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A Look Back At Our Summer in the North Cascades

November 28th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

It seems a little strange to write about summer as we step into winter but there has to be a start to every story and the story of C16 begins with our arrival to the Environmental Learning Center on a warm July day. We were to begin the first course of our year long residency, ‘Place Based Learning In The North Cascades’. For the following seven weeks, we traversed the North Cascades National Park, Okanogan/Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie/Wenatchee National Forests, state and county public lands, private lands, the Methow Valley, and Puget Sound under the guidance of our fearless leaders, Joshua Porter and Lindsey McDonald. The goals of the course were to give us a better understanding of the greater North Cascades ecosystems, learn the natural and cultural history of the region and examine the foundational ideas of place-based environmental education.

joshua and lindsey

Graduate Program Director, Joshua Porter and Graduate Program Coordinator, Lindsey McDonald.

A great distance was covered that summer. We spoke with geologists, naturalists, farmers, historians and writers; each person adding richness and depth to the stories of the land. We moved from the Methow Valley in the east, up and over the glaciated peaks of the North Cascades, following the Skagit River as it flows into the Salish Sea.

summer 2016 map

Just a few of the places our course took us over the summer. Photo – Google Maps

It seemed a monumental task to try and fit all the moments, people, and places into one post so I have instead highlighted some of my favorite memories from the summer to share with you.

Meeting C15


Photo 1: C15 and C16 together at NCI. Photo 2: A little friendly competition, a moo-off between C15 and C16. Photo 3: A delicious dinner at Skalitude Retreat.

Before we officially met C15 (Cohort 15), they had graciously welcomed us to the North Cascades Institute family through an open letter posted here on Chattermarks a month prior to our arrival. Our first C31 (C15+C16) gathering happened in the Methow Valley mid summer. C15 patiently answered all our questions, offered advice and shared their stories. There was some friendly competition, a contra dance, and delicious meals shared. Though they have continued on to the campus portion of our program in Bellingham, they continue to be mentors, friends and gracious hosts when we’re feeling the itch of civilization. 

» Continue reading A Look Back At Our Summer in the North Cascades


Walking Washington’s History

August 10th, 2016 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

Four villages — Whatcom, Sehome, Bellingham, and Fairhaven — grew along the waterfront of Bellingham Bay and rode every boom and bust that swept the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Whatcom surged on sawmills and a gold rush; Sehome boomed on a coal mine and railroad hopes. They merged in 1891 to become New Whatcom. The next village south on the bay, Bellingham, had a brief fling with coal but was swallowed up by Fairhaven to the south, which had visions of railroads and ended up with canneries. In sequence, they inhaled opportunity, exhaled optimism, and built long docks into the bay.

Bellingham is one of 10 Washington cities that Bentley provides brief but engaging historical overviews for, along with walking routes that explore our region’s past on foot (or bicycle). Seattle, Olympia, Walla Walla, Everett, and Yakima are other destinations that Bentley—who also wrote the bestselling Hiking Washington’s History—explores and interprets for her readers.

Each tour is a loop from two to seven miles long, with each city chosen to represent a distinct chapter in the post-European settling and development of the Evergreen State: Vancouver as the earliest significant settlement in the Pacific Northwest, Port Townsend as an important port of call for sailing ships in the mid-1800s, Spokane symbolic of urban renewal and reinvention efforts of the 1970s, and so forth.


Bellingham, in a chapter subtitled “Reluctant City,” is symbolic of the many frenzied waves of resource extraction that created booms and busts throughout our region: coal, gold, timber and salmon.

» Continue reading Walking Washington’s History

Camping at Lightning Creek on Ross Lake

10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades

June 29th, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Saul Weisberg and Christian Martin for The Seattle Times

Canoe the Skagit River
The Skagit is one of the great rivers of the west, supplying nearly 40 percent of the fresh water and wild salmon entering Puget Sound. A multiday trip down the Skagit River is a real gem. Designated a Wild and Scenic River in 1978, the Skagit drains an area of 1.7 million acres, including the most glaciated region in the Lower 48. I like to put my canoe in at Copper Creek in North Cascades National Park and paddle to the mouth where it empties into the Salish Sea. This trip takes three to four days and involves camping on gravel bars and beaches. The river gains momentum after the Cascade, Baker and Sauk rivers add to its flow, and you can finish a great journey by paddling up the Swinomish Channel for dinner in La Conner. Shorter day-trips can be made by paddling from Marblemount to Rockport or Rasar State Park.


Copper Ridge by Andy Porter

Backpack from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake
There are several long backpacking routes in the North Cascades. One of my favorites begins from the Mount Baker Highway, climbing Hannegan Pass and continuing north along Copper Ridge before descending to the Chilliwack River, climbing over Whatcom Pass and finally over Beaver Pass and down Big Beaver Valley to Ross Lake. A fire lookout, incredible views of the Picket Range and one of the best old-growth cedar forests in the range — this trip is hard to beat. Other great long hikes include the Devils Dome circumnavigation of Jack Mountain, or dropping into Stehekin via Bridge Creek from Rainy Pass.

Explore the Methow Valley
There are many different ways to explore this valley flowing off of the east slope of the Cascades. You can look for great birds and butterflies in Pipestone Canyon, cross-country ski in the winter, or mountain-bike on dozens of backcountry roads in the summer. Try Sun Mountain for beginners, Buck Mountain for a challenge.


climbing desolation

Paddle Ross Lake and climb Desolation Peak
Perhaps the most famous literary spot in the North Cascades is the fire lookout atop Desolation Peak. This is where writer Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 working for the U.S. Forest Service, an experience he later recounted in “Desolation Angels” and “The Dharma Bums.” The lookout is still there, perched atop the 6,102-foot peak and commanding one of the best views in Washington. The Desolation trailhead on Ross Lake can be reached by canoe, by renting a small powerboat from Ross Lake Resort or by hiking the East Bank Trail from Highway 20. The lookout trail is steep — carry plenty of water — with views around every corner.

Hike to Hidden Lakes Peak
I was a backcountry ranger at Cascade Pass in 1979, and that trail and the view from Sahale Arm are close to my heart. However, to avoid the crowds I like to turn off the Cascade River Road before reaching the Cascade Pass Trail, at the short spur to the trailhead to Hidden Lakes Peak. It’s a beautiful trail to an old fire lookout, which is open to the public, and fabulous views of Cascade Pass and Boston Basin looking east across the valley. Hidden Lakes are surrounded by a veritable rock garden of giant talus boulders. Sibley Pass, accessible by a short scramble from the trail, is an amazing place to watch the fall migration of raptors overhead by the hundreds.


Mt. Baker, WA, USA. Mt. Baker Wilderness Area. 10, 778 ft / 3285 m. Coleman and Roosevelt Glaciers. Black Buttes on the right. Lupine and Mountain Bistort Wildflowers on Skyline Divide. 4x5 Transparency ©2000 Brett Baunton

Explore around Mount Baker
There are many ways to explore Komo Kulshan, the northernmost Cascade volcano that looms ever-white over Bellingham and the San Juan Islands. Great trails start from Heather Meadows, but to avoid crowds I suggest you explore the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness or hike the lowland old-growth forest on the East Bank Trail of Baker Lake. Drive a bit farther to access Railroad Grade, the Scott Paul Trail and Park Butte. From this alpine wonderland, you’ll see the Easton Glacier and the Black Buttes up close and personal.

» Continue reading 10 favorite things to do in the North Cascades


Backpacking Beavers in the North Cascades : Youth Leadership Adventures Trip Report #1

July 20th, 2015 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

By Nika Meyers, Youth Leadership Adventures Field Instructor

Our journey into the wild started with an incredible boat ride on the Mule boat on Ross Lake to Little Beaver where the views of the North Cascades were in full force and the stories told by boat captains Gerry and Rob were in full supply. The dramatic vertical relief of the mountainsides shot up into the crisp air, Nohokomeen Glacier filled our rear view and the glassy surface of the lake rippled in our wake.  We had 18 miles to go on boat and then a 4.6 mile hike into Perry Creek for the night.


At Little Beaver we filled up water, ate our lunch, did some stretches, adjusted our packs and reiterated the importance of dealing with a “hotspot” before it turns into a blister. We hoisted our heavy packs onto our backs and began the first hot climb up and away from Ross Lake. What an introduction to backpacking!

There was a mix of emotions during the first two hours: the beginning of pack rash, sweat dripping from many different body parts, beautiful views and getting to know and trust each other.

“I am not sure if this is what I was expecting,” said one student, just before another accidently kicked a squirrel that ran across the trail at the wrong time.


“Whoops” of joy were heard through the Western Hemlocks as the front of the group reached Perry Creek campsite. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
We finished off the day with a sponge bath in the stream, mac n’ cheese and peas in our tummies and a bear-hang dangling our 7 days of food from the sky.

To develop leadership skills, improve communication and learn many important hard skills, each student had the opportunity to serve in different job roles throughout the course. Each day we had two leaders of the day, two cooks, two cleaners, a camptender, a scientist, and a community journalist. By working together we were reminded about the importance of being open minded, to share skills and experiences with respect and curiosity, and the value of being a good leader and a good follower.  We were challenged to be assertive, practice patience and share affirmative and constructive feedback to help us be a strong group.


Our leaders of the day woke us up to the sound of running water and wind in the trees as we were ready to go meet some of the National Park trail crew staff for a day of brushing along the trail. With weed whips (swizzle sticks), loppers and handsaws in hand we worked our way through 6 feet tall brush shoots revealing the tread way once again to the human eye. “Wow! There is a trail here! Who would have guessed?!” One student said. “Before I did this I always thought that trails were just always there right where you needed them. I never thought about the fact that someone actually does take care of them or they would disappear. I will never look at a trail again in the same way!”


Is there a trail here??




We found it!

» Continue reading Backpacking Beavers in the North Cascades : Youth Leadership Adventures Trip Report #1

Fresh tracks in the snow of Sourdough Mountain.

Fresh Tracks of the Sun Chaser

January 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

The glow begins as it would, blanching the sky to make invisible the cosmos. Black becomes cornflower and a fiery fuchsia lights the very highest tips of the frosted peaks. The sky will grow brighter, but many cups of tea will be consumed before the sun’s winter-warm rays make their way to Diablo, Washington. At 9:48 AM, the first beams flash from behind Colonial Peak. Only two hours remain before they dip behind Pyramid Peak and Diablo’s brief flow of Vitamin D is capped for another day. This all assumes that we are not immersed in a saturating and seemingly endless cloud for days on end, the winter weather most expected in the North Cascades.

On a morning free of obligation, when the rising light stirs me from sleep and the moon drifts pale in the western sky, I really have no choice but to run. I gulp down a power smoothie, take my tea to go, and throw my 10 essentials in a pack before finding a trail that will undoubtedly make my quadriceps burn and my knees wish for a quicker death.

Sourdough trail ElissaRace of the Day: The sun rides a snowy ridge two miles up the Sourdough Mountain Trail.

It should be noted that prior to my departure I would also check the Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) website, NOAA and take other precautions that would undoubtedly be considered tedious by most readers but essential by people like our Operations Director, Kristofer, and my mother. Suffice it to say that I am not reckless, and avalanche danger, weather and trail conditions should all be evaluated prior to any backcountry trip. It is also prudent to tell someone where you are going and when you plan to return. There you are, Mom and Kristofer, safety for all.

Sunset ElissaSoon to be Sunset: Late afternoon colors the Skagit Valley.

The sun chasing often begins a few hundred paces from my front door up Sourdough Mountain. This beast of a trail gains 3,000 feet in the first two miles by way of a series of utterly relentless switchbacks. I am spurred on by the glow of sunlight on the trees above me and rejoice at the two-mile mark where the forest opens, the mountains are in view and I (had I the time) could watch the earth turn beneath the sun until it painted the sky in pale pinks as it dove into the valley. Here, however, the snow is deep, the wind blows icy cold, and light can fade quickly in the deep woods of the descent. Best to sigh, accept gracefully the few extra radiant hours, and go before the going becomes perilous.

Fresh powder ElissaBlazing fresh powder on Sourdough Mountain.

The next time I ascend Sourdough, I take my best asset: a friend. We went further than I had previously, through four-foot drifts of fresh powder. I let him blaze the trail. We did not choose a clear day. On the contrary, we left on a day that promised snow and wherein thick clouds moved swiftly exposing only the faintest breaks of blue from time to time. Several hours in, on a steep slope, slogging through deep powder and tiring quickly, we paused. At that very moment, when turning back seemed the only option, the sky opened up revealing a heavenly blue. The sun illuminated the once hidden peaks and set the frosty trees aglow. We reveled in the surprising warmth, took copious photos and headed back down the mountain just as fresh flakes began to fall.

Trees aglowThe sun “peaks” out to set the trees aglow on Sourdough Mountain.

The presence of a good friend and a rare mid-week day for play prompted a longer journey to Artist Point. This well-travelled route near Mount Baker is popular in all seasons for hikers and snowshoers alike. On that glorious Tuesday, however, the mountain was ours for exploration and (not a little) make believe.The ski lifts were silent, the parking lot was all but empty, and we made our way up the slopes as though we were trudging through uncharted wilderness. White upon white, the snowy mounds blended into one another as we scaled the snowfields, trying to keep our eyes on some semblance of trail. Suddenly, as breath came quickly and muscles burned, Mount Baker revealed itself, gloriously adorned in thick, creamy drifts and glowing in the low southern light. Mount Shuksan dominated the eastward view, covered in luminous glacial blue. The southern sky provided views of Whitehorse Peak and many others in a sea of salmon-orange with thin bright silver strips of cloud strewn about. We posed heroically before the mighty panorama before finding our way down then on to Bellingham for well-earned sushi and beer.

Mount Baker ElissaMount Baker from Artist Point.
Mount Shuksan ElissaMount Shuksan from Artist Point.

Thus is the life of the Sun Chaser, ever leaving blinds cracked to observe the morning skies from a cozy bed; ready to either jump up to meet the sun or pull flannel sheets lazily over a sleepy head. Squares of ever-present frost live in the northern shadows of the houses in Diablo, fixed and never free to chase the fleeting rays of these mountain winter days.

Lead Photo: Fresh tracks in the snow near the National Park Boundary on the Sourdough Mountain Trail. All photos by the author, Elissa Kobrin.


Elissa Kobrin is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She is a co-editor of Chattermarks. When not tracking down moose, she is keeping the world safe, one Band-aid at a time.



cedarosa flag

The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park

September 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

They met on July 17, 2013, not quite sure what to expect. Six talented young women, all alumni of programs like North Cascades Institute’s Cascades Climate Challenge and North Cascades Wild, as well as the Student Conservation Association, met up with three North Cascades Institute instructors to embark on the Institute’s newest course: Leadership Corps. Leadership Corps is a 31-day course for 18-22 year old students who are interested in exploring careers in public lands and expanding their leadership, backcountry travel, and work skills. The Corpsmembers spent four weeks in the North Cascades National Park Complex completing trail maintenance and ecological restoration projects alongside Institute and National Park employees.  This year, the crew happened to be all female, and as they explored the vast beauty of the National Park they also explored what it means to be a woman in a non-traditional career: a trail dog. This is the story of the Cedarosas….

group by truckThe crew on their last day in the field in Stehekin, WA. From left to right: Sahara (Instructor), Sage, Annabelle, Mohawk, Monica, Yadira, Karina, Sabrina (Instructor), and Kevin (Instructor) underneath

Their journey began in the northern unit of the National Park on Ross Lake. After a trip on the Park’s faithful mint green boat, the Mule, the crew set out to their first destination. Straining and struggling with heavy packs most were unaccustomed to, the first leg of the journey was long, hot, and buggy.

on the trailTaking a break on the first day of hiking. Everyone’s pack was well over 50 lbs!

» Continue reading The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park


Thank you, North Cascades Institute. Sincerely, a loving intern

September 4th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

A group of Base Camp participants, Carla (a fellow summer naturalist), and I piled into a North Cascades Institute vehicle one morning in August. We were in search of amphibians at the famed “Ag Ponds” near Newhalem. Carla knew where we were going…kind of…with directions from a graduate student tucked into her brain—“A gravel road on the right with a signed gate, about a mile or so East of the Visitor Center.” As we happily drove on the chilly morning over to Newhalem, it really hadn’t crossed my mind that we could run into anything but a great day. I trusted in Carla (as I always do) that the directions she had would be clear.

Aha! A gravel pull off, about a mile from the Visitor Center, on the right! We pulled in, unloaded the bus of people and our fancy, giant water nets, and began walking down the trail. “A 10-minute walk to some gravel pits,” she said. I was at the back of the group and was focusing on a “piggyback” plant with another participant. I heard Carla call my name so I stood up…and saw that ahead of us was a gun range. Targets lined the edge of a clear-cut far in front of us, speckled with bullet holes. My stomach dropped to my feet as I quickly scanned the area for people. (I think it is safe to say that this shooting range is quickly on its way to becoming ancient—it’s overrun with tall tanzy and young alders and thankfully, no recent sign of humans.)

» Continue reading Thank you, North Cascades Institute. Sincerely, a loving intern