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Poetry: Rhythm and Reflection in the North Cascades

September 18th, 2015 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes



Fingers of smoke from wildfires
reach down Big Beaver and Pierce Creek valleys
and cover the deep blue of Ross Lake
like a quilt.

The drift mingles with other smokestreams
from Ruby and Thunder creeks,
where mountains, too,
have been touched by the sky.

Smoke clouds curl around Sourdough Mountain,
where I sit in the clear blue center
of this gesture: mudra
of the mountain Buddhas.

Waft of incense from a world renewed,
forests / meadows
rained into soil.
The teachings come round again.

Tim McNulty, from Through High Still Air: A Season at Sourdough Mountain



The cries of migrating swans
stitch the clouds together,
white on white.

Rain yesterday,
sun this afternoon,
cold trees shedding leaves.

In the brown reeds
a red-winged blackbird
remembers his summer song.

Each stroke of my paddle
brings me closer
to those I love.

— Saul Weisberg, from Headwaters: Poems & Field Notes

Join Institute founder and executive director Saul Weisberg and poet & essayist Tim McNulty September 25-27 for a fall weekend in the North Cascades exploring poetry and the outdoors; registration includes instruction, organic meals and overnight accommodations on Diablo Lake. Details at…/programs/poetry-with-tim-and-saul and (360) 854-2599.

C12 graduates haag

A Generosity of Spirit: Cohort 12 Graduates!

March 25th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

The twelfth cohort of graduate students earned their Masters in Education degrees through North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University this week. Dr. John Miles, Executive Director Saul Weisberg, Graduate Coordinator Joshua Porter and Program Manager Katie Roloson recalled anecdotes and unique qualities of each of the eight grads, while about 100 friends and family watched in support. “They opened my eyes to gas station junk food,” Roloson laughed, invoking the power of sour gummy worms and experiential education.

Snickers bars and red licorice vines were hardly Cohort 12’s only sweet contribution to the Environmental Learning Center community. As the sky changed from gray to golden to grey again, and everyone sat in the Dining Hall looking west toward Diablo Lake and the future, the speakers described what Porter called “the generosity of spirit” that characterized this small group. Roloson noted they were experts at supporting each other, collaborating and holding council, saying, “They were the first cohort where every decision seemed like a group decision.”

Dr. John Miles, the students’ primary professor throughout both their residency and three quarters at WWU, told several stories from their adventures together over the past seven quarters. The audience was transported to Yellow Aster Butte, where he set up a belay with parachute cord down a steep subalpine slope, and to his and his wife, Susan’s, beautiful Bellingham garden, where they would hold summertime classes. One Kentuckian student, Kim Hall, coming from the Peace Corps in Senegal, would have to wrap herself in a sleeping bag to armor herself against western Washington’s July temperatures.

kim graduating haagKim Hall, sans sleeping bag. Photo by Jessica Haag.
sahara graduating haagSahara Suval laughs with Program Manager Katie Roloson behind a Douglas fir-stump podium. Photo by Jessica Haag.

» Continue reading A Generosity of Spirit: Cohort 12 Graduates!

it's done!

Non-Profit Ninjas Slay the Behemoth

March 12th, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

In the wintertime interim between teaching Mountain School in the fall and teaching Mountain School in the spring, graduate students in the North Cascades Institute Masters in Education program are skiing Mt. Baker’s slopes, exploring glassy blue glaciers, and visiting their old summertime haunts in Bellingham.

When, that is, they’re not hard at work on their non-profit project, something that tends to be, well, relatively rare.

The opportunity to design a non-profit organization is one that attracts several of the graduate students to this unique program. Earning this degree is not just about becoming a better naturalist, honing one’s teaching skills and developing intriguing curriculum. It is also a way to learn about designing a mission-driven business.

This winter, the eight members of graduate Cohort 13 created three non-profit models. Though these are a hypothetical practice, they can also be intended for the “real world” post-graduation. Several current non-profit organizations, such as Bellingham’s Wild Whatcom, started out as graduate student assignments; this year, Sarah Stephens created the Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition with her sister, a graduate of Western. Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
Though still “just” hypothetical, their project has been intended from the start to become a viable local non-profit business.

Half of the C13 Foundation: Saul Weisberg offers feedback to the graduate students while Dr. John Miles and Jason Ruvelson (Finance Director of North Cascades Institute) look on. Photo by Katherine Renz.

At the end of our two months learning, drafting, revising and compiling our projects, we present a grant proposal to the “C13 Foundation”. This body is a hypothetical foundation dedicated to “improving the quality of life in the Pacific Northwest” through focusing on education about the environment through interdisciplinary, community-based projects. It is composed of our teachers, Saul Weisberg, the Executive Director of North Cascade Institute; Dr. John Miles, professor and former Chair of the Department of Environmental Studies at Huxley College; and various members of the North Cascades Institute staff. Each non-profit group has their “final” — an hour-long interview to assess how well their grant proposal aligns with the Foundation’s mission.

Curious as to what our recent missions, visions and strategies are? The following is a brief description of our three projects. –Katherine Renz

The Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition (BARC)

The Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition works with outdoor leisure organizations and other interested community businesses to facilitate recreational opportunities for people with disabilities. BARC’s mission is to promote empowerment for individuals with disabilities, creating a sense of community for all. Our vision is an inclusive community that promotes access to outdoor recreation for all bodies and all abilities. 

BARC by Sarah Stephens

About 13% of the Whatcom County population identifies as having a disability. This computes to 25,815 people. According to a University of Washington study on disabilities in the state, 55% of people with disabilities reported that they are less likely to participate in community activities, including outdoor recreation, as compared to only 7% of people who do not have a disability. Many people with disabilities are often excluded from community interaction, stigmatized and need additional support. Individuals with chronic, or recently acquired disabilities often have to pave their own path to when it comes to involvement in recreational opportunities.

The Bellingham Adapted Recreation Coalition (BARC) aims to be a community resource that will partner with disability and health organizations, other recreational programs, universities and local businesses to create a truly integrated recreational community. Our flagship program, ‘Piping Sailors’, advocates for individuals and groups in their pursuit of recreation experiences by helping them adapt sailing to their ability level.

Adaptive sailing builds self-confidence that helps participants overcome other daily challenges. It promotes a more positive outlook on life, increases teamwork and leadership skills and benefits the physical condition of participant. Sailboats can be adapted for people with any level of ability. Through BARC’s partnership with Bellingham Parks and Recreation and the Community Boating Center, ‘Piping Sailors’ provides people a welcoming and inclusive environment to become community boaters. In addition, creating a welcoming and inclusive community means distilling the negative perspectives of people with disabilities amongst the general public. BARC’s DisAbility Awareness Campaign community outreach initiatives serve to reframe how people perceive what it means to be disabled. This program builds a supportive community that will further BARC’s mission and vision to provide recreation for every body. Designed by Sarah and Katie Stephens. Post written by Sarah Stephens.

BARKGraduate student Sarah Stephens with her sister, Western Washington University alumni and sailing teacher, Katie Stephens, are hoping to put their Bellingham Adaptive Recreation Coalition project into practice.

 nonprofit love

Interview day! Though all three groups compete for funding from the same hypothetical grant foundation, we support each other —  unhypothetically! Photo by Katherine Renz.

Adventure Bus

Learn! Serve! Play!

Adventure Bus strengthens communities by connecting teens with their peers and place through education, public service, and outdoor excursions.

High school incompletion is an epidemic. Last year, over 2,800 students dropped out of the Tacoma School District alone. Each of those students is now 3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated in their lifetime. On average, they will each earn $10,000 less than their diploma-holding classmates every year.  Academic retention is not the only struggle this community faces. In the three high schools we are serving, 77% of students receive free or reduced meals.  Adventure Bus’s integrated approach of experiential learning, community involvement and outdoor recreation can help remedy these epidemics.

Our organization allows participants the opportunity to discover and develop leadership skills and works to help them understand their value and worth to the community as a whole.  We use mentorship to create a positive atmosphere for teens and provides a network of support from peers and mentors.  By offering hands-on, engaging opportunities for participants to learn about the world around them, we will show that education can come in many forms.  We also support our students by providing them with a balanced lunch and two healthy snacks every day to address issues of food insecurity.

Adventure Connections, our inaugural program is a ten week, 50-day course that provides teens with the opportunity to spend their summer learning, serving and playing throughout Pierce County. The Adventure Connections curriculum follows weekly themes that approach each topic from an educational, service-learning, and recreational perspective.  Learning activities focus on natural and ecological processes to promote deeper understanding of the local environment.  Our service projects focus on strengthening the Tacoma community by addressing issues of identified need, ecological restoration and neighborhood connectivity.Recreational activities help teens foster a sense of place exciting them about the natural world.  Connecting teens to their peers and place will motivate and empower participants to make Pierce County a better place, in turn building a supportive, inclusive community from the ground up. Designed by Kaci Darsow, Katie Komorowski, and Samantha Hale. Post written by Hale.

Adventure BusGraduate students Samantha Hale, Katie Komorowski and Kaci Darsow get ready to go adventure with some Tacoma teens. Photo by Debra Brodie.
Playlandia!The C13 Foundation reviews each non-profit’s grant and looks over their bound, final projects, which are composed of dozens of documents including case statements, strategic plans and board biographies. Photo by Katherine Renz.


Learn the way nature intended

Do you remember your favorite outdoor place to play when you were little? Maybe it was a secret fort, a vacant lot of tall grasses and red-winged blackbirds, or a simple suburban backyard transformed through a child’s eyes into a magical realm. Today, life is different for most modern children, and the problems they face are only increasing, including hours devoted to sitting behind a screen, rising obesity levels, and over-scheduling of structured activities and lessons. Stranger danger, ubiquitous liability concerns, and towns designed for cars, not people, all contribute to fewer opportunities for the free exploration of nature, and of themselves.

Playlandia!, a five acre nature playground located in the heart of Mount Vernon, WA, exists to alleviate these pressures. Our mission is to connect children, teens, and adults to the natural world and their community through providing a safe, imaginative playscape with opportunities for stewardship, experiential education, and youth leadership. In lieu of swing sets and plastic slides, Playlandia! has trees to climb, mud in which to squish, tools and tree branches with which to build forts, a small butterfly and food garden, and natural features such as winding pathways, a froggy pond, and boulders and logs to hide behind.

In addition to offering a “free play” membership, we have several programs, from Tierra for Toddlers and the high school-based EcoLeaders to our flagship After School Adventures for 3rd-5th graders. With trained naturalists on site and leading activities, children are encouraged to ask questions about the natural world if they choose, and/or they can participate in self-directed adventure and learn the way nature intended – through experience, exploration, and FUN! Get outside and play! Designed by Tyler Chisholm, Elissa Kobrin, Annabel Connelly, and Katherine Renz. Post written by Renz.

nonprofit adviceGraduate student and Adventure Bus Executive Director Kaci Darsow offers their anxious fellow grads some worthy advice pre-interview. Basically, look good and talk loud. Photo by Katherine Renz.
Leading photo: (from L to R): Professor John Miles, Saul Weisberg, Susan Morgan, Sam Hale, Katie Komorowski, Kaci Darsow, Sarah Stephens, Katie Stephens, Katherine Renz, Tyler Chisholm, Annabel Connelly. Not pictured is Elissa Kobrin. Big smiles signify a quarter-long project, bound and completed!
Saul Weisberg by Benj Drummond

Congratulations Saul Weisberg, North Cascades Institute’s co-founder and executive director

September 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

Saul Weisberg, Executive Director of North Cascades Institute, has been recognized for his national and regional leadership with two high-profile professional awards: The Association of Nature Center Administrators’ 2013 Nature Center Leadership Award and Re Sources’ 2013 Environmental Heroes Award.

Weisberg is the co-founder of North Cascades Institute, the award-winning conservation nonprofit organization founded in Washington State in 1986. The Institute, under Weisberg’s leadership, has served tens of thousands of people of all ages in outdoor programs focused on the natural and cultural history of the North Cascades and Salish Sea region.Chinese Teapots Wholesale Chinese Teapots Amber Spiral Bracelets
In 2005, the Institute opened the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park, a $12 million educational facility operated in partnership with Seattle City Light and the National Park Service. Weisberg is noted for creating sustainable, mutually beneficial partnerships with the National Park Service, US Forest Service, Western Washington University and numerous local and regional organizations and businesses.

The Association of Nature Center Administrators’ 2013 Nature Center Leadership Award was presented to Weisberg in front of his national peers at the Surf’s Up Summit in Newport Beach, CA, August 21-24, 2013. ANCA recognized Weisberg’s “professionalism and ability to inspire and share with others,” “selfless work done in the profession and community” and for “exemplary accomplishments and contributions to the field of nature center administration” for his guiding role at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park.

“He has been a great friend, advisor, mentor and inspiration,” noted a nominating peer. “I have been impressed by his ability to share his expertise with others in ways that are insightful, encouraging and supportive.”

The Re Sources 2013 Environmental Heroes Award, presented Thursday, September 5, 2013 in Bellingham, WA, recognized Weisberg as a local leader in conservation and education.

“We are delighted to honor Saul for his extraordinary achievements in protecting and promoting the health of the Pacific northwest environment,” boasts Crina Hoyer, Executive Director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. “Saul has made huge contributions to the vision RE Sources and others share for our region. We at RE Sources  support, applaud, and encourage more work like Saul’s.”

Weisberg is executive director and co-founder of North Cascades Institute. He is also adjunct faculty at Huxley College of the Environment and has served on the board of directors of the Natural History Network, the Environmental Education Association of Washington and the Association of Nature Center Administrators. Weisberg is the author of From the Mountains to the Sea, North Cascades: The Story behind the Scenery, Teaching for Wilderness, and Living with Mountains. A dedicated naturalist, Saul continues to teach and write about northwest mountains, watersheds and wildlife. He lives in Bellingham where his passions include canoeing, bugs and walking in the mountains in the rain.

Photo by Benj Drummond.
robby fruit

Life after grad school for an environmental educator and naturalist

June 13th, 2013 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

ROBBY ASTROVE graduated from North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed program in 2005 as part of the third Cohort of students. He is currently the Park Ranger at the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve located in the Arabia Mountain,  National Heritage Area, Lithonia, GA.

Wow, 10 years have passed already.  Even though time and geography have advanced and changed, there are a few things that really stuck from North Cascade Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed program.  Time and time again these nuggets have provided answers and advisement for over a decade while at the same time provided teachable moments and inspiration to keep doing and learning more. And I’ll admit, the Each-One-Teach-One activity I learned at Mountain School in 2003 still gets regular rotation in my programs.

The vision, philosophy and pedagogy of the grad program is so grand and relevant to the needs of our professional field, that the combination of what’s possible afterward is infinite. North Cascades Institute planted that seed and provided a road map for how to create and sustain a practice that engages people in planetary healing and transformational change.  That sounds pretty dreamy I know, but an important part of realizing that ambition, and perhaps challenging and less exciting, is finding the financial resources to do so.  It took some time for these skills and lessons to finally materialize into practice. My career continues to expand as I explore more at the intersection of environmental education, philanthropy, and urban agriculture:

» Continue reading Life after grad school for an environmental educator and naturalist

“The Fire Inside” doc at Village Books with Saul Weisberg, Aug 28

August 26th, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

On Tuesday, August 28, at 7 pm, North Cascades Institute co-presents a screening of the documentary film “The Fire Inside: Place, Passion and Primacy of Nature” at Village Books (1200 11th St, Bellingham). The showing will be followed by a discussion led by Saul Weisberg, executive director of North Cascades Institute, and film producers Phil Walker and Dr. Rebecca Gould. “The Fire Inside” is a 30 minute documentary that asks provocative questions and offers thoughtful perspectives on our relationship to the natural world and the ecological crises we face today. What is nature? And what is the human experience of that world? In the everyday push of our modern lives , what connections have been lost and what remain? This film, set in the San Juan Island, follows a small, diverse group on a contemplative retreat as they explore the wildness about them and the passion for place within.

You can find out more about the film at

» Continue reading “The Fire Inside” doc at Village Books with Saul Weisberg, Aug 28

New Institute video! “The High Ridge: Celebrating 25 Years in the North Cascades”

January 21st, 2012 | Posted by in Institute News

North Cascades Institute is very excited to finally share with you a multimedia piece made in celebration of our 25th anniversary. “The High Ridge: Celebrating 25 Years in the North Cascades” was created by three staff members from our marketing/communications department — Christian Martin, Jessica Haag and Amy Wilcox — in partnership with Benj Drummond and Sara Joy Steele of It aims to tell the story of where the Institute originated from, how it has evolved over the past quarter-century, what we hope to accomplish in our teaching and natural history work and where we’re going next. Not an easy task, especially in only 11 minutes!

The piece features interviews with Institute founders, instructors, board members and friends, including Tom Fleischner, Saul Weisberg, Jonathan Jarvis, Robert Michael Pyle, Libby Mills, Chuck Robinson, John Miles, Jeanne Muir and Brian Scheuch. Special thanks to Bill Frisell and John Reischman for providing the music, and countless photographers for sharing their work.

Watch it now in high definition — full screen viewing essentail!

We’d really love it if you helped spread this story around — you can share this link:

Sara wrote up a blog post outlining some of the creative process it took to produce this piece:

When the Institute first approached us about creating a story for their 25th anniversary, they didn’t necessarily have a workshop in mind. But the more we discussed the project – along with the organization’s expanding needs, staff interest and new website – building in-house capacity to produce videos and multimedia made the most sense.

The workshop took place over five days on Canoe Island in the San Juans. In the months leading up to our week together, three Institute staff members – Amy, Christian and Jessica – purchased a video camera and learned how to use it, conducted a dozen interviews, transcribed them into more than 60,000 words, and sorted through archival footage.