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Nature Namaste: Retreats with Maya Whole Health Studio

June 9th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Snowy mountains, old growth forests, wholesome food, s’mores and yoga.

How could you go wrong with a combo like that?

Maya Whole Health Studio is hosting their series “Yoga, Nature & More: Refresh Your Perspective” retreats at the Environmental Learning Center this summer and fall through North Cascades Institute’s Group Rentals Program. They are a fantastic group of instructors and health practitioners from Renton, WA who are devoted to the well-being and enjoyment of their participants.

Not only are the retreats located in one of the most beautiful places in the Pacific Northwest, but guests are well taken care of while staying at the Environmental Learning Center. Maya Whole Health’s owner, Shannon Aldrich-Payne, and instructor, Kristen Swanzy-O’Conner, created the three-day, two-night retreat around meditation, yoga, reflection and experiencing the surrounding nature. Spending a weekend with them is relaxing and rejuvenating.

Exploring and learning about the immediate environment is the mission of North Cascades Institute. While staying at the Environmental Learning Center, our expert naturalists lead guests on a guided hike in North Cascades National Park. Participants experience the wilderness by learning about the local flora and fauna, observing the natural beauty of the mountainous North Cascades and visiting a breath-taking waterfall.

Food is another passion for North Cascades Institute. Our chefs make sure no one leaves our historic lakeside dining hall hungry by preparing flavorful, delicious, local, organic meals that can accommodate any dietary need (and there’s plenty of dessert too!).

cake betsy AndrianaDid someone say, “dessert”? Enjoy scrumptious meals at the Learning Center like this creation by our very own Chef Betsy. It’s a dairy-free, gluten-free delicious chocolate cake. Photo by author.

In addition to our naturalists and chefs, there is always an on-site host for Group Rentals to help guests and the program. Just like Maya Whole Health Studio, the North Cascades Institute staff is dedicated to making sure everyone thrives during their time here.

Ready to sign up for a retreat weekend with Maya Whole Health Studio? Below are the summer retreat dates and click here to register online or contact their studio:

June 13-15

July 2-4

Mark your calendars for their fall retreats too:

October 3-5

November 28-30

There are other Group Rental Programs that you can sign up for as well! From hiking adventures to wilderness medical trainings, visit

Or learn how you can host your own event at the beautiful Environmental Learning Center by contacting Andriana Fletcher, Group Program Coordinator, or 206-526-2565.

See you in the North Cascades!

IMG_5472Is there anything more epic than a glaciated valley in the North Cascades to inspire you to become more flexible and grounded? Likely not. Photo by Samantha Hale.
Leading photo: This praying mantis is a natural yogini. Photo by Katherine Renz.
Andriana Fletcher keeps the Environmental Learning Center bustling with diverse groups of people in her position as the Group Program Coordinator. When not in the North Cascades, she can probably be found in Croatia.




panorama at desolation lookout

Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

August 25th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

I met them on August 1st. Twenty bright new faces arrived on buses and vans at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. As they walked quietly out of the vehicles, sleepy from early morning pick-ups at high schools from Bellingham to south of Seattle, I could tell right away that they were older than the rest of our Youth Leadership Adventures participants this summer—mostly because 90% of them were taller than me…

These 16-18 year olds from western Washington and Oregon had been selected for our Science and Sustainability program. They were about to spend 15 days in the North Cascades—11 days backpacking and canoeing on Ross Lake, followed by four days of staying at the Learning Center and camping in Marblemount, all the while studying science, sustainability, leadership, and community.

backpackingBackpacking down Ross Lake. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students
practicing canoeingThe students practicing their paddling strokes before loading the canoes. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students

» Continue reading Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

ice cream

Learning to teach through the “what if…?s”

July 20th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

On my first teaching day of fall Mountain School I was terrified. I was completely smitten with the amazing North Cascades ecosystem I’d just spent all summer learning about. However, at that moment, there was nothing more terrifying than a group of wiggly 5th graders. “What if…?s” buzzed around me and wouldn’t let go. The teaching part of it seemed scary, even if I thought it was critically important to saving the environment. I seriously doubted if I would be any good at teaching.

Almost five years later there’s a lot less fear in my life. While the “What if…?s” aren’t gone, they are much quieter now and easier to ignore. So much of what I’m doing now with my life is thanks to the confidence that I gained through my Master of Environmental Education classes and my wonderful residency experience at the Learning Center. The coursework and teaching experience gave me an amazing toolbox that I still draw on today; for both teaching in the classroom and for launching my own ice cream business. I am very grateful for the confidence I developed while I was in graduate school.

After  graduating I moved back down to Seattle and sought out environmental education jobs. I ended up at the amazing Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center as a teacher for their school programs and summer camps. My canoeing experience from living on Diablo Lake was invaluable. I loved expanding my nature knowledge from the Cascades down to lowland wetlands. I even capitalized on the activities and facts that I learned during my natural history project on the nocturnal world by leading Night Walks at the Slough in the fall and spring.

» Continue reading Learning to teach through the “what if…?s”

Facing Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest

April 7th, 2013 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

North Cascades Institute former staffers and current friends Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele just launched four new films for their multimedia project, Facing Climate Change. Oyster Farmers, Coastal Tribes, Potato Farmers, and Plateau Tribes all explore global climate change through people who live and work in the Pacific Northwest.

These stories came about after one of the project’s partners, the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, released the Washington Climate Change Impacts Assessment. It’s an incredible resource with startling projections for how climate change will impact the Northwest’s future, but it’s also 400 pages and a lot of science to wade through. Benj and Sara’s goal is to put a face to projections like these and to bring new voices into the conversation.

» Continue reading Facing Climate Change in the Pacific Northwest

Kitchen Gratitude: Another Year in the Foodshed

November 29th, 2012 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

 Above two photos: (top) Sous Chef Mike Cuseo gets some help trying out a crazy ides: Oyster (mushrooms) on the Half-shell. (bottom) After the oven… Photos by Kacey Shoemaker

This time of year, there’s few of us here at the Learning Center with as much to be thankful for as the kitchen staff. The whole idea of Thanksgiving seems to be a celebration of what we do as cooks. It also gives us the opportunity to highlight the hard work of the farmers and ranchers who supply us with the goods we need all year round to continue the work of the Foodshed Project. It’s called a project because we didn’t initiate it and it’s never finished, but we’re nonetheless thankful to be a part of something that’s simultaneously mundane and ephemeral. So in the spirit of the season I would like to extend a few Thanks You’s on behalf of the kitchen staff from a demanding and productive season at North Cascades Institute.


Chefs Mike Cuseo, Myles Lindstrom and Matt Douglas (not pictured: Chef Shelby Slater). Photo by Lauren G

Seattle City Light: I suppose there’s the obvious, like the entirety of Diablo Lake, the roads, the electricity and the light. But we have even more to thank Seattle City Light for, and that’s our role in the continuation of the Skagit Tours on Diablo Lake. The program has brought a wide-ranging audience of curious folks from all walks of life to the Learning Center to share in what we do as an educational organization. Sharing the dining hall, the campus, the lake, and especially the food with our mutual participants has helped us spread the word about what we do as well as strengthened our partnership.


Anne Schwartz shows off a field of winter squash plants to a group of high-schoolers under the watchful eye of Sauk Mountain – August 2012. Photo by Mike Cuseo

Cascade Climate Challenge: Aneka Singlaub and Chris Kiser did so well at integrating food security into the curriculum for their youth programs this summer that they even created a farm tour with a guest appearance by North Cascades Institute chefs. It allowed Chef Shelby and I both the chance to get out of the kitchen and show the students some of the actual dirt that supplies the produce for the midsummer menus at the Learning Center. We were able to really articulate our perspective as cooks on the way our work interacts with culture, climate change, agriculture, health, community values, social justice, and a wide variety of other topics. It felt great to not only be included in the fabric of the curriculum, but to be taken seriously by the educators and the youths in the programs at North Cascades Institute.

» Continue reading Kitchen Gratitude: Another Year in the Foodshed

Saturday, September 29 — Institute events in overdrive!

September 25th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

This Saturday, September 29, North Cascades Institute is either hosting or involved with not one, not two, but three special events in Seattle, the Skagit Valley and North Cascades. We invite you to join us where you see fit. Please read on for details!

Public reading of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Conway Muse, 1-3 pm, SOLD OUT!

Private dinner and reading with Cheryl Strayed at Nell Thorn restaurant in La Conner, 5 pm, $100 tickets available at or (360) 854-2599.

North Cascades Institute is excited to welcome author Cheryl Strayed to the Skagit Valley on Saturday, September 29, for two fundraisers for Institute youth programs. Strayed will read from the best-selling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, her powerful, blazingly honest memoir that was recently chosen as the first book in Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club 2.0.

In the afternoon, join us at the Conway Muse, a charming and eclectic venue inside a converted 1915 Scandinavian barn in the lower Skagit Valley, just minutes off of Interstate 5. Strayed will read favorite passages from Wild, answer questions and sign books. Wild, along with her new title Dear Sugar, will be available for purchase, along with lunch, beer and wine.

In the evening, you’re invited to join Strayed at a dinner engagement for a more intimate experience with this in-demand author. Nell Thorn restaurant in La Conner specializes in preparing meals in tune with the seasons, with an emphasis on delicious food, sustainable ingredients and nourishment.

Proceeds from both events will support North Cascades Wild, Mountain School and Cascades Climate Challenge, Institute programs designed to get kids outdoors in to the North Cascades for free or reduced cost. More info at


Fall 2012 Sourdough Speaker Series: “Edible Pacific Northwest” with Jill Lightner

Join us for a delicious night celebrating the tastes of the Pacific Northwest in the peak of fall harvest. Jill Ligtner, editor of the James Beard Foundation 2011 Publication of the Year Edible Seattle, has been a food writer for over a decade. She is passionate about the Pacific Northwest’s locally-sourced ingredients as well as its abundance of imported cultures.

“I want farmers to be as famous as rock stars,” Lightner says when discussing her work as editor and food writer. “Not just farmers—also fishers, food artisans, wine makers and brewers, bakers, cheese makers…you get the idea. My real mission is to promote sustainable food at all levels of our local economy: healthy farmland, rivers and oceans, lower use of fossil fuel, a living wage and safe working conditions for those in the food industry, and keeping as many dollars within the community as is feasible.”

Lightner edited the brand-new Edible Seattle: The Cookbook, a celebration of our region’s diverse, delicious and dynamic food culture. Brimming with tempting photographs, the cookbook features engage profiles of the people, places and ingredients that make our Pacific Northwest cuisine so unique, along with more than 100 recipes and valuable tips, techniques and ideas. Alongside famous culinary landmarks like the Pike Place Market, Volunteer Park Café, Le Gourmand and Theo Chocolate, Lightner profiles several of the fantastic producers from the Skagit Valley, including Bow’s Gothberg Farms, Skagit River Ranch, and Samish Bay’s Taylor Shellfish.

Our talented kitchen staff at the Learning Center, who share Lightner’s passion for local producers and sustainable agriculture, will create a special menu for this evening that utilizes the best the season has to offer. Expect fresh produce, healthful fare and exquisite tastes, as well as Lightner’s engaging stories about covering the Puget Sound’s food revolution of the past decade!

Register at or by calling (360) 854-2599.


Senator Jackson Centennial Celebration
Saturday, September 29, 2012 at Kane Hall, University of Washington

Join SCA, North Cascades Institute and the Jackson Foundation in celebrating the life and works of the late Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and our young conservation leaders who carry on this legacy. We’re hosting a forum led by student leaders from SCA and Institute youth programs with a discussion panel that includes SCA’s founder Liz Titus Putnam. The evening will highlight the past connections, the present conservation efforts, and the goals for the future.
Senator Henry M. Jackson spent over 30 years of his life representing Washington State in the U.S. Congress. The list of Jackson’s contributions to the Pacific Northwest and our nation is long.

During his time of service, he crafted key pieces of legislation including the Wilderness Act of 1964 leading to the establishment and preservation of wilderness areas. He promoted legislation that led to the foundation of national parks, including North Cascades National Park and San Juan Island Historic Park, among others.

Jackson’s influence was not limited to the Northwest region. He ensured the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Public Lands for Parks Bill in 1969. He continued to support conservation efforts and investment in our youth when he later collaborated with fellow Washington State Senator Warren G. Magnuson to establish the Youth Conservation Corps, placing young Americans in conservation service opportunities in national parks and wilderness areas throughout the country.

Register online at

Questions? Call Shelley Green at 206-324-4649, ext. 4812

Saving Chinook

September 15th, 2012 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jill Lightner

Editor’s note: Jill is hosting a Fall Harvest Meal at the Learning Center September 29-30 as part of our Sourdough Speaker Series. She is working with our chefs on a very special multi-course meal that will feature the best sustainable and delicious foods of the Skagit Valley and Puget Sound region. Registration available online or by calling 360-854-2599.

In January of 2010, The Monterey Bay Aquarium downgraded Alaska pollock from a “best” choice to a “good” choice, citing concerns about bycatch, midwater trawling, and the possible role played by pollock in the preservation of endangered species. The Marine Stewardship council continues to move forward in certifiying the fishery as sustainable.

The first salmon I ever caught encapsulates my entire young experience with seafood. I loved being out on the choppy water, while my green-tinted family huddled miserably below. I, a chatty eight-year-old, was pestering other non-queasy folks on the boat with questions, when my neighbor hollered, “fish on!” It was my line. I managed to reel it in (a 17-pound Chinook), the competent guys running the boat got it netted, and that was it. So easy it wasn’t much more thrilling than turning on a faucet and having water pour out. In my mind, the ocean was full of fish, and it didn’t take much talent to land one.

And, until the last few generations, that was precisely the case. Atlantic sturgeon were so populous in the early 1800s, their caviar was given away free in bars, in place of peanuts. Early explorers of the North Atlantic wrote about cod so thick in the water that people could walk on them. Here in the Pacific, it was salmon. Salmon that William Clark described as existing in “almost inconceivable multitudes” when he and Meriwether Lewis reached the Columbia River in 1805. Salmon of all shapes, and all colors, and all flavors, salmon as reliable as rain. Salmon sustained civilizations, from Alaska down to Northern California.

Now Chinook (also know as king) salmon are in crisis. Their spawning rivers are commonly dammed and polluted; temperature shifts, heavy metals, antibiotics and hormones are wreaking havoc on their environment in ways that are difficult to prioritize. In some cases, the issues are not environmental so much as they are political: This April, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC ) approved a ruling, due to take effect in 2011, that would allow 60,000 Chinook to be caught as bycatch in the Alaska pollock fishery.

“Bycatch” refers to any fish caught when the goal is to catch a different species—in this case, billions of pounds of pollock, which ends up in sushi rolls and fast food sandwiches around the world. While there are some programs working to get bycatch into Alaskan food banks, almost all of it is simply wasted. Bycatch can’t be sold legally.

60,000 fish is lot of fish. It’s twice as high as the bycatch number supported by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Populations of the fish have plummeted along the west coast. The Chinook fishery was closed in CaliforniaOregon last year, and in April, it was announced they’ll remain closed for 2009. The Yukon River Salmon Forecast, by Alaska Department of Fish and Game, expects the Chinook return to be “below average to poor.” Tribal fishing rights are profoundly affected. The Yup’ik Eskimos of south-central Alaska, have both a cultural and financial dependence on Chinook, but are not expected to have any legal fishery this year. Their commercial fishery was closed in 2008 as well.

Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd, appointed to his office in 2007 by Governor Sarah Palin, sent a letter to the Alaska Board of Fisheries in mid-May. While admitting that up to 40 percent of the Chinook bycatch could be Yukon Chinook, he also wrote that a flexible mix of bycatch options—including business incentives for low bycatch rates—are the best chance of lowering bycatch. The office came out strongly against the strict hard cap (recommended by the Alaska Board of Fisheries), arguing simply that a hard cap could result in having to halt pollock fishing before reaching its maximum allowable haul.

These issues are critical: how to reduce the numbers permitted as bycatch, and how to effectively restore what’s disappearing.

The Problem of Pollock

» Continue reading Saving Chinook