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Sharing Home: Three days of adventure in Washington

May 3rd, 2016 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Having moved into the North Cascades Eco-region in July for the graduate residency program, these mountains are finally starting to feel like home. Month after month I have been engaged in the cycle of the seasons, the habits of natural neighbors and the rhythms of the Skagit. So when I knew my family was coming for only a three day visit, I panicked. How can I show them all that I have learned about this amazing place in only three days? I couldn’t, and I didn’t, but we crammed as much as we could and went to four main locations for an amazing adventure: around the Environmental Learning Center, the Methow Valley, the Salish Sea and the City of Seattle.

While my family feels at home in the outdoors, Washington is a completely different beast than our wilderness. Coming all the way from Pittsburgh, PA my parents (Kurt and Pam) and older sister (Abby) reminded me of my general first reaction when I arrived: “Washington is just like Pennsylvania, except exaggerated. The mountains are higher, the rivers purer and the trees much, much taller.” My mother even remarked that it was as if I was living in a fairy tale, the scenery taken right out of a book.

Our first stop on this fairy tale adventure was a place I don’t even notice anymore. On my daily commute to work I drive past the Gorge Creek Falls, an amazing 242 ft. cascade. Since I see it every day, it fell into the backdrop of the commute. Only when my family was seeing it with new eyes, did I stop and remember how beautiful of a place I get to study in.


Dad enjoying the view at Gorge Creek Falls.

» Continue reading Sharing Home: Three days of adventure in Washington

2015 Classes & Family Getaways, Holiday Gift Certificates

December 1st, 2014 | Posted by in Institute News


North Cascades Institute is excited to announce new Winter and Spring Field Excursions just posted to our website and open for registration:

Dec 6: Salmon and Eagles of the Skagit with Libby Mills
Jan 17: Salmon on the Nooksack with Brady Green
Feb 8: Birding Blaine, Birch Bay and Semiahmoo with Joe Meche
Feb 21: Birding the Greater Skagit Delta with Libby Mills
Feb 22: Winter Tracking Snowshoe Excursion with David Moskowitz
April 3: Ross Lake: Exploring the Draw Down by Canoe with John Reidel

Class descriptions, pricing and registration at or (360) 854-2599.

We’ve also posted and opened for registration Family Getaways 2015, earlier than ever before! Plan ahead and choose your weekend for an epic family adventure at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in the heart of North Cascades National Park.

July 3-5, 2015 July 17-19, 2015 | July 24-26, 2015 August 14-16, 2015 | August 28-30, 2015 

Information and registration at


Tis the season! Once again we are offering our annual Extended Value holiday gift certificate promotion, where you can purchase $100 value towards 2015 Institute programs for only $80! Purchase before Dec. 22 and we’ll include a package of our blank note cards featuring art from Molly Hashimoto, John Cole and other Northwest artists. It’s okay to gift yourself and there is no limit on how many gift certificates you can buy!

Purchase by calling (360) 854-2599 or emailing

The History of Skagit Dams – Seeing Things Anew

August 26th, 2011 | Posted by in Field Excursions

By Ana Maria Spagna

I’ve driven Washington’s Highway 20, the North Cascades Highway, for years. I used live in Rockport right along the highway, and I used to work for the national park that straddles the highway, and for one interminable summer when Laurie worked on the east side of the crest and I worked on the west, I commuted over the highway. I’ve been wowed by the mountains and soothed by the rivers, sure, sure. I’ve hiked from trailheads and watched wildlife and even taught writing at North Cascades Institute’s Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake. It was there, at the Learning Center, that I first thought seriously about the dams.

To reach the Learning Center you drive right across Diablo Dam. Overhead the power lines buzz. But when writers sat down to describe their surroundings, they usually wrote about birds or fish or trees or clouds. Never the dams. I was as guilty as anyone. The three dams that line the Skagit River, Gorge, Diablo, and Ross, are all more or less visible from the highway, but, in writing as in life, I’d mostly ignored them. Why? I knew the answer: because we nature-loving types have a kneejerk reaction against anything human-made. While we’re in the woods, we want to see the woods. But part of why people come to the Learning Center is to learn about things they know little about, to appreciate them anew. For me, I realized, that meant the dams.

So I was delighted this spring to see that my old friend Jesse Kennedy would teach a class at the Learning Center on the History of the Skagit Dams. Jesse can bring enthusiasm to any subject (you’d have to attend one of his defensive driving classes to believe me) and in this case, the subject could not have been more perfectly suited to him. Dr. Kennedy, who studied both ophthalmology and diesel mechanics extensively before migrating into cultural resources, described dam construction with an engineer’s precision and told the story of J.D. Ross and his battle to bring public power to Seattle with a historian’s heart. Turns out it’s a wild story with several wild subplots. Ross single-handedly fought off proponents of privatization and brought the dams in on schedule and under budget to provide more people in Seattle with more power sooner than in other American cities.

Ross was also a renowned expert on lilies and tea plants, who borrowed monkeys and albino deer from Woodland Park Zoo to place on islands in Diablo Lake. The animals, along with a colorful light show and a hearty chicken meal and a ride up the dramatic cable incline used in dam construction, served as attractions for generations of city folks Ross wooed upriver for inexpensive tours from the Depression through the 1960s. When he died, Franklin Roosevelt offered space in Arlington National Cemetery, but Ross had specified that he’d prefer to lie for eternity along Highway 20 in Newhalem. A plaque at the site quotes Roosevelt who heralded Ross as one of “the greatest Americans of our time,” which is particularly impressive considering that Ross was Canadian.

When at last we visited the dams, we saw a rare sight. The dams, overfull from late snow in the high country, were spilling. The spill would be dramatic in any case, all that water, all that power, but when Jesse turned our attention to the construction, the graceful concrete arc to keep the force of the water from shaking the dam to the ground, my heart swelled the same way it does to see the larches on Liberty Bell backlit in fall. Pure beauty. And this, I realized, was why I’d come. Sometimes it takes a little knowledge to nudge you out of your ideological safety zone, a few good stories, to make you see things anew, to make you think.

These days, I’m thinking a whole lot about reclamation. More on that soon.

Originally published August 10, 2011 on Ana Maria’s blog.

Ana Maria Spagna’s “Spawning in the Mud”

May 2nd, 2011 | Posted by in Institute News

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Institute writing instructor Ana Maria Spagna’s new collection of essays Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness. Join us at Mount Vernon’s Libation Station on May 6 for a free reading and author reception — more information on this and other readings in Seattle, Concrete, Darrington and elsewhere at

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All summer the threat of a catastrophic wildfire had cast a pall over the valley. Ferns browned up and bowed over. Twigs snapped under Vibram soles, and we winced.  I’d spent so much dread on wildfires that I’d forgotten completely about floods. Besides, after that 100-year flood eight years back, didn’t we have a 92 year hiatus coming?

“Come on,” Laurie said.

She pointed to my boots strewn where I’d left them after my last day of trail work. I pulled them on, and we headed out. The extension cords in the yard were now completely submerged and barely visible. The earth had been too dry for too long, and now it would not accept water, but repelled it, dust-like, so that the whole forest floor was filling up like a series of plastic kiddy pools. Hydrophobic, people would say later: the soil had gone hydrophobic.

Laurie and I splashed on through. As we neared the river, the puddles began moving in rivulets that divided and spread like a crowd racing for their cars after a ball game. We stood on the bank with our camera and waved at neighbors and schoolkids standing on the opposite bank. Laurie jumped up and down and clapped as water sprayed over the top of a small log jam, like surf over tide pools. The kids mimicked her.

I stood still.

The air buzzed with excitement, but I resisted. Sure, as a seasonal laborer on backcountry trail crews, I’d been free to give in to it. We cheered when trail bridges washed out; if it meant more work for us, so be it. Nature wins! we’d say.  And we believed it. The river not only had more might than us, I figured back then, but more right, too. Once, when I worked in Canyonlands in Utah, a visitor had knocked at my door in the middle of the night to tell me about a rattlesnake she’d seen in the backcountry. Someone should do something about it, she said. The park belongs to the rattlesnakes, I said, and I shut the door. For many years I believed something similar about floods. The valley belongs to the river. The difference, of course, was that now that we’d settled down and bought land and built a home, we belonged to the valley too.

On our way back home, a familiar pickup slowed next to us.

“I think it’s gonna get wild,” the driver said.

» Continue reading Ana Maria Spagna’s “Spawning in the Mud”