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Mountain School is ON!: Playing in the Snow, Compensating for the Government Shutdown

February 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Columbia Elementary School was already told once they couldn’t come to Mountain School as planned. So they certainly weren’t going to let the biggest local snowstorm of the year so far stop them from enjoying a second chance to learn about ecology, carnivores, and community during their rescheduled visit last week.

During this past October’s government shutdown, four of the North Cascade Institute’s Mountain School sessions had to be cancelled because the Institute is in a national park and all federal operations were mandated to close. Over 250 fifth graders from Bellingham were told they couldn’t have their seminal 5th grade experience in the wilderness as expected. Some teachers, including Columbia’s, wisely used this misfortune as a teachable moment, organizing students to write letters to their local representatives expressing their discontent. Though the government “re-opened” after 16 days, and the Institute was able to make up one of these cancelled schools by extending its fall season by one session, what about the rest of the students?

The answer? Spring season. Mountain School started three weeks early this year.

It was, however, nearly a false start.

Columbia’s estimated time of arrival was late morning, weather depending. Nine graduate students, four new seasonal naturalists, two staff naturalists, the Mountain School Program Coordinator, and the rest of the Environmental Learning Center community were eager to meet the 83 4th and 5th grade students. But the snow started to fall heavily around Newhalem, eight miles west of the Learning Center and the beginning of a stretch of road prone to rock fall and avalanches. The two yellow school buses were parked. Students built snowmen. The adults deliberated. Mountain School representatives traveled down Highway 20 to meet them and assess possible options. Would the buses be able to drive safely down the hill toward the road atop Diablo Dam?

After much consideration and lunch, they decided that yes, the buses would make it. Mountain School or bust! Columbia Elementary arrived successfully at the Environmental Learning Center in the early afternoon. Most of the instructors had not taught in the snow before. And as the snow became rain, the white trails turned to muddy slush, making for a challenging start. Luckily we had plenty of Mountain School gear (much of it donated) to augment the students’ clothing.

Columbia Rececca WiederholdNot your everyday lesson: Students learn to build a snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdLunchtime smiles. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdOne of many snow-folk that popped up around the Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Day two is our longest, all-day stretch in the field. This time, the temperature fell by a few degrees, and the previous day’s raindrops transitioned, fortunately, back into snowflakes. These eight hours highlighted one of the characteristics for which experiential educators are best known: Flexibility! Instead of proceeding with our lessons as planned, many of us delved into snow science, how to build snow shelters, and making “real” glaciers through layers and layers of compacted snow. Building snowmen became a popular team-building exercise. Friendly snowball fights were irresistible, becoming a mandatory component of everyone’s day. A lesson on animal signs was improved from the normal discussion by the opportunity to make various animals’ tracks in the snow. Most trail groups stayed closer to campus than usual, warming up every couple of hours with new, dry gear and hot chocolate courtesy of Chef Shelby. Transitioning from an outdoor-based curriculum to the necessity of more classroom time was a bit challenging for several instructors, since one of the main opportunities of Mountain School is to get these students out in the fresh air, beyond the four walls of their typical educational experience and honing their observation skills in nature. But the students didn’t seem to mind, for the most part, and it was a good exercise for the instructors to consider what lessons and games would transfer well to the indoors.

Despite such issues, the students had a memorable and unique three days at Mountain School. As they got ready to get back on their school buses, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many of them say they wish they could stay here instead of going home. Having “school” in the national park is always a different experience than being in a classroom down valley, of course, but the addition of snow made it something magical. Because really, how more “mountain” can you get than falling snow?

Columbia Rececca WiederholdA student gets a better look at a bird. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Rececca WiederholdAnd when the weather gets too bad, or the students need to warm up, there are the indoor classrooms. Microscopes are always a hit. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.
Columbia Shannon SampsonIt’s a different forest, and a different teaching opportunity, when covered in snow. Photo by Shannon Sampson.
Leading photo: Students LOVE the snow! This trail group poses, beaming, in front of their small snow shelter. Photo by Rebecca Wiederhold.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program and co-editor of Chattermarks. She is looking forward to the upcoming transition from “primarily grad student” to “mostly Mountain School instructor”.





North Cascades Institute open for business

October 18th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

We are relieved that the 16-day federal government shutdown is finally over and we are able to reopen the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center again.

The closure of North Cascades National Park forced us to cancel four different Mountain School sessions, impacting more than 300 students, teachers and parent chaperones. (You can read about how Bellingham fifth-graders from Wade King Elementary felt about having their Mountain School cancelled on our blog at

The dysfunction in Washington D.C. also meant that we had to furlough nine staff members; shut down our five bookstores; Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
cancel a nature journaling class, a luncheon for Skagit Tours, a yoga retreat and two Group Rentals contracts for staff retreats; and cancel or return food deliveries from local farms.

All in all, we estimate that we’ve lost $65,000 in revenue over these past two weeks.

But the shutdown is over now, the park and Learning Center reopened, and we’re looking for ways to bring the disappointed fifth-graders up to Mountain School later this season. As a good friend of ours pointed out, “Our children need our parks and our parks need our children.”

Plus, the sun is out, there is new snow dusting the peaks and the larches on the eastslope and vine maples to the west are in glorious fall  color!

Thanks for your continued support.

Photo by Ethan Welty.

Democracy in Action: Denied Mountain Schoolers Make Their Voices Heard

October 11th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

“Dear President,

Please stop the government shutdown by Sunday. I am dying to go to Mountain School and it is being canceled. I am writing to you on the worst day of my life. You are ruining the lives of every single fifth grader in Wade King Elementary and if you care about kids then STOP THE GOVERNMENT SHUT DOWN!!! You can easily settle a budget but this may be the only time I’ll ever go to Mountain School.”

So read the text of a letter sent earlier this week by the fifth grade classrooms at Bellingham’s Wade King Elementary School to our nation’s capitol.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. government shut down because of dysfunction in Congress. Among the many negative impacts of this shutdown has been the closure of our treasured national parks, which has meant blocked access to monuments in Washington DC, cancelled vacations to popular destinations like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, massive loss of income for gateway communities and the suspension of fall educational programs inside the parks.

Many of  North Cascades Institute’s programs, because they occur inside North Cascades National Park, have been cancelled, including Mountain School, our keystone environmental education program for young students.

As The Bellingham Herald reported on Sunday, October 6:

Mountain School is a popular environmental education program offered by North Cascades Institute in cooperation with North Cascades National Park. Students learn about ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains.

Wade King students are set to go the first part of the week, and Columbia students the second part.

If the shutdown drags on into mid-October, students at Northern Heights and Happy Valley elementaries will be unable to attend.

North Cascades Institute also has had to cancel its adult programs at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the park. It is losing thousands of dollars, representatives said, but the impact on kids who look forward to going to Mountain School but might not be able to do is of concern.

“That’s the one that hurts the most,” Jeff Giesen, associate director for the nonprofit North Cascades Institute, said.


Right now, the decision on whether North Cascades Institute will be allowed to welcome 5th graders to Mountain School—many of whom have been scheduled and preparing for this singular experience for over a year in advance—is based on a day-by-day process.

The trickle-down effect is radiating outward like ripples across the green waters of Diablo Lake. Nate Cornelsen, a fifth grade teacher at Wade King, emailed Chattermarks a list of almost a dozen ways the shutdown has affected his students, classroom and school community, including:

  • Buses were scheduled and had to be cancelled.
  • Approved chaperones took time off work or planned to use vacation time to join us and may not be able to do so again.
  • Hours of teacher prep work to create new learning experiences for students.
  • Connections to the current Inquiry Unit that now cannot be made with Mountain School and will need to be altered.
  • Collaborative teacher prep time for additional activities or field trips to “replace” this experience so students can gain the required knowledge of the “Environments” section of the Inquiry Unit.
  • Building budget dollars used to support teaching and learning now have to be re-purposed for new busing.
  • Many parents are now collaborating to create additional shared experiences outside of the school day for all of the students.
  • Countless communications spent answering questions, keeping families and students informed of changing events, and between staff members about the fluid situation.
  • The challenging home and classroom atmosphere: Trying to console and reassure students that everything will be okay and we “might” be able to participate in a trip they have been counting on for six years!

The teachers are finding ways to turn the disappointment in to a learning experience for the students by having them write down their feelings and opinions in letters to the officials elected to lead. Though probably not nearly as interesting as tromping the trails at Mountain School, the shut down still offered a “teachable moment” for students, who researched the reasons why the government was closing the national parks.



While students downvalley write letters in protest, staff at the Learning Center are writing their own letters, working on improving Mountain School curriculum and trying to re-schedule the impacted schools so that, ultimately, no child is left behind.If you were a national leader, how would you respond to disheartened fifth graders who’ve been looking forward to going to Mountain School for years? Have an opinion? Follow the example of Bellinghamstudents and contact your representatives!

Top photos of Mountain School students by Rick Allen.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is looking forward getting back on the trails with Mountain Schoolers, hopefully sooner than later.