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A Snowy Start to Spring Mountain School

March 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

There really wasn’t anything ‘spring-like’ about our first spring Mountain School session of the year. With almost a foot of snow falling the night before and continuing snowfall throughout the day, 5th grade students from Mt. Vernon’s Madison Elementary School arrived on March 6th to a winter wonderland at the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center.

With a few lesson modifications, extra layers from our gear closet and frequent hot chocolate breaks, students and instructors took advantage of this seasonally atypical weather.

A Madison Elementary student enjoying some snowy exploration along the shore of Diablo Lake. Photo by Angela Burlile

At Mountain School, 5th grade students spend three days examining the interconnectedness between abiotic (non living) and biotic (living) elements of an ecosystem through interdisciplinary and experiential learning activities. The late snowfall allowed instructors an opportunity to incorporate pieces such as the effects of snowpack on the local watershed, life in the subnivean zone (the area between the surface of the ground and the bottom of the snowpack) and winter adaptations of animals found within the park into their lessons.

Graduate student, Becky Moore, leads her trail group through the motions of the water cycle dance. Photo by Angela Burlile

For more on our first day of Mountain School, check out the video below. 

Highway reopened, students safely back home!

March 14th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

UPDATE March 13, 4 pm: After WSDOT successfully reopened one lane of Highway 20 today, the Henry M. Jackson high school students, teachers and parent chaperones were able to leave the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center to return home!

More updates later, but for now we want to say thank you to the great students, teachers and parents, to WSDOT and to our Environmental Learning Center staff for keeping everyone safe and sane with educational activities, community building and fun through this unexpected long weekend of Mountain School!

Avalanche closes Hwy 20, students and staff get unexpected weekend at the Learning Center

March 12th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

On Friday morning, March 10, the Washington State Department of Transportation closed Highway 20 seven miles west of the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center due to a large avalanche across the road. This incident blocked the school buses that were due to pick up students from Henry M Jackson High School in Mill Creek, WA, who were participating in our Mountain School residential environmental education program. Forty-two students, seven teachers and parent chaperones and 21 Institute staff and graduate students are currently at the ELC until WSDOT crews can reopen the road; they are doing an assessment on Monday.

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center is a modern facility with 92 beds in three comfortable lodges, a dining hall, classrooms and other amenities, and we have plenty of food and supplies to get through the weekend. Everyone on site is safe, warm, well-fed and in good spirits. The Environmental Learning Center was deliberately sited away from avalanche paths and is not at risk for avalanches. We have two Emergency Medical Technicians on staff and our instructors are trained Wilderness First Responders. We are in close contact with our partners in the National Park Service and Seattle City Light and have contingency plans if any emergencies arise. Extreme weather conditions are a part of life in the mountains and North Cascades Institute has established procedures and risk management training to get through incidents like this.

Mountain School is a nationally-recognized residential environmental education program offered in cooperation with North Cascades National Park that brings local students to the North Cascades to learn about the ecosystems, geology and natural and cultural history of the mountains. Mountain School was recently profiled by National Geographic and The Seattle Times calls it ” a national model for wilderness education on public lands.”

Report from KING 5 NEWS


Contact WSDOT for more information about the road closure at (360) 707-5055 or visit We will post updates to our website at, on our Facebook page at and on Twitter at

Weekly Photo Roundup: March 5 2017

March 5th, 2017 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Every Sunday I will be posting photos collected from various NCI graduate students and staff. Please enjoy this glimpse into our everyday lives here in the North Cascades.

Naturalists and graduate students prepare for a new season of Mountain School. Photo by Angela Burlile

Smokey Brine, the phenology graduate assistant, explains how she tracks the seasonal changes at various plots around the North Cascades Institute Environmental Learning Center. Photo by Angela Burlile

Mountain School instructors review the wolf debate, getting into character with the help of some fun costumes. Photo by Angela Burlile

Spring training wrapped up this week as naturalists and M.Ed. graduate students prepare for a new season of Mountain School. Together they reviewed curriculum, risk management protocol, new teamwork building activities, and more. On Monday, they will welcome Madison Elementary 5th graders, who will be attending Mountain School for their very first time!

Willow flower buds spotted on the road to Diablo. Photos by Dan Dubie

Beaked Hazelnut flowers blooming in Marblemount. Photos by Dan Dubie

Despite all the new snow this weekend, flowers are beginning to bloom down valley near Marblemount. While snow is projected for the rest of the week, we’re still hopeful for continuing signs of a new season.

Graduate students enjoying the fresh snow at Mt. Baker Ski Area. Photos by Kay Gallagher

Check out previous Photo Roundups here!

Title Photo by Angela Burlile

North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

January 27th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

Call of the wild: can America’s national parks survive?
America’s national parks are facing multiple threats, despite being central to the frontier nation’s sense of itself
by Lucy Rock
published January 14, 2017

Autumn in the North Cascades National Park and soggy clouds cling to the peaks of the mountains that inspired the musings of Beat poets such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg 60 years ago. Sitting on a carpet of pine needles in the forest below, protected from the rain by a canopy of vine maple leaves, is a group of 10-year-olds listening to a naturalist hoping to spark a similar love of the outdoors in a new generation.

This is one of 59 national parks which range across the United States, from the depths of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to the turrets of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. All – plus hundreds of monuments and historic sites – are run by the National Park Service (NPS), which celebrated its centenary last year. The parks were created so that America’s natural wonders would be accessible to everyone, rather than sold off to the highest bidder. Writer Wallace Stegner called them America’s best idea: “Absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

It’s easy to agree. Nicknamed America’s Alps, Washington State’s North Cascades is an area of soaring beauty, a wilderness of fire and ice thanks to hundreds of glaciers and dense forest where trees burn in summer blazes. The Pacific Crest Trail – made famous by Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and the subsequent film starring Reese Witherspoon – runs through the park. Walking along Thunder Creek one midweek morning, the only sound is rushing water and birdsong. The view is a nature-layered cake of teal water, forested mountain slopes and snowy summits. But it is here that you can also observe the threats facing the parks in their next 100 years. They are fighting a war on three fronts: severe underfunding, climate change and a lack of diversity and youth among their visitors.

Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire lookout atop Desolation Peak in the North Cascades surrounded by silence and rocky spires, far from the drink, drugs and distractions of his San Francisco life. He drew on his Cascades experiences in Dharma Bums, Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels, in which he wrote: “Those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snow-covered rock all around…” Those views look different today. Climate change is causing the glaciers to melt: their square footage shrank by 20% between 1959 and 2009.

Saul Weisberg, executive director of the North Cascades Institute, an environmental educational organization, said that the difference between photos from September – when the seasonal snow is gone – in the 1950s and today was, “Incredibly dramatic. Snow is melting back more and more and now you see a lot more rock when you look at the mountains.”

» Continue reading North Cascades Institute in The Guardian

Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth

January 6th, 2017 | Posted by in Institute News

This last August I was grateful to fill a newly created position at the North Cascades Institute, that of College Access Coordinator. The position was specifically created to support and strengthen opportunities for participants of our Youth Leadership Adventures and Mountain School programs. The AmeriCorps position is made possible by the Washington Campus Compact “College Access Corps” grant. This grant is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, and supports local economically disadvantaged youth to become more academically engaged in their education, increase preparedness for post-secondary education, and become more knowledgeable about the college application and financial aid process.

The grant allows selected college campuses, nonprofits (the North Cascades Institute!), or grade 4-12 educational institutions to place an AmeriCorps member (me!) to help coordinate college access programs in their local communities. While I have been graciously accepted into the closely knit Institute community, I have had the opportunity to serve on the planning committee of the Northwest Youth Leadership Summit, present a workshop at said conference (“College: Planning For What’s Next & What To Do Now), volunteer at the Migrant Youth Leadership Conference, attend multiple Kulshan Creek field trips, and participate in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) committee meetings.

While all of these opportunities stand out in my mind as highlights of my first five months in this position, getting a new program extension off the ground and running has been the most fulfilling and rewarding aspect of my work. The Youth Leadership Ambassadors program is an extension of our Youth Leadership Adventures summer program. The goal of the program is to further develop leadership and outdoor skills, facilitate service and stewardship in our local communities and ecosystems, and provide college preparedness support to high school students from Skagit and Whatcom County.

While serving as Ambassadors, students will participate in work parties, attend field trips, and receive 15 hours of college access curriculum. Our first field trip of the year is in collaboration with Skagit Land Trust to remove invasive species on Mt. Vernon’s Little Mountain. Examples of some of the other scheduled field trips include visits to local community colleges and universities, trips sponsored by National Park Service Park Rangers, and an overnight trip to our Environmental Learning Center for a stewardship weekend.

14 local Skagit and Whatcom County high school students have been selected to participate in this pilot school year opportunity. The students attend 8 different high schools including Burlington-Edison, Mount Vernon, Concrete, Mount Baker, Bellingham, Sehome, Lynden, and Meridian.

Having never previously worked with youth in an environmental education setting previously, I am looking forward to collaborating with Institute staff to help facilitate Ambassador events. Additionally, I am eager to share my background in college access work with students, many of whom aim to be the first in their family to attend college.

» Continue reading Youth Leadership Ambassadors: A Pathway For Youth

30 Year Anniversary: A Look Back at 2016

December 31st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

As today marks the last day of 2016, what better place than Chattermarks to look back at the memories and highlights of the year here at the North Cascades Institute. I have only recently joined as a contributor to the blog and many of the posts this past year were submitted by guests, naturalists, C15 graduate students and Ben Kusserow – our previous blog editor who left intimidatingly large shoes to fill! Before I started the graduate residency program, I frequently came to Chattermarks to get a better idea as to what my life would be like in the upper Skagit and the work being done by the Institute. The first hand narratives, naturalist tidbits, and expertise of all these contributors painted a rich picture, helping to prepare me for this year of living in the North Cascades. I hope you’ve found their contributions as helpful and informative as I did. Enjoy this look back at 2016!

Mountain School

One last group photo before these 5th graders head back to Bellingham after three days of Mountain School.

In my mind there isn’t a program at NCI that can compete with the energy and enthusiasm of Mountain School. Hundreds of students from all over the state participate in the program during fall and spring, spending three to five days exploring the trails and learning about mountain ecosystems through interdisciplinary activities.

  • We always hope that when the students leave, they are taking with them positive and lasting memories. This year, instructors shared some of the letters they received from students in the post, “Dear Mountain School,” affirming our hopes.
  • In October, we were all excited to see Mountain School in the cover story of National Geographic. The article highlighted the importance of getting young people and people of color into our National Parks.


Naturalist Notes

Photo courtesy of Ben Kusserow, from his natural history project on bats in the North Cascades National Park.

2016 was full of educational opportunities here on Chattermarks. If you feel like your naturalist skills could use a brush up or you just want to learn something new, look no further. This year seemed to have a little bit of everything, from fungi to fire lookouts.

» Continue reading 30 Year Anniversary: A Look Back at 2016