From North Cascades Institute

Search Chattermarks

North Cascades on Instagram



We don’t know what we’ve already lost: A road trip

July 7th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

As much as we love North Cascadian landscapes, we here at the Institute are still called to visit and experience other amazing places on our planet. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

By David “Hutch” Hutchison, naturalist at the Institute.

We paddle our small boats upon the black still water, reflecting a mirror image of the great sandstone walls rising perpendicularly from its depth.  The mountains beyond covered in snow on this early March morning provide a stunning backdrop and increase our sense of remoteness.   Each paddle stroke brings us further into the land of sandstone canyons, the land of water reclamation, of summer recreation, and the great pause which the Colorado River makes along its journey to the Sea of Cortez.  We have entered a land of contrast; nature and human design merge here in beauty and tragedy, revealing much, while obscuring much more.

Lake Powell, so named in honor of the first European/American expedition to explore the length of the Green and Colorado Rivers, remains a beautiful place despite the changes made by the Glen Canyon dam.  During our six days on the waterway in sea kayaks, we explore only a relatively small area of this vast reservoir.  Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
The tributaries and channels of the watershed are now backfilled creating a labyrinth of flat, motionless water, a maze of passages which cry out for the slow exploration of motorless boating.  At this time of year, the houseboats and party barges remain quietly moored in their harbors and our only companions are the occasional early-rising fisherman buzzing to a secret spot among the myriad twists of side-canyons and channels which make these hectares of water feel so expansive and at once so intimate.

» Continue reading We don’t know what we’ve already lost: A road trip

1 really

The Big One

July 2nd, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Calvin Laatsch, the Institute’s Conference and Retreat Coordinator. Calvin originally posted this to his personal blog, Live Close. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

I notice that my knuckles are raw and chaffed from stuffing my fists into the wide crack leading up into an endless wall of granite. I pause to note how vibrant my blood looks against the rock. I’m hyper aware of this moment, but am quickly snapped back to my precarious position on the side of El Capitan. Glancing at my last piece of protection, a stuck cam 20 feet below me, and I feel completely overwhelmed…

“Jonathan!” I yell into the wind. “I’m scared!”

There is a pregnant pause, before he hollers back, “Me too!”

That was 5 years ago. Jonathan and I decided to retreat after another night halfway up the Nose. With that experience seared in my memory, I have spent countless hours dreaming of a return, trying to identify and improve on my weaknesses, wrestling with the feeling that I was not ready. Fear can be incredibly motivating. Whether in climbing, in work, or in love, facing fear is an experience that all people can relate to.

» Continue reading The Big One


Listening to Coyote

May 13th, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Emily Ford, part of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

After a rainy and dark winter, I’ve started to recognize the North Cascades as I remember them when I arrived last summer. Pyramid Mountain’s East wing is shaking off the snow, reminding me of summer as if it were an old friend. Soon again, Pyramid will be the snowless, chiseled, gray spire that taunted my stout climbing heart, and proved to me that its summit remains sacred beyond tired muscles, novice skills and terminal daylight. It is no longer capped by cornices like ice cream cone swirls that soften its thrust into the clouds. Pyramid stands out along the Diablo Lake skyline once more, and reminds me how deeply at home I have become.

Ok I got a little carried away. This blog is not about the North Cascades. In fact, I desperately needed to leave. I needed to go back to the desert, where I’ve returned to backpack and guide river trips for many years. When water has been scorned in the Northwest for being too much, the water in the desert is praised – and as Edward Abbey notes – exactly the right amount. Which is hilarious because it was 90 degrees in Seattle, but it rained every day, and even hailed, during my spring break trip in the Canyonlands.

Eating dinner in a slickrock alcove, I watched a storm approach at sunset.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Shadows danced among the spires creating quite the dinner theater.

» Continue reading Listening to Coyote

Milwakee ticket Kim Hall

Tales from a Greyhound Bus: From Goodbyes to New Beginnings

April 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

By Kimberly Hall

March 28th, 2014

10:38 am

Somewhere in South Seattle

We n’de ya ho

We n’de ya ho

Win de yah

Win de yah ho ho ho ho

He ya ho he ya ho

Ya ya ya

This was my absolute favorite song to share with students as they prepared to head home after their experience at Mountain School. We n’de ya ho is a traditional Cherokee song used to greet the morning, a song about new beginnings. So why, you ask, would I choose to sing about commencement with Mountain School students as they wrap up their time in the North Cascades?

For me, the three-day Mountain School experience is not resigned to this one isolated event. Instead, it is the beginning of something bigger, the start of a new phase in life. I hope that, with this experience, many of our students can now see the world with fresh eyes, with a fresh start, one overflowing with hope and opportunity.

It is this song that has been running through my head all day. I stare out a plate glass window on an east-bound Greyhound bus heading from Seattle, Washington to Louisville, Kentucky, humming Win-de-ya-ho.

I just finished up my two-year graduate program at Western Washington University with a year-long residency at the North Cascades Institute and spent the past few days tearfully saying goodbye to this place that has become my home and the people who have become my family. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Like the song says, while I close one chapter of my life and am departing from the North Cascades, I am embarking on a new adventure full of amazing people that I have yet to meet and amazing adventures that are sure to be had. Within a week, I will be starting a job as program coordinator for a non-profit in Ithaca, New York.

But before I can even consider accepting my new beginning and this next season of my life, I need time, time to say goodbye, to come to terms with what I am leaving behind in order to truly embrace the road ahead. And what better way to give myself ample time and plenty of opportunities to process and reflect than to undertake a 60-plus hour Greyhound bus ride across the country?

So here I find myself, preparing for the physical and mental journey ahead of me with a poster of the North Cascades mountain range in one hand and a bag full of peanut butter sandwiches in the other. My trip begins with my eyes glued to the window. I watch as the tireless rain permeates the entire city. I watch as Seattle disappears from view. I watch as my home is slowly enveloped by rain, fog and a pair of misty eyes. All I can do is sit here, staring out the Greyhound bus window, and watch as everything I love grows farther and farther away.

» Continue reading Tales from a Greyhound Bus: From Goodbyes to New Beginnings

Sam manatee Liam McDonnell

South or Bust

January 27th, 2014 | Posted by in Adventures

To paraphrase graduate student and Chattermarks contributor Samantha Hale: This weather? It ain’t normal. Or at least, these no-Gore-tex-required skies and 50 degree Fahrenheit temperatures may be a little out of the ordinary, but they still did not stop more than a few of the staff and graduate students at the North Cascades Institute from venturing to more traditionally sun-struck lands this past winter break. Whether it was Hale sailing off the Floridian coast, Amy Brown putting her flamingo-watching skills to use in Colombia, or myself feeling re-connected in California, we all imitated the birds and flew south. —Katherine Renz


Golden Brown: Of Drought and Draught

By Katherine Renz

It was already past noon when my best bud, Kelsey, and I drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge toward our hiking destination, the undulating hills of the Marin Headlands. I’d been back in my native California almost a week already, and was getting used to the inescapable sign of major drought all through the Coast Ranges: not a single blade of wintertime green grass, nor even the characteristic golden version. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Just dirt. Just brown. After six months of living amidst northwestern Washington’s emerald understory and constant wet decay, this was both a refreshing change and a depressing, scary homecoming. But the Headlands are family, and I would happily hike within it in its emergency state of dehydration, if that was what was offered.

Kels and I climbed and descended the hills between our Mill Valley starting point and Muir Beach toward the end. The “Coastal Trail”, a small snippet of the California Coastal Trail, paralleled the ocean for about three miles. Reuniting with cliffside scrub species like lizard tail and Artemisia californica was nearly as good as seeing old friends at a party the night before (and in some cases, better). Soon enough, we reached the classic destination for this trip: the Pelican Inn, a pub modeled after 16th century Tudor-style buildings, complete with a dart board, a lawn for the picnicking overflow, and a dark dining room with long wooden tables reminiscent of a feast scene from Game of Thrones.

pint and map RenzPerfection. Photo by Katherine Renz.

A freshly poured pint with a plate of meat and cheese has to be one of the best mid-hike treats found in the frontcountry. Substantially refueled, we were smarter on the return trip towards San Francisco, choosing the paths that zigged and zagged along the ridges rather than the knee-crushing peak-valley-peak-valley of the Coastal Trail. We were privileged to pass through Green Gulch Farm, a Zen practice center that combines meditation with spending time in the natural world and doing physical work. Between the dry coastal foothills and the huge organic gardens of the Buddhist retreat, I knew I was home, and had to keep myself from mauling every tick-ridden coyote brush (Bacchus pilularis) in a show of loving kinship.

It was December 22nd, the day after winter solstice. I’d stayed in my tank top throughout the entire hike, stubborn and thrilled to expose my pale arms to the California chill even as the sun plunged softly, burning, into the Pacific.

green gulch zen center altar RenzGarden shed altar at the Green Gulch Zen Center. Photo by Katherine Renz.
SF in Headlands RenzThe tops of the ubiquitous coyote brush poke up in the foreground and the pointed peaks of two of San Francisco’s most characteristics landmarks, the Transamerica Pyramid and the Golden Gate Bridge, are barely visible and snug between the rolling Headlands. This land is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban parks in the world, with a size two-and-a-half times that of the consolidated city and county of San Francisco. Photo by Katherine Renz.


Salty and Sweaty in the Sunshine State

By Samantha Hale

I’ve lived in Washington only half a year and already know that the recent weather isn’t normal. In 2013, both summer and fall were full of blue skies, not the rain that I was promised by so many. But with the arrival of winter, the rains came, and the blue sky and sun disappeared above the high peaks I’d spent so many months memorizing. Though I am not one to crave warmer temperatures, the promise of winter break had me yearning for sun. And so, I went searching. Destination: Key Largo, Florida.

The day I flew out of Seattle it was 15 degrees Fahrenheit and massive ice storms raged throughout the country. I almost didn’t make it out of Washington. I spent hours at the check-in desk while the most amazingly patient American Airlines employee booked me on cancelled flight after cancelled flight, until she found one that would get me to Florida. It was a rough start in my search of sunshine and ocean adventures, but it was worth it. The next day I arrived in Florida, greeted by temperatures in the 60s, humidity, brilliant sun and a cloudless sky.

I was going to spend a week sailing with a friend who had formerly lived for many years just north of Bellingham. He, too, had just arrived in Key Largo and we both waited for my baggage, sweating through our first outfit of the day. We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing his little sailboat for the ocean. The evening was spent among good friends, grilling chunks of freshly caught fish and sitting under the stars with bug lamps shining strong.

wooden ship Liam McDonnellThe wooden boat had a few leaks, but once it sat in saltwater for a few days it swelled up and all the leaks disappeared. Photo by Liam McDonnell.

The next day we launched his tiny wooden boat into the Atlantic Ocean. It had just arrived, like its owner, from the shores of Lake Tahoe and was in for a different, more tropical life.

The rest of the week was spent in warm bliss. In this flat land of the lower latitudes, the sun stayed in the sky longer than I was used to at the Environmental Learning Center, giving the week a dreamlike quality. The days were long, the nights longer. Friendship and adventure were in abundance, and my land legs remained packed in my luggage for a later date. We snorkeled on offshore reefs, had close encounters with manatees and gorged ourselves on freshly caught seafood. I was introduced to wooden boat sailing (and the idea that they break often, but you love them more for that reason) and “hook and cook”, in which you catch your own seafood and bring it to a local restaurant for them to prepare.

Sam lobster by alden roweLocal ocean grub: Graduate student Hale with Captain McDonnell getting their crustacean catch for “hook and cook”. Photo by Alden Rowe.

All too quickly, the week came to an end. It was glorious being in the warm sun, but the bugs were ferocious and the land too flat. I will miss the sound of the ocean lulling me to sleep and the sweet, salty sea breeze, but am looking forward to continuing my explorations of the amazing wilderness of the North Cascades, my home.


Taking Flight

By Amy Brown

-2Who knew that real live flamingos are actually brighter and more colorful than those plastic lawn ornaments? Photo by Eric Mickelson.

This December, I had the unique opportunity to travel to Colombia. It is big and diverse country, with multiple mountain ranges that soar over 18,000 feet, two oceans, friendly people and relatively few tourists. It offers awesome birding opportunities, beautiful rivers, tons of beaches, enough tourist infrastructure without tons of tourists and the opportunity to buff up my beginner Spanish. My husband and I booked plane tickets for a three-week trip.

Before we left, a friend and colleague recommended we visit Santuario de Flora y Fauna Los Flamencos (“Flamingo Nature Reserve”), a 700-hectare reserve along the Caribbean Coast. He was adamant: “Do not miss it,” he said. Being avid birders and having never seen flamingos before except in a zoo, we taxied from our beachside lodging in Palomino east to Camarones, the closest small town to the sanctuary. The contrast from Palomino, where we were staying at a finca on the beach, was incredible. Just an hour’s taxi ride had transported us from lush, tropical jungle to desert-like, dry tropical forest. Four coastal marshes and salty lagoons separated from the sea by a shallow sand bar provide perfect flamingo habitat, attracting thousands of American Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) who congregate in large flocks to feed and nest during the wet season from September through December. Our friend was right. The Santuario proved to be one of the highlights of our trip.

Visiting the reserve was also the chance to get to know the colorful Wayuu culture, an Amerindian ethnic group who lives both in the far north of Colombia on the Guajira Peninsula and in Venezuela. Our Wayuu guide took us out in a canoe hand-carved from a Ceiba tree with an ingenious sailing set-up: a well-worn green plastic tarp and a 12-foot long mast which he inserted into a hole in one of the canoe seats.

Wayuu guide Eric Mickelson  Resourceful, colorful sailing by a Wayuu guide at the Flamingo Nature Reserve. Photo by Eric Mickelson.

After sailing for about 15 minutes across the lagoon, occasionally getting stuck on the mussel shoals that lined the shallow bottom, we spotted our first birds, including Roseate Spoonbills, White Ibises, Snowy Egrets, Little Blue Herons, Great Blue Herons, Wood Storks, Great Egrets and more. These alone would have been enough to make us feel satisfied with the excursion.

But then, we spotted a wide smudge of pink about a half-kilometer away. As we came closer, we could see a flock of 500-plus American Flamingos standing in the lagoon. To feed, flamingos use their curious-shaped bills (technically called “ventroflexed”) to strain algae, brine flies, shrimp and small fish out of the water by inverting their heads underwater and holding their bills nearly horizontal. The real show, however, began when they took to the air. Anyone who’s seen snow geese wintering in the Skagit Valley knows how magical it is to see them take wing in huge flocks numbering in the thousands over your head, the drum of wing beats reverberating through the air. So you can imagine our awe when the entire flock of flamingos suddenly took flight, and we had the chance to stare in wonder at these fabulously beautiful and awkward-looking birds winging over us. All impossibly long legs and necks with short, down-curved bills and bright, coral wings — it seems almost unbelievable that such a fascinating creature evolved.

Given that we’d arrived with very few expectations or information about our visit to the reserve, we were delighted. If you ever have the chance to visit this gem of a country, as my friend said, do not miss seeing the flamingos!

-6Pretty in pink. Photo by Eric Mickelson.
Leading photo: Samantha Hale and her manatee friend on the coast of Key Largo, Florida.


Samantha Hale and Katherine Renz are both graduate students in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. Amy Brown is an award-winning educator who has led the Institute’s Youth Leadership Adventures program since its inception in 2006.



Road Trip: Yellowstone

June 23rd, 2011 | Posted by in Adventures

As much as we love North Cascadian landscapes, we here at the Institute are still called to visit and experience other amazing places on our planet. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.

About this time last year, summer solstice, with its long days filled with light and birdsong, I left Bellingham and headed out on a pilgrimage to Yellowstone and Grand Tetons national parks. It is a tradition of mine to spend some portion of my summer out there in the glory of western Wyoming. Having lived for a few years as a snowboard bum/river rat in Jackson Hole in the late 1990s, I have tasted the ineffable sweetness of summertime in the Tetons and the surrounding Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Once you sip that nectar, it is impossible not to go back for more whenever possible.

This particular road trip with two good friends, one from Portland, another from San Francisco, started with a visit to Yellowstone’s northeastern Lamar Valley, an area of the park renowned for wildlife viewing opportunities and a more remote feeling than other popular attractions like Old Faithful or the springs at Mammoth. We spent two nights at the lovely Lamar Field Station in the heart of the valley, a rustic outpost that is operated by the Yellowstone Association as accommodations for many of their field excursions.

Approaching the Yellowstone Association’s Lamar Field Station

Out the front door of our cabin was a view across the verdant valley in fresh flush, studded with silhouettes of hundreds of bison grazing with their young. Out the back door, a trail followed a creek back to Druid Peak, the famed mountain where Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt let loose Canadian wolves in 1995 to reintroduce this vital carnivore to the ecosystem. It felt like a holy place, this ground where our culture made an attempt to right a wrong from the past, where the food chain thrives in all of its perfect, intact elegance.

» Continue reading Road Trip: Yellowstone

Road Trip: Exploring the Grand Canyon, part 3

January 1st, 2011 | Posted by in Adventures

[The third installment in our ongoing Road Trip series, in which Institute staff visit other amazing places around the country and bring back stories and photos to share! This article is the final installment in a three-part series.]

After spending 11 days on the Colorado River, we took a rest on our twelfth day and set forth on land to discover the wonders of Tapeats Canyon.  There are stories that a waterfall cascades down the canyon wall for hundreds of feet to the canyon floor with feats of grace.  Cottonwoods grow along the river’s edge while mosses and ferns carpet the canyon wall.  After 11 days on the Colorado, where the majority of the plants we saw were of the cactus family, Cactaceae, we were driven up the canyon to explore paradise.

» Continue reading Road Trip: Exploring the Grand Canyon, part 3