It’s these little exclamations sent to people in big cities, after being away for a few days, that reminds us where we’ve been. After a few nights out we forget that some folks have been living inside the place we refer to as the “real world” while we’re out in the “field.” Out in the backcountry reality consists of trouble shooting stoves, solo paddling on Ross Lake and learning to identify each other’s body odor.
We left the Learning Center on the morning of June 24th with an iffy weather forecast. One of the packing list items—a positive attitude—was almost as important as making sure we had enough hot chocolate mix. Between raindrops we smiled and sang our way up Diablo Lake toward Ross Dam. I knew my mom hadn’t checked the forecast when I spoke with her on Sunday, otherwise she wouldn’t have just told me to – Have fun.
The truth is, what we do for fun and work up here in the North Cascades National Park Complex might be puzzling to some. How could 12 people decide to push off in “June-uary” for three nights of canoe camping? How could they enjoy it so much they want to share it with the underserved youth of Washington and Oregon? We had to answer the same questions as the new and returning staff of Youth Leadership Adventures.
We arrived at the bottom of Ross Dam where we had the quickest shuttle to the Ross Lake Resort in recalled history. This was largely a result of the great help and support from the Resort staff. This strong partnership helps us run programs up on Ross Lake by providing us storage space for food and gear as well as a safe place to leave the canoes that we use throughout the summer. When the trucks came to shuttle our boats and gear, we were ready. Most of our group had been on the lake that winter, having walked their boats up the road to Ross Dam. It was easy to appreciate all the help we had from the two outfitted trucks that came to take us uphill.
Instructors, gear, and canoes all pile into trucks run by Ross Lake Resort staff to travel around Ross Dam
We spent some time at the resort getting acquainted with things but shortly got in canoes in the rain and headed for our destination, Big Beaver Camp. The water in the lake is still about 10 feet below the full waterline and we saw evidence of that with tree stumps along the shore. Right now Seattle City Light reports the reservoir is filling about a foot a day.
Arriving at Big Beaver we learned we would be sharing the site with a few other groups (that’s right, we weren’t the only ones braving the cool June rains in the North Cascades). When we arrived, we had all kinds of things to learn, and fast. With our students, we plan out the first 24 hours meticulously. Students relax when they understand they will sleep comfortably in tents and that we will have plenty of hot delicious meals. On our instructor training, in addition to cooking, sleeping and purifying water, we had the added task of learning how to teach these essentials to students while having fun.
We rose to that challenge. Over the four days, each instructor took on different teaching opportunities including how to repair a stove and how to set a bear hang. Everyone brought their own flair and jokes to their lessons and while we became more technically proficient, even our seasoned instructors gained some new tricks to make lessons fun.
A large part of the Youth Leadership Adventures curriculum is the formal lessons taught by instructors. Every day, typically after dinner, leaders take time to teach students the fundamental aspects of the ecosystem in the North Cascades. Many of the instructors and graduate students on our trip have devoted their time to studying climate change. We all took time discussing and sharing lessons to better explain these complex issues, as well as topics such as Wilderness, cultural history (on the old McMillan homestead), and the ecology of Ross Lake. While none of us are experts in these areas, collectively we held an impressive wealth of knowledge that we can now pass on to our students.
The trip was coming to a close. On Tuesday we paddled across Ross lake to McMillan Camp (where the deer were a little too comfortable with humans). Wednesday we paddled back across the lake and had lunch on a sandy beach just south of Big Beaver Creek. There, we split into two groups. One group was about to paddle the 18 foot, tandem canoes alone, the bows loaded down with gear. They paddled an impressive 5 miles with strong head winds to Green Point Camp and showed up windswept and exhilarated. Some had stories of challenge and others found time to sing between the gusts. I was assigned to the hiking group, and traveled using my feet to arrive at Green Point. We found beautiful Candystick (one of the few ‘non-green’ plants along the trail, due to its heterotrophic nature) blooming red and white, early season Huckleberries, and a great view of Pierce Creek Falls.
That night at Green Point we learned how to give our students a poignant end to the trip with a closing circle. If you happen to know a student who has been on one of our summer programs, I recommend that you ask about their closing ceremony experience. These gatherings tend to be a culminating experience that students remember for a long time and one could warrant its own Chattermarks entry. It was also at that juncture when I knew what I’d tell my mom when I came out of the field.
The new staff and graduate students finally shared the hesitations they’d had before coming on the trip. At that final moment when the past four days had been so smooth, fun and filled with learning, we finally shared our apprehensions. Most resoundingly, “I didn’t want to be wet and cold for four days”. The truth is, we weren’t. We were happy and had fun getting to know each other; we gained confidence and skills we will use with the 80 students we’ll serve this summer. Though most importantly, all those people who go out into “the field” with Youth Leadership Adventures, whether for a day-long ride on the Mule (a park service boat), or 31 consecutive days away from home, can return and share their experience with their families. So thanks mom, maybe next time you can come along.
Sabrina Freedman is a Seasonal Naturalist at North Cascades Institute. She most recently came from Idaho where she received her Masters degree from the University of Idaho and spent time at the McCall Outdoor Science School. In her spare time, Sabrina makes pottery and runs on the nearby trails.