an internalized ethic for the natural environment that seems to contrast with their understanding and accepting of our impact and resource needs as humans. Our hope for the Branch Hopper is that this internal struggle will empower them to become stewards of the natural environmental and community members that will be better equipped to examine our current resource needs and the challenges that lie ahead with the tools awareness, balance, humility, knowledge of place and connection, and environmental and social justice.

For more pictures from our outing please visit the Branch Hoppers’ photo album from the day. Thanks!

Art of Snow Cave Building with the Branch Hoppers

The Branch Hoppers Explorers arrived at Cascades Montessori full of energy and excitement about the extended outing in the Mt. Baker Wilderness. Driving out the 542 the boys spotted Bald Eagles along the North fork of the Nooksack River and marveled at snow walls that started in Deming and grew ever deeper as we slowly gained elevation. The mentors pointed out the significance and importance of the low elevation snow pack for our glaciers, salmon, fire season, and drinking water.
Arriving at the upper parking lot of the boys geared up and we headed towards the backcountry gate. In our opening meeting the mentors let the group know that backcountry travel in the winter is a lot different than an outing in the front country, and although we wouldn’t be venturing out too far from the parking lot it doesn’t take long to be out in the deep winter wilderness.
The mentors went on to explain that knowing the snow pack was of the upmost importance, and that it was another form of tracking. Last weekend it had snowed three to five feet, but on the following Thursday it had rained over four inches, consolidating the layers in the snow pack. However, on Friday it snowed fourteen inches with thirty-five mph winds which added storm slab and wind loading on North to South aspects with subpar bonding to the previous layer.
One mentor passed around a special compass rose that modeled the three different elevation levels and the danger each directional aspect presented. Together we discussed: winter backcountry travel and etiquette, avalanche prone slopes and terrain traps, defined wind loading and storm slab, and located and identified tree wells.
Feeling oriented we headed out in search of the ideal location to build a snow cave. Trudging along the mentors pointed of some of the prominent peaks and backcountry ski runs in the area. Those who were not wearing snowshoes post-holed up to their waists in the snow. This was a challenge for both the Explorers and the mentors!
Arriving at a Northwestern-facing slope we pulled out an avalanche probe and found snow depth at roughly 240cm or 7.8 feet.  This was as far as our probed reached, but from the NWAC meter data at 5,100 feet elevation the snow depth was most likely 16 to 20 feet! Being careful not to compact the snow the group excavated a four by four foot section down five feet before making an entrance to their cave.
The shoveling was difficult with the recent consolidation and the going was slow, but the group persisted. Our goal was to dig into the bottom of the well about three feet then dig slightly upward before we started to excavate out the sleeping area. Having a stair like entry inside the start of the snow cave traps heat within in the structure’s insulating walls. One of the mentors gave an example to the group of sleeping in a snow cave and lighting one emergency candle which brought the temperature up to sixty-five degrees!
Our mentors would like to commend the Explorers for working well together and for their engagement with the place and skill. The boys traded off with the limited amount of shovels and collaborated on each step in the snow cave process. If they were not working on the snow cave they were digging tunnels, side shelters, or creating a sledding track. Over the last few outing the group has really been harmonizing and collaborating, treating each other with respect and care, and listening and being present in the explorations.
The group spent the last part of the day learning the art of shovel sledding, making snow cones with red Power Aid, soaking up Vitamin D and spectacular mountain views, and rejoicing with their peers in the moment. It was truly a pleasure to spend a day in the mountains with the Branch Hoppers. We live in an amazing place and this day was a great way to reinforce this truth. Before heading out we gave some thanks and each Explorer shared about what he had learned and what had challenged him about the process.

For more photos of our winter exploration please visit the Branch Hoppers’ photo album from the day.