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Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

August 20th, 2017 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Jihan Grettenberger, graduate student in the Institute’s 16th cohort.

What do you love about the North Cascades and the Skagit Valley?

I love the burning feeling in my legs as I hike up the switchbacks on the trails that travel through thick forests of Douglas Firs, Western Hemlocks, and cedars. The sounds of the forest bring me bliss. The birds calling in the distances, the winds rushing over tree tops, and the buzz of bees pollinating plants. Most importantly I am in awe by the abundance of water. In the spring, the North Cascades fills with raging creeks from snowmelt and from lookout points I can see snow covered peaks. I know summer is coming when Diablo Lake changes from a greyish blue to a vibrant aquamarine color.

Diablo Dam with Pyramid Peak in the background. Photo courtesy of Jihan Grettenberger 

How important is water in the North Cascades?

The North Cascades is water rich and named after all of the cascades that flow through the landscape. In the winter, snow piles up on the mountaintops; in the spring the snowpack melts, supplying water to the streams; in the summer glacier melt feeds our alpine lakes and dam reservoirs. The rainy fall then replenishes our dry summer soils and increases the flows in our rivers.

Thanks to our abundant water supply and diverse ecosystems, the North Cascades and Skagit Valley have all five native Pacific salmon species. Eagles soar through the sky, ospreys hunt, and wolverines dig deep dens in the snow. When the supply and timing of water changes in the mountains, it also changes the watershed. People, agriculture, hydroelectric production, plants, and creatures, all depend on reliable water sources to thrive.

» Continue reading Our Water, Your Future: The Story of Climate Change and the Skagit River

andy porter baker ice

Integral Ice : A Creative Residency reflection

June 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Naturalist Notes

By Manasseh Franklin

For much of the lower 48 states, it’s easy to consider glaciers as distant, sometimes extraordinarily so. A great deal of my research and writing focuses on closing this distance in order to give access to the beauty, vitality and total importance of ice on the decline throughout North America. To do this, I rely on intimate first hand experiences, scientific counsel and the compelling narrative of the landscapes themselves.

I came to the North Cascades Institute to write about ice. Fittingly, this region is home to the largest concentration of glaciers remaining in the lower 48. What I didn’t realize prior to arrival, however, is just how much that ice is integral to the livelihoods of people in this region, and how accessible that makes it on a day-to-day basis, both on the ice itself, but primarily off.

Being stationed at Diablo Lake provided the perfect starting point: glacial waters flowing through hydro-electric dams that power neighboring cities. Waters that, without glaciers, would not be able to provide the growing capacity of electricity needed in those places.

Through conversations at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, I was able to see the bigger picture not only of water and electricity but also glacial melt and how both its temperature and flow are integral to salmon runs. Glacial melt and its contribution to irrigation for orchards that supply fruit to the entire country. Glacial melt and the incredible milky emerald hue Lake Diablo took on during the final weeks of my stay in early June.

Not only did the landscape provide access to these integrated systems, but my encounters with the Environmental Learning Center did also, both for me and for the many groups of children and adults who were stationed there when I was. I found the mission of the center to resonate with my own mission in writing: using intimate and educated experiences in the outdoors to inspire conservation (and appreciation) of diminishing resources.

Of course, the landscape provided that connectivity as well. Evidence of ice resounds in the countless waterfalls, hanging valleys, and the glaciers themselves—roughly 300 in the park alone—perched in high valleys and cirques. They, like glaciers throughout the world, are diminishing, but still very physically present in the lush landscapes of the North Cascades.

I can’t express enough how much I appreciated my time at the Environmental Learning Center. Not only was I able to be physically proximate to actual ice, but I was also able to integrate in a community of people passionate about sharing the intricacies of this incredibly diverse and inspiring ecosystem with others.

* * * * *

Top photo of Mount Baker by Skagit photographer Andy Porter, available for purchase on his website at

Manasseh Franklin was a Creative Resident at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center in the Spring of 2016. She is a writer, mountain guide, educator and adventurer who seeks big, hearty landscapes, and then writes about the experience of them. Franklin graduated from the University of Wyoming with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and Environment and Natural Resources and seeks to bridge the gap between science and experiential narrative. Her words have appeared in AFAR, Rock and Ice, Trail Runner, Western Confluence, Aspen Sojourner, Yoga International and Suburban Life River Towns magazines, in addition to several newspapers, blogs and websites. Learn more about her work at and


Where the Powerlines Start

April 21st, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

Bumper to bumper traffic on I-5 provides the perfect thinking spot. Usually this is the place where my mind starts to wonder things like “Why does traffic happen” and “When will they make flying cars?” The most recent time I was fortunate enough to be stuck, however, my mind drifted over to the powerlines beside the road. More electrons than I could count were wizzing past, heading into homes, phones and even some cars. The hyper-speedways of electricity, we only see powerlines in the transportation or end state. But they have to start somewhere, right?

My quest to see the start of the powerlines had me heading east on Washington State Route 20. If you wish to pursue this adventure yourself be warned: there is not cell phone reception and most importantly no traffic. Heading east along SR 20 will take you past the towns of Sedro-Woolley, Concrete and Rockport. Make sure you fuel up in Marblemount though as it is the last place for gas before heading into the park.

Keep traveling, and you will see the large North Cascades National Park sign just past mile marker 111. Gradually, you will begin to see civilization be replaced with the expansive wilderness that is Western Washington. Even the little town of Diablo (which will be on your left) is dwarfed by the forests, mountains and the mighty Skagit River.


» Continue reading Where the Powerlines Start


Firecrews arrive at the Learning Center

August 28th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

The Goodell Fire in North Cascades National Park has expanded and totalled 6,716 acres on Aug 27, burning on both sides of State Highway 20 and the Skagit River near the town of Newhalem, the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center and Newhalem campground. The fire also continues to creep eastward up Newhalem Gorge along both sides of Gorge Lake in the direction of Diablo and the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.

We were much relieved when firefighting crews arrived on campus on Aug 26 to begin resource protection activities. The Learning Center is a hive of activity with fire crews on site, including three engines from Darrington, Index and Concrete. Crews have begun installing water pumps in Diablo Lake and hoses and sprinklers throughout campus and surveying the campus  for vegetation removal to create defensible space.



» Continue reading Firecrews arrive at the Learning Center


North Cascades Wildfire updates

August 25th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

Yes, Washington State is on fire; and we’re still here. We are posting updates on the Upper Skagit Complex wildfires and their impacts on the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and North Cascades Institute on our website at and Facebook page at Additionally, we are uploading photos and maps on our Tumblr at


State Route 20, the Learning Center, Newhalem, Diablo and most North Cascades National Park facilities remain closed to the public. Wildfire conditions are changing rapidly, and the Institute is working with our partners around-the-clock to keep on top of things. It is becoming clear that the range of impacts to the Institute and our operations will have both near-term and far-terms impacts.


We are grateful for all of the support we’ve received from Institute supporters, partners and friends over the past week. Thank you.


Photographs from the Goodell Creek Fire in North Cascades National Park Complex on 8/19/15 by RyanLF. He writes, “I was one of the last cars to make it though the North Cascades Highway yesterday. The smoke was so thick it blocked out the sun. Lots of debris on the road and ash in the air…Hopefully they can get it under control soon.”



North Cascades Environmental Learning Center evacuated as Goodell Creek Fire grows, State Route 20 closed

August 19th, 2015 | Posted by in Institute News

Sedro-Woolley, WA 8/19/15 3:30 pm: We received notice that Highway 20 has been closed by the Washington State Department of Transportation at milepost 118 at Thornton Creek near Newhalem due to complications with a wildfire in the area. There is no passage across the North Cascades Highway at this time. The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center and town of Diablo are being evacuated to the east as a precautionary measure. We have cancelled all programs at the Learning Center for Thursday 8/20 and Friday 8/21 including Skagit Tours and Base Camp. 

We are closely monitoring the situation to decide whether our scheduled Anniversary Picnic Celebration at the Learning Center on Sunday will occur; we’ll announce information on our website at and on social media as things develop.

Photo by Jason Ruvelson

Henry Klein Partnership - North Cascades Institute

North Cascades Environmental Learning Center “provides the perfect blueprint for Seattle”

August 19th, 2015 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

In celebration of the Learning Center’s 10th Anniversary, we’re sharing one of our favorite media stories on our wilderness campus on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. This was written by architectural critic Lawrence Cheek for the Seattle P-Ioriginally published May 29, 2006.

What might Seattle and its mindlessly ballooning ‘burbs learn from the design of a new environmental school campus cradled deep in the North Cascades? Almost everything, actually, but to start with:

Respect. Humility. Surprise. Delight. Texture. A powerful sense of place. And an even stronger ethic of responsibility to the land and to the attitudes of future generations that just may get their thinking twirled around by a weekend out there.

The North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, opened last June, occupies a dramatic site at the edge of Diablo Lake, just off state Route 20 in the heart of North Cascades National Park. Seattle City Light paid most of the $10.2 million construction cost as “mitigation” for its 1995 federal hydroelectric license. The North Cascades Institute, a non-profit environmental education outfit, is using the campus to teach everything from wildflower photography to grizzly conservation.

But the most vivid lesson is in how to slip strong, assertive architecture gracefully into the forest.


The 16 buildings are basically simple boxes and shed forms whose only overtly dramatic gestures are rooflines that thrust into space and joust with each other, like tree canopies jostling for scraps of sky. There’s no prissy decoration and no mock rusticity. “We didn’t want to create something that looked like it was depleting the very forest we’re trying to save,” says David Hall, a partner in HKP Architects of Mount Vernon, the small firm that designed the complex. Neither does it pose as spartan. The buildings announce that civilization has established a firm foothold in the forest, but we’ve come in peace.

Henry Klein Partnership - North Cascades Institute

Henry Klein Partnership - North Cascades Institute

Henry Klien Partnership - North Cascades Institute

Hall’s ethical framework for the campus fell into place before he drew anything — in fact, maybe before he became an architect. He grew up in Everett and began hiking the North Cascades in his teens. He nurtured a love for backpacking and fly fishing, and still thinks the best places are the ones without roads, or even trails. When his firm began talking with the three clients collaborating on the campus — Seattle City Light, the Park Service and the North Cascades Institute — all agreed that the site should be disturbed as little as possible and the buildings should be showcases for energy conservation and sustainability.

The first surprise is that the campus is virtually auto- and pavement-free. Cars and buses may drop off visitors and packages, but rides are then banished to a faraway parking lot. There are no sidewalks, just gravel paths, but the entire site is wheelchair-accessible despite a 125-foot rise in its slope.

Landscaping is all in the North Cascades family. Park Service people collected seeds and cuttings on site before construction started and propagated 20,000 plants for later use. Big trees were spared and the buildings slipped practically underneath them, so the year-old campus is enveloped in shade. There’s no air conditioning needed, even though the site’s elevation is only 1,200 feet. Staff members have learned to close the doors to keep ravens from raiding their snacks.


The next impression asks for a conceptual leap, but it packs a powerful emotional impact. Stroll thoughtfully through the outdoor corridor framed by the main office, classroom buildings and library, and the architecture becomes a metaphorical forest. The grainy, concrete aggregate columns suggest trunks, galvanized-steel struts peel away like branches, and the cantilevered roofs form a canopy, with slivers of sky — and rain — glancing through the openings.

» Continue reading North Cascades Environmental Learning Center “provides the perfect blueprint for Seattle”