Connecting with Nature


Columns Category

Essays contributed by North Central Washington writers about seasonal encounters with nature, published in The Wenatchee World NCW Greenways

Chipmunks, Fire and Forests Spring to Life

April 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

Look at the ancient, burned-out stump of a cedar and imagine what the land was like 100 years ago. Watch a chipmunk stuff its cheeks with things dug from under a log and picture how this small creature survives the deep snows of winter. Drink in the smell of the warming earth and imagine mushrooms — a taste of spring — sizzling in a pan on your stove.

It was musings such as these that led me to seek out those who could help me get a better sense of the Little Wenatchee and White River area that I fell in love with while camping last summer. I wanted to take what I could see and imagine about this diverse part of Chelan County and hold it up against the observations and knowledge of those with more background and experience in the place. Fortunately, longtime White River Valley resident Paul Gray and U.S. Forest Service research biologist John Lehmkuhl agreed to share their insights.

Born in 1941 and raised in the White River Valley, Paul Gray has learned about the land through direct observation and stories passed down through his family. He remembers quieter times when the grass grew between two wheel tracks in front of his family’s house on White River Road.

Settlement patterns and logging have affected the landscape we see in the Little Wenatchee and White River valleys today. In the White River, Paul says, “there were a lot of people who lived up there between 1900 and 1915 — probably 15 to 20 families.” These early homesteaders cleared and sold the cedar trees for lumber. “After that,” he adds, “someone was a little careless with fire and that pretty much ended the logging by 1915.”

By the late 1930s to early 1940s, the war effort increased the market for lumber. The wetlands at the mouth of Nason Creek were filled and a road was built to support the logging business, Paul says. “That was in the Little Wenatchee because it had the best prime timber. They didn’t start again on the White River until the early ’50s.”

It was during this time that Paul became a “valley watcher” old enough to be aware of the cycle of change he was witnessing. “Fire is an integral part of the whole thing,” he says. “You’ve got willow brush in the bottom and a certain amount of vine maple which resprouts after fires.” Cottonwood and quaking aspen come along later, he notes, followed by white fir, Douglas fir and cedars.

John Lehmkuhl looks at the cycles of change that characterize our forests from another angle — that of a wildlife biologist with the Forest Service’s Pacific Northwest research station in Wenatchee. He studies the role that small mammals, including chipmunks, play in the forest ecosystem. “They are a pretty important little animal in the forests around here,” he says. They time their emergence from burrows each spring to coincide with that of the mushrooms and truffles they feed upon. The chipmunks eat the truffles, underground fruits of fungus that are beneficial to trees, but they don’t digest the spores. The spores are disseminated throughout the forest in the chipmunks’ feces, explains John.

John describes how chipmunks and their ability to spread fungal spores contributes to the restoration of the forest. “Mycologists (mushroom specialists), have found that trees that have these fungi are much more productive and grow faster and survive drought conditions better. So if you think about climate change and drier conditions of the summer time you can see how these guys contribute to forest productivity,” he says.

“There are two kinds of chipmunks living in the forests around here,” John explains, “depending upon the density of the forest canopy. There’s the yellow pine chipmunk that lives in the more open forests with ponderosa pine and the slightly larger Townsend’s chipmunk that’s found in the denser forests more like those on the west side of the Cascades.”

Years of fire prevention have increased the proportion of closed-canopy forests in North Central Washington, creating more habitat for Townsend’s chipmunks than probably existed in the past, says John.

“And when we go in there with forest restoration projects where we’re thinning and burning and basically opening up the canopy, we’re reducing the habitat for the Townsend’s chipmunk and increasing it for yellow pine chipmunk,” he says. “I think as we do these treatments, we’re seeing the Townsend’s chipmunk being pushed back toward the crest to where they originally were 100 years ago or more in the closed-canopy forest.”

Connecting With Nature is a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS) that engages the community in telling the story of the diversity of life that makes our region unique. Nancy Warner is the IRIS coordinator.

Connecting with Nature in North Central Washington

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January 2010, Nature of Place, NCW Greenways
by Nancy Warner

Ten years ago when I moved to North Central Washington, I brought with me a love of nature along with a keen interest in learning more about the people and geography of this place.

As a biologist and lifelong resident of the West, I was familiar with many of the plants, animals and natural communities I found here. Big sagebrush, red squirrels and dippers, for example, are old friends from other shrub steppe, coniferous forest and freshwater habitats where I’ve lived. Their presence, along with introductions to many people in the community, helped to quickly orient me to this place.

What I could not easily see, and wanted to discover, was the underlying story of this place — the collective knowledge people have about how past land uses, seasonal changes, climate and vegetation patterns, and events including fires and floods have shaped the nature of what we see today.

As an individual, I needed to have a sense of this story to feel connected to this place. And as a member of the larger community, I needed to understand what is possible in this unique region so I could work with others to maintain and restore that potential for the future.

For the past year, I’ve used this Greenways column to highlight some of the seasonal changes, patterns and encounters with nature that longtime NCW residents have witnessed and shared.

I’ve specifically sought out people who have lived in one place for many years and have been able to observe the cycles and spectacles of nature on a regular basis through their work, interests or hobbies. I’ve asked them about trends they’ve seen in the weather, changes in vegetation and wildlife distribution and magic moments where an encounter with nature stunned, surprised and inspired them.

The collective knowledge, perspectives and memories of these farmers, loggers and other long-timers provide important background needed for building a shared understanding of this place along with many reminders of what a joy it is to live here.

In the year ahead, I’ll continue to interview longtime residents about their memories and experiences in nature. Some of what I learn will be reflected in this column. I’ll also be bringing the perspectives of scientists, artists and those who spend time recreating in the lands of our region into the story.

I expect we’ll all learn more about the region as we discover common experiences, as well as those that are unique, strengthening the connections among our community as we go.

I hope you’ll join in creating this story of place by contributing your observations and memories at here. For more information, please contact me at To learn more about Diana Sanford and her art, visit

Memories of Fall in North Central Washington

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Longtimers share memories of autumns past

October 2009, NCW Green Ways

By Nancy Warner

It’s clearly marked on the calendar — autumn equinox, Sept. 22 — but somehow the shorter days and colder nights always come as something of a surprise. But as we harvest the last of our summer gardens, bite into fresh crisp apples and soak up the golden glow of larches lighting up the hillsides, we begin to get in sync with the season.

Winter and change are coming. If we pay attention, we’ll learn something.

Longtime logcutter Ray Hendrickson has been paying attention to the lands and waters in the Upper Wenatchee Valley for 83 years, hunting, fishing and exploring the backcountry with his wife Gretchen. It was his father, an avid outdoorsman from Minnesota, who taught Ray much of what he knows about wildlife.

“When I was little, why he’d take me on his shoulders and walk up the Icicle to fish. And that was before the road was up there,” Ray says. “He taught me a lot about how to follow the game trails and stuff like that, you know.”

Targeting rock outcrops, drainages and the sparser brush beneath big trees, Ray made his way to the high lakes of the Icicle Creek watershed, where he caught cutthroats, rainbows and eastern brook trout. Down in the valley, he remembers seeing otters, beavers and occasionally a fisher — bigger than the more common pine marten — feeding on salmon along the edges of the creek.
Icicle Creek, Nancy Warner photo

His memories of Icicle Creek include how it changed following construction of the fish hatchery in the late 1930s. “Icicle Creek was clear and there was no moss [algae] on the rocks,” he recalls, “until they put that fish hatchery in.” According to Ray, that algae gave the creek a “rotten” odor by late summer and early fall as the creek levels dropped in response to irrigators diverting water from the creek for their hay crops and orchards.

Born in Leavenworth in 1930, longtime dairy farmer Pat Stoudt and her family used the waters of Icicle Creek for irrigation. Now retired and an avid weather watcher, Pat has seen some unusual rainfall patterns within her part of the Icicle Valley. This year would have been one of the rare times on her family’s place, she says, when they might have gotten a fourth cutting on their hay crop.

“We received the rain in August at the right time. It’s been warm and dry. Lots of morning dew the last week or so,” she says. “This year probably would have been a perfect year for a fourth cutting.”

According to Pat, the “fourth-cutting years” were followed by severe winters, particularly 1956, 1957 and 1958. In addition to weather patterns, she remembers how she and her family used other cues to gauge the severity of the coming winter.

“Gophers and field mice become much more aggressive,” she observes, noting that, “you can trap and the next day they have a new hole beside it. …”

“Another good indicator,” she adds, “is the mountain ash trees. If those berries begin turning early, that means we?re going to have a doozy.”
Bear Scat

A skilled hunter, Ray tracks the season based on the movements of mule deer and bears through the valley and backcountry. “The deer start to get a darker coat on ‘em,” Ray says, “and bears start to eat berries.”

To tell when a bear is getting ready to hibernate, he advises, keep an eye on the berries of the mountain ash trees. “They eat them, and it cleans them out …,” he says. “Generally, in the high country, you see them moving over the ridges. They’re going to a place to hibernate.”

To hear more memories of summer in North Central Washington, view additional photographs and learn more about how you can share your observations of seasonal change, visit the IRIS Web site at , “Connecting With Nature.”

Nancy Warner is coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS).

Memories of Summer in North Central Washington

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Fishing, fires, and huckleberries

July 2009, Nature of Place, NCW Green Ways

By Nancy Warner

Ask someone what they prize most about living in North Central Washington, and they’ll likely say the four distinct seasons that shape the rhythm of life here.
Gretchen Minard, Nancy Warner photo
For 107-year-old Gretchen Minard, this rhythm has its strongest beat during summer in the upper Wenatchee Valley. Born in Leavenworth in 1901, she remembers the fun she had on the family’s farm along Chumstick Creek. “We could wade in the river or in the stream. And, of course, there was pretty good fishing then, too.” She adds that, “if you wanted any fish you had to get out and do your share of periwinkle hunting.”

Using periwinkles, or caddisfly larvae, that clung to the underside of rocks in Chumstick Creek for bait was something Bud and Ray Norman also did as they came of fishing age in the early 1940s.The brothers remember learning to fish for rainbow trout with the neighbor kids. ?When we first started, it was a willow stick with a line and sometimes a hook made out of a safety pin,? Ray remembers.

Bud and Bill Norman, Norman Family CollectionRecently retired from a lifetime of logging, Bud and Ray grew up along the Chumstick helping their dad with his horse-logging business. “I was swamping for a team of horses in the woods when I was 9 years old,” Bud remembers, “cutting a trail through the vine maple so they could get in there with the horses to pull the wood out.”

“Back then,” Ray recalls, “the timber was cut mostly into short logs because it was so big.” The brothers remember watching their dad work his cross saw on ponderosa, or yellow pines, up to 4 feet around. They say most of what was marked and cut in the 1940s was either pine or fir. “There used to be quite a bit of white pine around,” Bud says. “Tons of it up around the lake and up the Icicle.”Norman brothers, Nancy Warner photo

Huckleberry season was a high point of the summer for Gretchen’s family, who would pack their berry-picking buckets and camping equipment on packhorses and hike the old Indian trail from the Chumstick Valley to Lake Wenatchee. She recalls how they spent a whole week doing most of their berry picking in a big meadow above Lake Wenatchee. “Huckleberries usually came out where they had just recently logged,” she explains. “Some years they got quite a few, some years not so many.”

While everybody who came to visit Gretchen’s family at the cabin they later built at Lake Wenatchee “had to have a trip up Dirty Face” to visit the fire lookout, she doesn’t remember seeing many fires around there until recent years. Bud and Ray say there are definitely more fires now but remember quite a few back then too. “The logger then was the first one they’d come after for fires,” Bud remembers. “They used to shut us down and we had to go fight fires.” Ray adds, “We usually had to hike into the high lake fires.”

Looking back at the changes they’ve seen, all three longtime residents agree the area is drier today. Reflecting on the wildflowers at her family’s cabin, Gretchen says “we had plenty of wildflowers and they were always bright and pretty. But the ground is changing; it’s not as moist as it used to be. When the weather changed the flowers changed, too.”

Nancy Warner is the coordinator for the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS).

Memories of Spring in North Central Washington

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Memories of spring in North Central Washington

April 2009, Nature of Place, NCW Green Ways

By Nancy Warner

Spring moves like a wave over North Central Washington each year as the days grow longer and the ground thaws and warms.  The chirp of the returning robins and the crocus flowers poking up in our gardens tells us it’s coming. We know it?s here when we push our heavy coats to the back of the closet and follow the urge to dig in the dirt, ride bikes, play marbles, and take a deep breath of fresh air.   

Sagebrush Buttercup Like everything else, the way you experience spring in North Central Washington depends on when and where you stand.
According to longtime Waterville resident Nadra Rivers, “Spring arrives late and with a good deal of wind.”  Most wildflowers are scarce until late April or May, but Nadra and her daughter Kathi Rivers Shannon remember the big V-shaped flocks of Canada geese flying over on their way north as an early sign of spring. “It was a big season changer,” Kathi says. “But now more geese stay around the area so it doesn?t have the big effect it used to have.”
For Withrow-area farmer Randy Uhrich, spring was a hectic time preparing the fields for planting. “The ground would have to dry out enough to plow — this would start from the first to the middle of April depending on the season. Dad always said it was going to be cold until the snow is off Badger Mountain. That basically still holds. So you’d get out in the fields as soon as you could to work the ground, but it would be cold. Things wouldn’t germinate as fast.”
John Thoren grew up on a ranch in the northeast portion of Douglas County where each spring his mother “used to watch for the buttercups coming out on the south side of the hills.”  He remembers how all kinds of ducks, including mallards, would come into the potholes across the ranch, after the thaw, along with tadpoles and salamanders. “Some people used to use lakes on our place to catch salamanders or waterdogs, which they used for fish bait.” 
He also remembers how they’d see sandhill cranes in March to early April. “I would guess there was 100 to 200 that would migrate through that area,” he says, an event that sparked interest in nearby Waterville. Nadra Rivers recalls how “the word would go through town that the cranes are out by Mansfield — and we’d pile the kids in and go out and look at the cranes.”
In addition to ducks and cranes, the Thoren family wheatfields attracted migrating Canada geese in the spring. “We had one field — and if that field was in fall wheat so it was green in the spring, the geese would just decimate it. It was just grazed off just as slick as the tabletop. Hundreds of geese — maybe even thousands. They would come in off of Banks Lake to the ranch and, on a quarter section, they could look almost black — there could be that many geese on it.”
Further north at the Sinlahekin State Wildlife Area in Okanogan County, manager Dale Swedberg says, “It’s possible to see marmots (ground hog or rock chuck) as early as April when fishing season opens up. As soon as the first green vegetation appears you’ll see them out foraging.”
Mule deer and mountain goats also feed on the fresh green plants that come up on the south slopes of the Sinlahekin Valley. “Buttercups, yellow bells, bluebells, spring beauties, and balsamroot will come up around then. And, if it’s a particularly wet spring, some of the hillsides will be literally blue from the lupine.”
Nancy Warner is program director for the Nature of Place, a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS).

Memories of Winter in North Central Washington

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Memories of Winter in North Central Washington

January, 2009 Nature of Place, NCW Green Ways

By Nancy Warner 

Spend at least one year in a place, people will tell you, to get to know the land and the rhythm of the seasons, before you build a house or plant your garden. Go through a winter here and then you’ll know more about what to expect and what’s possible. You’ll be seasoned to the place.

cabin photoWhile there are some patterns that mark the winter season in North Central Washington each year — predictably short days, long nights, and a brief thaw sometime in February — the temperatures, timing and amount of precipitation each season brings have always been tough to call. Oldtimers sometimes used the height of pocket gopher mounds to gauge the severity of the winter ? low mounds signaling shallow burrows and mild temperatures to come. 

Cashmere pioneer and longtime weather watcher Kate Bailey was often successful using temperature and moisture conditions of the 12 days following Christmas to predict weather patterns for the rest of the year. But speaking from her experience, Fern Kelly, longtime orchard owner and resident of Monitor says, “As far as the weather goes it seems to me that from one year to another you couldn’t predict it. So we just took it one day at a time.”  

Some of those days proved to be more memorable than others. Fern recalls stories from her grandfather about the winter of 1889 when the snow was so deep that the cattle which people depended upon starved to death.  “It was after that winter that some of the fellas decided that it might be better to go into fruit trees.”  1916 was another deep-snow winter that stands out in the collective memory of the region. But it was 1968, Fern points out, when it got down to twenty below for two weeks, that all of the old common delicious apple trees in their orchard died. “The next spring you could hear saws going all over the area,” she remembered, as orchardists cut down hundreds of trees killed by the big freeze. 

Squirrel, Rod GilbertMalcolm Keithley grew up in Stehekin where he often followed postmaster Harry Buckner on his rounds to check the weather station. “I remember Harry talking about the winter of 1948, which most people remember as the floods of ’48. I was always really intrigued with the beautiful gray squirrels that were around Stehekin and he said there used to be a huge population of gray squirrels in the Stehekin Valley but most of them died out during that severe winter of 1948.” 

Malcolm and his friend Billy Sullivan learned a lot about wildlife from the trappers who ran lines for beaver and martens in the backcountry around the Stehekin Valley each winter. They also made plenty of their own discoveries as they poked around the mud flats exposed at the mouth of the Stehekin River. Great blue herons, bald eagles, merganser ducks or “hell divers,” frequented the lake and the finger-like channels that changed with the ebb and flow of the snowmelt. Lingcod Hunters, Malcolm KeithlyAnd while they were able to see a variety of fish in the shallows, it was the big fish of the deep, the landlocked burbot (lingcod) of Lake Chelan – that captured their imagination.  “I think the most memorable thing was when Billy and I would put setlines out for lingcod,” he said. “It would go down about 200 feet, baited with squawfish or whatever we could find. And you’d set it out during the day and come back the next day and reel up the setline and you?d have several lingcod hanging off of it.”  

Daisy Weaver was another person who wintered at Stehekin. Malcolm remembers her talking about how she would go out on the beach near her cabin at Weaver Point and pick up lingcod following severe winter storms. “She said the biggest one she ever saw wash up on shore was over five feet long. They look like eels because they’re so long and skinny.” 

Nancy Warner is program director for Nature of Place, a program of the Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship (IRIS).