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We couldn’t do it without our INTERNS!

July 24th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

Summer is a burgeoning season at the Environmental Learning Center. Not only does the landscape itself come alive in a very real sense with turquoise waters, wildflowers, butterflies and access to the alpine, our program offerings expand to serve more participants through Youth Leadership Adventures, Skagit Tours and a varied suite of adults and family programs. The Institute’s composition of staff and graduate students multiplies as well. This summer, we are thrilled to include in our up-river community a special group of five individuals from the east and west sides of the country: INTERNS! These fine folks are motivated students enrolled in undergraduate institutions or culinary schools who are here through the North Cascades Institute’s Internship Program. Internship opportunities are focused in different program areas: Mountain School (spring/fall), Adult and Family Programming (summer), Youth Leadership Adventures (summer), and Culinary Arts and Foodshed Education (summer).

These internships offer exciting opportunities for undergraduate students to gain professional experience in environmental education and learning center operations in the heart of the North Cascades. Interns are supervised by program staff and work alongside Naturalists and Graduate Students, all of whom support interns as they gain hands-on, practical experience in teaching, program development, cooking, administration and operations.

The Internship Program is a crucial link that helps the Institute to fulfill one of its strategic goals of providing multiple, scaffolded experiences for young people along the Path for Youth. This summer, four of our five interns are Youth Leadership Adventure alumnae whose powerful learning experiences in the North Cascades have prompted them to return in order to help others engage with this place in similar ways as their own.

Please read on to meet our fabulous Summer 2014 Interns.

Avarie Fitzgerald was inspired to start on a path of ecology and environmental education when she attended North Cascades Institute’s Cascade Climate Challenge in 2010. Since then, she has been studying environmental science as an undergrad at Portland State University, always looking for ways to climb trees, catch frogs and take hikes in the name of college credit. She is ecstatic to be back this summer as an intern for the Youth Leadership Adventures program and hopes to inspire youth as she herself was inspired four years ago. And be warned, as an Astoria, Oregon native, she is required to make at least one reference to The Goonies daily. (Because Goonies never say die).

AvarieAvarie Fitzgerald

Lorah Steichen spent the first few months of her life living at Wind Cave National Park and continued to explore National Parks and wild spaces across the American West throughout her childhood. She grew up where the mountains greet the sea on the Olympic Peninsula, but recently relocated to Eastern Washington to attend Whitman College where she is pursuing a degree in environmental studies and politics. Lorah is interested in examining the reciprocal relations between nature and society and is excited to observe these processes through the lens of environmental education as an intern at North Cascades Institute. Having herself benefited from a range of outdoor and environmental education experiences, Lorah is eager to help facilitate such opportunities for people of all ages visiting the Institute this summer.

Lorah Steichen

Raised in zip-off pants and flannel shirts in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, Emily Petrovski cultivated a love for, and fascination with, nature early on. As a North Cascades Institute program alum, Emily jumped at the chance to intern with North Cascades Institute for the summer. She’s excited to be back in the breath-taking North Cascades, helping others to have the same wonderful experience she herself did. Emily will graduate from Western Washington University in August with a degree in Environmental Science Journalism. She loves exploring in the outdoors, taking photos, learning about almost anything science or nature related, and has a mild obsession with dogs.

Emily Petrovski

Kassandra Barnedt has grown up in the North Cascades enjoying the outdoors from childhood. She was often found running through mud puddles and building forts in the woods with her brother and sister. Six years ago her experience on an Youth Leadership Adventure course sparked her interest  in a career in the outdoors. Currently she is studying environmental education at Western Washington University where she is a senior. The most exciting place she has traveled was Denali, Alaska where she worked on a trail crew for the National Park Service. Currently she is excited to return to North Cascades Institute not as a student but as an intern, leading the same trips that inspired her.

kassyKassandra Barnedt

Donald Young loves exploring the forest. He developed an early love of nature by spending his summers exploring the forests of New England and attending summer camp in Maine. He assumed everything was bigger in Texas until he saw the trees, waterfalls and hydro electric dams in North Cascades National Park! Having spent the last seven years as an environmental educator working with young people, he is here this summer as part of the Farm to Table Culinary Internship and is excited by the challenges of cooking for large groups. Donald thinks that working with wonderful people and using organic fruits and vegetables from local farms are the two best things going on in the North Cascades Institute kitchen. Enthusiastic about American history and regional cuisine, he is looking forward to cooking up traditional American summer dishes. Shaker cuisine and culture are very great inspirations. It’s a gift to be simple! His goal is to create some Shaker inspired dishes in the kitchen this summer.

DonaldDonald Young

Thank you, interns!

Additional reporting by Aneka Singlaub, Youth Leadership Coordinator

Leading photo: Two of the North Cascade Institute’s interns are spending the summer on backpacking and canoeing excursions on Youth Leadership Adventures. Epic sunsets not guaranteed, but encouraged.




Sensory Awareness: The Gateway to Environmental Empathy

January 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Guest post by Katherine Storrs

Nothing beats the moments when you witness a student make connections between the environmental education lessons taught here at the North Cascades Institute and their local environment at home.

Whether the instructor at the Environmental Learning Center has been working in the environmental education field for 20 years or is interning for just a few months to complete an undergraduate degree requirement, like myself, we are all really here for one reason: the students. The silly and witty things that kids say bring so much laughter and amusement into our lives, and are often the rewards at the end of a long, challenging and occasionally difficult day in the field.

Case at hand: During my first solo teaching experience, I was talking about animal signs and how by paying attention to these signs, people can study animals without actually seeing them. I mentioned that one can tell a lot about an animal by their droppings or “scat”. When I asked the group what I meant by this, a ten-year-old girl’s hand shot up into the air and she proudly said, “I think it means an animal goes somewhere and poops, and then quickly gets out of there!” Scat! That little girl made me laugh until my belly ached.

Later that day, a boy in the same group made a connection I will never forget. After a lesson about freshwater distribution and resource management, the boy quietly raised his hand.

“What would the world be like with no water?” he asked.

Before I had a chance to respond, he answered his own question. “Because without water there would be no plants for the animals to eat and the animals would die.”

He barely paused to make the next, more philosophical jump. “I wouldn’t want to live in that world,” he said.

Moments like these – when the content from the lessons combines with the more emotional, empathetic potentials of an ecological education — make teachers feel as though they have the best job in the world. Fortunately for the world at large, we do not all have to be teachers to give children opportunities to connect to their environment.

littleshrooms.StorrsThese tiny orange fungi are some of the easily-overlooked wonders of the woods. The practice of sensory awareness is greatly improved by getting down and dirty with rotting logs — a bugs-eye-view.

Teaching stretches far beyond the confines of the classroom or, in our case, the boundaries of North Cascades National Park. The majority of learning in a child’s life happens at home. It can be overwhelming to try and instill all of the moral values you want your child to gain to become a well-rounded, ethical adult, but not all values have to be hard to teach. For example, in terms of environmental ethics concerning other species, we have fuzzy animals on our side, and trust me, kids love fuzzy animals. Having worked with students aged two- to thirteen-years-old, I can say with confidence that the key to raising environmentally-conscious kids is sensory awareness.

Sensory awareness is a useful teaching technique, and is as accessible to all as the air we breath or the ground beneath our feet. It simply means that one engages all of their senses to develop a better picture of something. It can be done with a scheduled activity, such as doing a moss walk to find different species and discussing their texture, color, shape, smell, etc. It can also be more loosely framed, such as a “bio-blitz”, where you make a point to touch and investigate each plant you come across for a short period of time.

I was recently blessed by the opportunity to learn from a student with severe autism. What he needed to learn was to touch everything I pointed out, to get on the ground and look at a mushroom from the perspective of a mouse, to stand silently and listen to the leaves rustle in the wind, and to hear the beautiful trill of the American wren fill the air. With each whistle from a bird or gentle touch of the natural world, a smile would spread across his face and he’d let out a high-pitched laugh that was unavoidably contagious. This joy he felt resonated within me and left me thinking about the details we miss on a daily basis when we ignore opportunities to gain a more complete understanding of the world around us.

Towered over by the evergreen Douglas firs, mid-story vine maples are celebrated within the canopy for their flirtations with light and shadow.

Fortunately, you don’t need to be in a “pristine” mountain setting to get your five senses fired up. Rather, sensory awareness can be done anywhere, under any circumstance — on the way to and from school or work, even during tasks as mundane as waiting in line at the bank. Incorporating such an engaged state of being into the everyday is precisely what makes them so powerful in their ubiquity. All that’s required is that you feel, smell, taste, hear and see the world around you, all at the same time. When you do this with a child, you see their eyes light up. And if you can help a child develop a love for nature, you can bet they will grow up and want to take care of it.

All it takes is a little bit of time outdoors.


Leading photo: Who’s afraid of snakes? Not me! An excited participant during a fall Family Getaway demonstrates the proper way to hold a garter snake — with two supportive hands and a huge smile — on an amphibian walk.
All photos by author.


Katherine Storrs recently completed a seasonal internship with the North Cascades Institute where she taught Mountain School, developed a climate change lesson plan, and accomplished her triple goals of seeing a mountain goat, pika, and spawning salmon. She is now working to receive her B.S. in Environmental Science with a minor in Spanish. When she’s not teaching or being taught, she’s singing with her friends and preparing for volunteering with the Peace Corps.



mt.stewart Dylan Harry

Seeking Spirituality in the North Cascades

December 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

I watched quietly as each bend in the road revealed more of the steep, inaccessible wilderness that looms above Highway 20. It was my first couple of hours in the North Cascades and I wanted to get up high, to see around. From Washington Pass I glimpsed Silver Star Mountain through the swirling clouds as the other tourists and I chuckled at the futility of an overlook in a raincloud.

The terrain and weather of the North Cascades are renowned amongst alpine climbers. Four or five years ago I thumbed through the legendary climber Fred Beckey’s three volume guide to North Cascades climbing and filled my head with images of peaks and glaciers, as well as stories of loose rock and freak snowstorms.

Yet I hadn’t come here to climb. Instead, I was here for an internship, to live and learn how to teach ecology to a bunch of crazy kids with the naturalists and educators of the North Cascades Institute. Well…maybe I was here to do a little climbing. Living just down valley from the Institute, in Newhalem, put me less than ten miles south of one of the most rugged mountain ranges in the Lower 48, the Picket Range. I at least wanted to go and look at it.

Picket Range Dylan HarryA Cascadian fence: The Picket Range, a climber’s paradise, as seen from Trapper’s Peak. Photo by Dylan Harry.

As I began to work and play with the residents of the Upper Skagit valley, I experienced a distinct shift in my experience of the outdoors. Standing in that cloud in Washington Pass, I knew that my climber self would be able to connect to the North Cascades. Over the course of a rainy September, however, I was forced to seek new ways to connect to the landscape and community. In reflecting on this change in myself, I found the fourfold path of Hinduism to be a useful lens, despite my near complete ignorance of Hinduism.

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