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Finding Freedom in the North Cascades

March 31st, 2016 | Posted by in Adventures

By Aly Gourd, member of the Institute’s 15th Graduate Cohort.

As graduate students and adventurers in the North Cascades, we take risks. We take risks in living where we do and we often purposely pursue adventure in the outdoors because we believe the benefits we gain outweigh the risks we choose to take.

“A huge challenge to overcome is the inaccessible view that so many hold toward wilderness. Messages are sent to so many people that the wilderness is not a place for them to be…”

This quote by Rosemary Saal leads the article titled Freedom in the Hills by Charlotte Austin. An alpinist and writer, Charlotte, recently published the research-based essay in Alpinist, a magazine featuring adventurers in the mountains, in which she introduces different perspectives on the variety of challenges met by women outdoor professionals. On March 3rd, graduate students in the North Cascades Institute’s 15th Cohort participated in a writing workshop with Charlotte, exploring forms of creative nonfiction writing and perspectives on how passion and hard work can translate into both a rewarding and challenging career.


Alpinist issue 52 featuring Charlotte Austin

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books Stephanie Burgart

Confessions of a Bibliophile

March 31st, 2014 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

It has been almost two years now since I graduated with my Masters in Education from Western Washington University (WWU) and North Cascades Institute’s unique graduate program. My memories are filled with the laughter of Mountain School students, Professor John Miles’ New “Hampsha” accent and endless views of Diablo Lake. While I miss the sunshine, quiet and darkness up there in the mountains, there are days where I also long for the library, research and studying. It may be shocking to some, but it’s true: we did actually do traditional learning and coursework during the residency. With images of the graduate students gallivanting around snowy peaks, dense forests and playing in the sunshine, it is easy for parents and friends to wonder if we were actually trying to “learn anything” in the program. Of course, it’s a very big “yes”.

We were all there to learn. Sure, Dr. Miles did an excellent job of getting us out into the world we preach about, but there were also the necessary times of studying inside. You can’t read heaps of homework out in the rain, at least not everyday. Deer Creek Shelter, for example, is a wonderful place for respite, but I doubt a LAN cord to connect to the servers will reach that far (though I’ve no doubt Nick Mikula, one of my fellow graduates, tried it at least once). Large portions of curriculum writing, nonprofit work and research for various projects all happen in front of the screen or book, but one of the best parts was the individuality of all this learning.

The amount and types of research varied from student to student. Taken out of context, some of the reading we do as experiential environmental educators could come across as crazy. For me, I’m pretty sure the WWU library has me flagged, and with the recent National Security Agency and “Big Brother” news going on, I wouldn’t blame them. I’m into some pretty amazing stuff.

» Continue reading Confessions of a Bibliophile

Tele writing

A Writer’s Residency: Like Fishing?

January 11th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Guest Post by Tele Aadsen

Six weeks into my time with the North Cascades Institute, I’m thinking that a residency is something like a fishing season. As on the F/V Nerka, I rely on routine here in Dogwood 2. Instead of getting the gear in the water at first light, though, I’m working on each day’s opposing end, tap-tapping my way into tomorrow. I’ve second-guessed this process – you’re supposed to get up early and working first thing in the morning; all the Real Writers say so! – and trust me, I’ve tried. But my words are nocturnal creatures. If writing memoir is to roam murky trails of memory, casting a light for those stories that glimmer and wink back through the darkness, perhaps there’s a grace in welcoming the new year’s lengthening days this way, sitting with words long into the night.

An admission: my first full week up here, I didn’t walk a single trail. Not to check out the waterfall at the top of Sourdough Creek Trail, not dainty quarter-mile Deer Creek Trail, and I didn’t even know about Peninsula Trail, just outside the dining hall. I told myself I was here with a book to write, no time for walks! That, too, was like the fishing season, when we fling ourselves at the July king salmon opening until our bodies must impose their own limits. We leave them no other choice. Now, after too many days of sitting, I take time to appreciate these surroundings. Hopeful of seeing another bobcat, I move slowly, testing each footfall for stealth. (And once succeeding, accidentally sneaking up on the poor Christmas Bird Count gentlemen.) There’s always a rainproof notebook in my back pocket, ready to corral the ideas that inevitably appear when you step away from your desk. One day I walked in the snow. It didn’t stick – little has – but turned my hair white and refreshed one of my earliest memories: pressing my face against the window to watch enormous flakes surge down, stunned to learn that snow could steal the black from the night sky.

deer creek trail The dainty Deer Creek Trail: No time for walks! Photo by Katherine Renz.

Late at night, when I don’t think I have anything more to give, I step away from the desk and curl up on the little green loveseat on the other side of the room. If you’ve sent a letter, this is when I open it. At the end of the day, as a reward. Even if we’ve never spoken and wouldn’t know each other’s timbres, your voice fills this little haven. The voice of a friend. I lean into your pages like a conversation, then, with Amy Gulick’s Salmon in the Trees as an inspiring desk, I write you back. It is a conversation, and like any good visit with a friend, I feel renewed when we say goodbye. Envelope sealed, stamped, and leaning against the jade plant on the coffee table where I can’t miss it, I go back to my desk and write one more thing.

It’s been said in so many ways that writing is lonely, solitary work. No one else can do this for us. Whether in moments of triumph or despair, we’re all staring at our screens, our notebooks, alone. Yet I don’t feel alone. From the work of favorite authors lining the kitchen counter (“Your literary bloodline,” novelist Jim Lynch calls them), the postcards brightening the fridge, to the North Cascades Institute’s explicit expression of belief through opportunity, I feel all of you here with me. This, too, like fishing: it’s when we’re able to step away, tossing phones into a drawer and sliding laptops into their cases, that I feel most connected to my surroundings, the people in my heart, myself.

tele workspace

Tele Aadsen is NCI’s Artist-in-Residence, where she is writing her first book, Hooked: A Season of Love, Sex, and Salmon (Riverhead Books, 2015). You can follow her work at, and find writing-related resources on her Facebook page. Her name is pronounced “Tell-ah,” and she is overly fond of corvids.


Poetic Reflections on the Nature of Meditation

December 22nd, 2012 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Over a crisp October weekend, the Learning Center was host to a class called Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. Taught by Zen teacher and author, Kurt Hoelting, and writing teacher and poet, Holly Hughes, 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 with Institute naturalists and graduate students.


 Above two photos: Participants getting comfortable for a writing session in the classroom. Photo by Holly Hughes
Cohort 11 graduate student, Erin Soper, leading a naturalist walk through the woods. Photo by Holly Hughes

Following, are some pieces that came out of the class:

Bob Hicks

The bell’s clang
births a precise circle,
multiplying instantly into brassy rings
that spread out,
imitating the round wake
of a drop plunged through pond surface.

The bell washes
around tree trunks, birdbaths and homes,
over yards, asphalt, hills and water.
Then at some unknown point
the metallic circles retreat,
receding incrementally,
and collapsing
to that infinitesimal single speck
at which all things disappear.


» Continue reading Poetic Reflections on the Nature of Meditation

Practice, Practice, Practice: Writing and Meditation in the North Cascades

October 9th, 2012 | Posted by in Odds & Ends

By Holly Hughes

Editor’s note: Holly is co-leading the October 12-14 workshop “Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence” at the Learning Center — only a handful of spots are left!

I’m at the North Cascades Institute with my friend and co-teacher Kurt Hoelting to teach a weekend workshop called: Sit, Walk, Write: Nature and the Practice of Presence. We’re gathered together in the outdoor amphitheater to meet and welcome the forty-five participants, many of whom have driven many hours and miles to be here. The group is larger than we expected and I confess to feeling apprehensive about how it will work, sharing solitude –and the quiet beauty of this place– with so many people. But I also know the beauty of practicing together, of learning to trust each other in sharing silence, that our individual practice can be enriched and steadied by the sense of solidarity, the presence of the person next to you, breathing together, in and out.

As we go around the circle, introducing ourselves, my eye keeps drifting up to the alpenglow on the high peaks behind us. In this place, especially, I feel the presence not just of the other participants but of those writers who’ve come before us. As I look up at Sourdough Mountain, I can’t help but think of Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, who spent several seasons high up in a fire lookout, Jack Kerouac across the way at Desolation Peak, and all the words written here, the practices these writers did in concert with this beautiful landscape.
I’m reminded that whenever we come together, we bring the presence not just of  those who are with us, but of a much larger community: the books that have informed us, and the writers who’ve nudged us along, helping to shape our views.

By the second day, we’ve settled into a rhythm of sitting, walking and writing in silence, both inside our classroom and out in the fall sunlight streaming through the aspens and birches. Though our large circle reaches all four walls of the room, we’ve found that sitting in silence together makes it all work; what might feel crowded is beginning to feel more and more like rich community as we move back and forth between silence and sharing.

We hike up to the waterfall halfway up Sourdough Mountain, and each of the forty-five participants peels off the path to find his/her own “sit spot,” as Adam the naturalist called it, a place to sit in the silence of the fall woods, reflect, and write. As Adam comes down the path, he calls us all back with a raven call so authentic I peered into the tops of the Douglas firs and aspens, looking for the bird. We return, each from our own small island of leafy silence, to gather again in a circle and read aloud, our words shimmering between us like the last golden leaves of the aspens holding the late summer sun.

» Continue reading Practice, Practice, Practice: Writing and Meditation in the North Cascades

Reflections on the 12th Annual Thunder Arm Writing Retreat

October 26th, 2011 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

As members of the current M.Ed. graduate cohort, we often have opportunities to assist with North Cascades Institute programs and courses outside our regular teaching schedules. Last month I had the awesome opportunity to assist and participate in the 12th Annual Thunder Arm Writing Retreat offered at the Environmental Learning Center. Poet Tim McNulty and essayist Ana Maria Spagna led three dynamic days that dug deep into self-exploration through prose. Below I’d like to highlight my experience and reflections of the retreat and showcase a poem I wrote over those inspiring days.

I’m an Environmental Educator with an English degree. Simply put, I love reading. Reading has the ability to transport the reader and as a result has enchanted me my entire life. When I volunteered for the retreat it had been some years since I last wrote creatively but only a few weeks since I’d delved into a book. In school I was trained to dissect another’s writing through close reading and critical analysis, not to freely capture my own thoughts through creative writing. The essay for me historically evokes a sense of drudgery, as words like “term paper” and “final exam” flood into my mind. At the beginning of the second day of the retreat, Ana Maria gave a craft talk titled “Peeling Back: The Movement toward Honesty in the Personal Essay.” Through group free-writing exercises she demonstrated how the essay can be viewed as a door to get at the truth of the moment. For the first time my academic experience of an essay transformed into an organic process of self-reflection and natural development of ideas. Both Ana Maria and later Tim McNulty demanded that as writers we trust our voice.

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From Teacher to Student and Back Again

October 16th, 2011 | Posted by in Field Excursions

Last weekend Cohort 11 graduate students had the chance to step away from our roles as Mountain School Instructors and again return to being students of Natural History during our three day Fall Grad Retreat. After weeks of training and teaching 5th and 6th grade youth about the diverse ecosystems of the North Cascades, the respite from such high activity was much appreciated by all. Our explorations took us by hand and knee through douglas fir forests near home, and by car and foot through the ponderosa pine and fire-scarred forests in the Methow Valley.

Day one of the retreat was spent near the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center campus with M.Ed. graduate alumna and mycologist Lee Whitford discussing the amazing yet unfamiliar world of fungi and their fruiting mushroom bodies. After learning some basic facts and characteristics about our earthy friends, we set out to do some local harvesting of our own (on Forest Service land, of course!). It took some time to adjust our eyes and hone our observational skills to the often unnoticed specimens hidden between leaf, detritus, and tree trunk, but half an hour and handfuls of mushrooms later our forage had yielded an impressive and diverse variety of them.

» Continue reading From Teacher to Student and Back Again