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The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part One)

December 23rd, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

North Cascades Institute hosted a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Participants began their days with a sitting meditation, followed by writing and sharing poetry and short nature essays, walking meditation, and exploring the woods around the Learning Center. Here are some participant poems that came out of this unique weekend in the North Cascades.

Falls Musings

By Barbara Retelle

Look up
Kaleidoscope of colored leaves
Of a tree

Look down
Multi layered years of leaves
Sink into the sponge beneath
Musky mass

Look all around
Mossy covered branches
Crisp tickling chill in the air
Dew drops fall to tongue from leaves
Sparkling fresh

Look again
Titter of Wren
Chatter of Douglas Squirrel
Ripple of Deer Creek
Whispering breeze fluttering Maple leaves
It is Fall


By Sara Battin

Remnant of past windstorms
High wire acrobat held by spidery pallbearers
Adorned in their golden goodness.
Yours a mystery to hold my passing by ­‐
Wondering how you came to be so strung.

» Continue reading The Practice of Presence: Responding to Inner & Outer Landscapes Field Notes and Poems (Part One)

Diablo Dam

View from Diablo Dam

August 22nd, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

A view looking west from Diablo Dam down the Skagit River Gorge towards Newhalem and the Goodell Creek Fire from Wednesday 8/19, 3:15 pm. By Institute graduate student Joe Loviska. We’re posting more photos from the wildfire at North Cascades Institute updates are at and on our Facebook page at


The Snow and The Shining

March 7th, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News

A small avalanche across Highway 20 just east of Newhalem at milepost 121 had residents of the Environmental Learning Center stuck at home Monday morning through Thursday morning of this week. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) was waiting until avalanche danger had decreased to assess the situation and clear the snow and debris. The highway is now passable up to its regular winter closure at milepost 134, seven miles east of Diablo Dam.

What did the closure mean for life at the Learning Center? Graduate students couldn’t leave, and staff who live down valley in Newhalem and Marblemount couldn’t come up. Residents had to increase their awareness of their daily actions, since they already live at a remote facility (defined as 60 miles or more from definitive medical care) and now had even fewer options for help if need be. But by far the worst consequence was the cancellation of Mountain School. Two Bellingham elementary schools, Wade King and Northern Heights, could not spend their three days exploring ecosystems in the North Cascades as planned. The avalanche was the second time this school year that both schools thought they were coming but were prevented by outside forces (the first was during the government shut-down last October). They are troopers! Both have been rescheduled.

During this time, Senior Naturalist Kevin Biggs could not get to work from Marblemount for two days, but was offered the opportunity on Wednesday to be take the extra seat of the Seattle City Light helicopter and be flown up to participate in trainings. Here are a few aerial photos from his exciting journey.

avalanche!kevinbiggsThe avalanche on Highway 20, milepost 121. Photo by Kevin Biggs.
diablointersection.kevinbiggsGorge Lake and the town of Diablo. Photo by Kevin Biggs.
aeriallakekevinbiggsAbove one of the tunnels on Highway 20 between Newhalem and Diablo. Photo by Kevin Biggs.

The resident graduate students chose to make the best of the snowed-in situation and efficiently cross two things off their “Wintertime To-Do List” simultaneously: “Make a Blanket Fort” and “Watch The Shining”. Raiding both their backpacking supplies and the office, they constructed a fort in the Wild Ginger Library by stringing up tapestries and sheets with parachute chord and industrial strength binder clips.

blanket fort K. RenzTyler Chisholm and Katie Komorowski put their construction and interior design skills to use on a recent dark and stormy night. Photo by Katherine Renz.

And really, as practicing environmental educators the grads were simply exemplifying one of the seven “Children and Nature Design Principles” as described by award-winning author and educator David Sobel in his book, Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Among principles such as “Animal Allies” and “Hunting and Gathering” is “Special Places”: “[There] appears to be a universal tendency for children to create or find their own private places,” Sobel writes. “I believe the creation of these places serves many developmental purposes for children. The fort is a home away from home in nature; it provides a bridge between the safe, protected world of the family and the independent self in the wider world of adolescence. These places also serve as vehicles of bonding with the natural world, allowing children to feel comfortable in the landscape, connected to it, and eventually committed to acting as stewards of it.”

So, really, the blanket fort was an exercise in preparation for facilitating the next generation of ecological stewards.

people in fort k. RenzAll smiles, bright lights, three bags of popcorn and a jar of nutritional yeast. This is before the film. Photo by Katherine Renz.

With each cushion and sleeping bag of the Special Place Blanket Fort in order, it was time to watch Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 screen version of Steven King’s psychological horror novel, The Shining (1977), a feature film we had been planning on watching during a snowstorm since we’d moved to the isolated Environmental Learning Center way back in the sunny days of September. This activity also be considered related to our studies, in multiple ways: it taught us how not to act when you’re stuck in the mountains with a lot of writing to do; it showed us one of our sister Cascade peaks, Oregon’s Mount Hood, which towered over the backdrop for the exterior shots of the movie’s haunted Overlook Hotel, known in real life is called the Timberline Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in the late 1930s; and it encouraged further cohort bonding, as any good horror movie will do.

the shining twins k. renz“Come and play with us, forever, and ever, and ever……”. The creepy ghost sisters of The Shining, as seen in the Wild Ginger Library-cum-independent movie house. Photo by Katherine Renz.

The road is open, the snow is slowly melting, and the grads have transitioned from fort-building to prepping lesson plans. We look forward to Mountain School resuming next week and watching the landscape morph, day by day, in to spring.

slush on diablo katie rolosonDiablo Lake from the shore at the Environmental Learning Center, Monday morning. Program Manager Katie Roloson said this was the first time she had ever seen the lake so completely covered in slush. It’s almost hard to imagine it having its characteristicly jewel-green, milky blue summertime hue. Photo by Katie Roloson.


Leading photo: Chunks of ice float on Diablo Lake in the shadow of Colonial and Pyramid Peaks on the weekend preceding Monday’s avalanche. Photo by Katie Komorowski.


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 happy to say that The Shining is less terrifying by the third viewing.



North Cascades Institute Newhalem Survey

June 30th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

At the request of Seattle City Light, North Cascades Institute is examining expanding our partnership with the public utility to potentially offer programs and customer services in the small town of Newhalem, Washington. Located seven miles west of our Learning Center in the North Cascades National Park Complex, Newhalem has been the homebase for Seattle City Light’s Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, housing utility workers and their families. Amenities include a convenience store, small visitor center, public restrooms, trails and lodging.

As a valued Institute supporter, we’d appreciate five minutes of your time in answering the questions in the following survey to help us gather information for this unique opportunity.

Student for a Day at North Cascades National Park Headquarters

September 20th, 2010 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

By guest blogger Elisabeth Keating

“The coolest part was when we went snorkeling in Ross Lake, looking for fish. Remember how cold it was?”

“We met a Spanish forestry Ph.D. student on the boat on Ross Lake. She’s here to study how we manage our forests because in her country, the forests have been logged so much they barely have any trees left. She told us she couldn’t believe how huge and unspoiled our forests are!”

“My favorite day was when we learned all about bears and the effect of climate change on bear habitat. I didn’t know the bears we have here were endangered, I thought it was all about the polar bears.”

“I’ll never forget watching the meteor showers when we were lying on the dock last night!”

“Remember how we held hands and ran the final few yards up to Desolation Peak? I couldn’t believe we made it!”

It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in the North Cascades at the North Cascades National Park Visitors Center in Newhalem, WA. As I walk the trails, I’m regaled with tales of scientific discovery and high adventure by 19 very enthusiastic and bright high school students. Freshly back from 19 days of hiking to Mount Baker’s glaciers and summiting Desolation Peak, riding out thunderstorms on Cascade Pass and exploring the underwater world of Ross Lake, the students are full of stories and it’s all I can do to keep up. Best of all it’s not over yet: still to come are 2 final days of camping, planning school projects that will extend the students’ learning to elementary school students, brainstorming and rehearsing presentations. Tomorrow, we’ll get an inside look at Diablo Powerhouse to learn about hydro electric power—a renewable energy source that must be balanced with protecting salmon habitat.

On today’s agenda: learning about national parks and putting in some time to plan what projects the students will bring home to their schools in the fall. Last summer, I spent an incredible day exploring the glaciers of Mount Baker with the 2009 students, and I can’t wait to learn about what this year’s crop of Cascades Climate Challenge students has been up to.


At ten AM, we meet the two Park Service rangers who will be our guides for the day: Will George from Oregon’s Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, and Autumn Carlsen, from North Cascades National Park.

» Continue reading Student for a Day at North Cascades National Park Headquarters