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Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades

February 14th, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Five pairs of fifth graders are scattered on the Buster Brown Trail. In each pair, one is blindfolded with a colorful bandana, being carefully – the teacher hopes — led in a circuitous route by their partner.

“Remember, when you start to head off the trail toward your tree, make sure to not step where other people are stepping, and try hard to avoid the plants!” This is what I, or another Mountain School instructor, will inevitably say, loving this lesson but feeling the nagging omnipotence of the leave-no-trace ethic.

The students are mindful, taking care to not crunch the Mahonia and Salal understory. The blindfolded student is led to a tree. Maybe it’s a Doug fir, with its thick “bacon” bark (or akin to the cracked top of a pan of brownies, for the vegetarians). Other naturalists tell me bats can roost in there, when the tree is old and the bark is deeply furrowed, though I haven’t been lucky enough to encounter that yet. Perhaps the student is escorted to a paper birch, its thin, peeling bark being a telltale give-away of its arboreal identity. There’s always the vine maple, as well, dressed in moss and reaching from the mid-story canopy with its flexible, green branches.

peeling bark K. RenzCould you tell this tree with your eyes closed? Photo by Katherine Renz.

“Okay, start heading back to the trail!” After five or ten minutes, the students reconvene briefly to trade bandanas and head out a second more time. I enjoy watching them “meet a tree”, as this exercise is called. They use only touch, smell, taste and hearing – and these last two are arguable since, respectively, I don’t encourage students to eat unidentified plants, and the trees aren’t usually feeling loquacious. Can you find your tree? It’s a fantastic lesson in sensory awareness, considering it activates four of most peoples’ less dominant senses. What does your tree feel like? What about the plants at the base of the trunk? If you hug it, can your hands connect? Is there a smell if you scrape at the bark a little or crunch the leaves? If you knock on the trunk, does it make a notable sound? What did the ground feel like beneath your feet as you were led, without sight, through the fallen logs and leaf litter of the understory?

We come back together in a circle, everyone’s eyes open, and “debrief” the details the students relied upon to find or, sometimes, not find, their tree. This is one of my favorite lessons, and the students tend to recall it fondly as well. On the evaluation sheets their classroom teachers fill out at the end of the three days, they usually rave about it, saying it helps open their students up to a deeper level of observation, care, and empathy for the natural world.

» Continue reading Make a Love Connection: Biophilia in the North Cascades


Youth Leadership Adventures 2014: now accepting applications

February 4th, 2014 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

North Cascades Institute is excited to announce that Youth Leadership Adventures are now accepting applications for Summer 2014. This transformative program features a range of summer adventures for high school-aged students ages 14-18 in the wilderness of the North Cascades, as well as a fall Youth Leadership Conference, year-round mentorship and stewardship opportunities.

During 8- or 16-day summer expeditions, students canoe, camp, backpack and complete service projects in the North Cascades backcountry – including Ross, Diablo and Baker Lakes – while receiving hands-on training in outdoor leadership, field science, communication skills and public speaking. 

This partnership program with North Cascades National Park and Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest connects youth to wild places while instilling a sense of responsibility and ownership so they can make a difference in their home communities. Participants will make new friends, gain confidence and leadership skills, enhance their resume and college applications, earn community service hours, and explore the North Cascades wilderness, all while having the best summer of their life!

As part of North Cascades Institute’s commitment to making our programs accessible to students from all backgrounds, Youth Leadership Adventures are offered on a sliding scale based on participant needs and generous scholarships are available. North Cascades Institute will work with every family to find a price they can afford.

More information and applications are available at Applications are due March 28 and must include Participant Information and Essay Questions, Reference Form and Scholarship Application (if applicable).


Please contact North Cascades Institute if you have questions: (360) 854-2599 or


A New Culture: The 2013 Henry M. Jackson Youth Leadership Conference

November 22nd, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

Hey leaders?!”

Hey what!?!”

It was that time of year again, when over 60 motivated teens and environmental professionals from throughout the Pacific Northwest converge on the North Cascades Institute to spend the weekend learning about community action and environmental service projects. On November 9 and 10, the North Cascades Institute, National Park Service and United States Forest Service hosted the fourth annual Henry M. Jackson Youth Leadership Conference. The conference brought together former participants from regional youth stewardship programs to help them define their educational and professional goals, introduce them to new people and opportunities, and enhance their leadership skills.

One student, Tatum Kenn, described the weekend in her evaluation at the end of the conference: “LIFE CHANGING. INSPIRING. EYE OPENING.”

APCulturalCompA break-out session titled “Cultural Competence and the Environmental Movement,” facilitated by Sarah Weigle, Program Coordinator for the Student Conservation Association, and Amy Brown, NCI’s Youth Leadership Manager. Photo by Andrew Pringle.

And BUSY.  There were 11 break-out sessions, exploring everything from “Leadership Styles” and “Opportunities with the Federal Government” to “Adventures Abroad” and “Camping 101.” There was a Student Success Panel, featuring six youth leaders who shared their stories and answered questions from the audience, and an hour of student-led dialogue on topics ranging from labeling genetically-modified organisms to human population growth and sustainability. There was an Opportunity Fair, where government, non-profit and for-profit environmental leaders assembled to network with participants about future jobs, internships and programs. The following organizations all graciously attended the fair:

Lewis and Clark National Historic Park

Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest

McNett Corporation

National Forest Foundation

National Outdoor Leadership School

North Cascades Institute

North Cascades National Park Complex

Northwest Youth Corps

Seattle Parks and Recreation’s Outdoor Opportunities

Skagit Fisheries Enhancement Group

Skagit Valley College

Student Conservation Association

Washington Conservation Corps

Washington Trails Association

Wilderness Awareness School

Additionally, Charles Thomas, Regional Manager of Youth Programs for the National Park Service Pacific West Region, flew in from California for the first day of the conference. Imagine if more national parks hosted annual events for youth leaders?

TatumKnotsLearning how to tie knots in “Camping 101.” Photo by Aneka Singlaub.
WatershedStudents freewrite during a break-out session, considering questions such as, “How can you live your life to be part of the solution? What are your strengths and challenges in terms of a more sustainable lifestyle? How does your connection to the natural world influence your behavior and lifestyle?”. Photo by Aneka Singlaub.
PowerTowerOne group hiked to the lookout spot above Buster Brown field, a perfect perch for inspiration. Photo by Aneka Singlaub.

In between such activities, participants were hiking and working on their “Action Plans” in small groups to outline their goals and objectives. The chance to get to know each other, reconnect with friends from past programs, do sunrise yoga and eat delicious food from the dining hall all made the conference a unique experience, as well.

Indeed, all these things were on the schedule, and happened, quite well. But more important is what happened in the hearts and minds of the student participants. Here is a sampling, gleaned from end-of-conference evaluations:

  • From Ariel Lunsford: “I am so thankful I was given the opportunity to come to this conference. I feel like I have found what I wish to do for the rest of my life. All the staff members were awesome and I have made many new friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you for everyone who helped make this all possible.”


  • From Elijah Yakimyuk: “This Conference is awesome! I gained so many resources and opportunities that made me realize that my wildest dreams now seem realistic in achieving.”


  • From Marisa Etzell: “A great opportunity to meet people who have been through a similar experience as you have, as well as network and connect with organizations who are looking for people just like you to hire!”


  • From Shekinah San Jose: “Take advantage of this amazing opportunity, take a risk and get out of your comfort zone, because you won’t regret it.”


  • From Seth Wendzel, of Seattle Parks and Rec’s O2, Outdoor Opportunities: “The Youth Leadership Conference was a confluence of great individuals and entities. The location is one of the better locations to be in the Pacific Northwest. Being an AmeriCorps intern in Experiential and Environmental Education, I was surrounded by so many opportunities to further partnerships and prospect future career opportunities. I look forward to mentoring the two students I was paired up with and encouraging them in the real world.”
 APSuccessYadira Lopez, a college student and former participant in NCI’s Cascade Climate Challenge, shared her experience as a leader during the Student Success Panel. In her evaluation, she wrote that the Youth Leadership Conference is “an awesome way to spend the weekend, and connect with old friends and new people. You learn about yourself a bit more too!” Photo by Andrew Pringle.
APEarthParticipants on the earth, of the earth, and in front of the earth. Photo by Andrew Pringle.
APgroupLeadership, rain or shine. Photo by Andrew Pringle.
APBridgeTyler Nixon, another participant on the Student Success Panel and leader with Teen Science Café, advised:”Just go and find out for yourself. It is worth it.” Photo by Andrew Pringle.

Having the chance to spend the weekend with so many teens and young adults inspired to seek solutions to global problems was inspiring in itself. Jeff Giesen, Associate Director of the North Cascades Institute, reflected on the importance of these opportunities in a recent email:

“The Saturday I spent at the conference was magical….I had countless conversations today with our staff, partners and youth about how amazing it is to be in the National Park, at the Learning Center and with so many people that care….I did my spiel about us having three missions and when I got to the ‘Save the World’ part, not a single youth laughed. It made me pause. A few adults laughed, but the kids sat there in understanding. We really have created a new culture of youth, a counterculture of sorts. These kids get it. We need to do more of this kind of work.”

ApCampfire2Closing ceremony. Photo by Andrew Pringle.
Leading photo: Masyih Ford, Co-master of Cermonies with Kassandra Barnedt, facilitates the Student Success Panel. Photo by Andrew Pringle.

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. She was excited to be able to present about some aspects bioregionalism at this year’s Youth Leadership Conference.


YLC reunion

Wilderness, Zumiez and Hope: Youth Leadership Adventures Reunion 2013

October 16th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Story and photos by Liza Dadiomov.

As the temperature outside gets cooler and the leaves turn vibrant hues of yellow, red, and orange, I find myself hunkered down indoors and the memories of my summer become distant. However, on September 28, I had the chance to reunite with students that participated in Youth Leadership Adventures in the North Cascades this past summer. Reconnecting with the students and their families brought me back to the incredible communities we formed in the backcountry of the North Cascades just a few months ago.

Over 100 people attended the reunion, including students, their families, North Cascades Institute staff, graduate students and our hosts for the day: Tom Campion and Zumiez staff. Zumiez is an action-sports retail company with stores all over the US and Canada. Tom Campion, Zumiez co-founder and renowned advocate of wilderness preservation, graciously offered their headquarters in Lynnwood, WA for the big event.

YLC reunionAlumni, families, and North Cascades Institute staff all reflected on their summers.

The morning began with a warm welcome by Campion and Aneka Singlaub, North Cascade Institute’s Youth Leadership Coordinator. Following an icebreaker game, Campion shared some of his passions with the audience. He reflected on a wilderness experience he had as an eighth-grader and the impact that left on his own life. He continued with a story about his and others efforts to save the spotted owl, a critically endangered species that lives in old-growth forests. Campion’s more recent work has been in the preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska.

While sharing breathtaking photos and stories of this remote wilderness and the threats that ANWR faces, Campion asked the students, “What does wilderness mean to you?”  Some of the answers included, “A place that makes me feel small,” “Falling out of a canoe into Ross Lake,” and “Home.” Campion concluded by sharing the hope he feels for the future because of the spotted owl saga and the amazing students sitting in front of him.

YLC reunionTom Campion and some Youth Leadership Adventures students.

» Continue reading Wilderness, Zumiez and Hope: Youth Leadership Adventures Reunion 2013

cedarosa flag

The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park

September 12th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

They met on July 17, 2013, not quite sure what to expect. Six talented young women, all alumni of programs like North Cascades Institute’s Cascades Climate Challenge and North Cascades Wild, as well as the Student Conservation Association, met up with three North Cascades Institute instructors to embark on the Institute’s newest course: Leadership Corps. Leadership Corps is a 31-day course for 18-22 year old students who are interested in exploring careers in public lands and expanding their leadership, backcountry travel, and work skills. The Corpsmembers spent four weeks in the North Cascades National Park Complex completing trail maintenance and ecological restoration projects alongside Institute and National Park employees.  This year, the crew happened to be all female, and as they explored the vast beauty of the National Park they also explored what it means to be a woman in a non-traditional career: a trail dog. This is the story of the Cedarosas….

group by truckThe crew on their last day in the field in Stehekin, WA. From left to right: Sahara (Instructor), Sage, Annabelle, Mohawk, Monica, Yadira, Karina, Sabrina (Instructor), and Kevin (Instructor) underneath

Their journey began in the northern unit of the National Park on Ross Lake. After a trip on the Park’s faithful mint green boat, the Mule, the crew set out to their first destination. Straining and struggling with heavy packs most were unaccustomed to, the first leg of the journey was long, hot, and buggy.

on the trailTaking a break on the first day of hiking. Everyone’s pack was well over 50 lbs!

» Continue reading The Cedarosas Take On North Cascades National Park

panorama at desolation lookout

Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

August 25th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

I met them on August 1st. Twenty bright new faces arrived on buses and vans at the Wilderness Information Center in Marblemount. As they walked quietly out of the vehicles, sleepy from early morning pick-ups at high schools from Bellingham to south of Seattle, I could tell right away that they were older than the rest of our Youth Leadership Adventures participants this summer—mostly because 90% of them were taller than me…

These 16-18 year olds from western Washington and Oregon had been selected for our Science and Sustainability program. They were about to spend 15 days in the North Cascades—11 days backpacking and canoeing on Ross Lake, followed by four days of staying at the Learning Center and camping in Marblemount, all the while studying science, sustainability, leadership, and community.

backpackingBackpacking down Ross Lake. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students
practicing canoeingThe students practicing their paddling strokes before loading the canoes. Photo by Institute staff and graduate students

» Continue reading Science, Sustainability, Singing, Stir-fry, and Snacks!

baker in morning

Falling in love with the forest

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

When I first learned that I would be leading a Youth Leadership Adventures course on Baker Lake, I was a bit…wary. Don’t get me wrong—I knew Baker Lake would be lovely. And although it is much easier to access than Ross Lake (where many of our courses happen), I knew the students would still feel like they were in the middle of the wilderness. But. I had heard stories from other instructors who had led trips at Baker Lake before. Stories of rowdy groups camped out in our reserved sites, unwilling to leave. Stories of so many motor boats on the lake that crossing the narrow span of the reservoir by canoe was…challenging. I knew that our group would be fine, that whatever happened, we would figure everything out. But as we departed from the Learning Center last week, there was still a corner of doubt in my mind.

Before we got to Baker Lake for the canoe-camping portion of our trip, however, we would be backpacking to Mazama Camp, 3.7 miles from the Schreiber’s Meadow trailhead. I had hiked up Railroad Grade before, which shares much of the trail en route to Mazama Camp. We had checked the map ahead of time, and it appeared that we gained 400 feet in elevation, and then descended back down those 400 feet to the camp. That seemed pretty reasonable, even for the group’s first time backpacking. Now, I will be the first to admit that my math skills are not my strongest asset (my students will attest that sometimes counting to 12 can be hard for me)…but the hike was three miles of up, and then .7 miles back down 400 feet. (I still need to look at that topo map again…) Regardless, our group did eventually make it there, after a good amount of snow travel, and were greeted with a scene of incomparable subalpine beauty.

» Continue reading Falling in love with the forest

community group flowers

Tales from the Diablo Divas

July 27th, 2013 | Posted by in Youth Adventures

Cultural differences, language barriers, scalding heat, strong headwinds, steep climbs, heavy backpacks, illnesses, and injuries were some of the challenges not just overcome but conquered by the all female Youth Leadership Adventures group that called themselves “The Diablo Divas.”

This group of eight young women ages 14-16 and their three fearless lady leaders spent eight days exploring Diablo Lake, Thunder Creek, Fourth of July Pass and Panther Creek before heading back to the comforts of home.  I feel overwhelming joy to have been part of The Diablo Divas and will never forget the times we shared in the backcountry in early July.

To tell the story of the Divas I feel it necessary to share some of my best memories from the trip as they connected with our Youth Leadership Adventures curriculum themes.

Connection to Place and Community

The group comes from different backgrounds, different schools, different experiences;  these differences were celebrated as were the similarities.  On our first day of canoeing on Diablo Lake we stopped at the beautiful Hidden Cove Campsite. This was the first time the Divas were alone in the “wild” and in an instant our differences were blown away with the afternoon breeze.  Our community was forming, through giggles and games, reflection and appreciations. The group drafted a promise to each other, to hold all accountable for the success of the group.   This Community Agreement was acknowledged by each, celebrating our strengths and supporting our challenges.  We traced our own unique hand on a symbolic flag representing the strength of the Diablo Divas.

I was expecting a challenge and I got one, in a very good way.  However, I was not expecting to learn so much about myself and how to work well in a community. - Ella Brooks, Oak Harbor WA


Community BenuBenu, drawing on the community flag

» Continue reading Tales from the Diablo Divas

capture the flag flag

Rainy Adventure on Ross Lake

July 5th, 2013 | Posted by in Adventures

We’re back, safe, damp, smelly, and happy.  Youth Leadership Adventures staff training 2013 was a success!!! At least that’s what I emailed my mom when I returned from four days on Ross Lake.

It’s these little exclamations sent to people in big cities, after being away for a few days, that reminds us where we’ve been.  After a few nights out we forget that some folks have been living inside the place we refer to as the “real world” while we’re out in the “field.” Out in the backcountry reality consists of trouble shooting stoves, solo paddling on Ross Lake and learning to identify each other’s body odor.

We left the Learning Center on the morning of June 24th with an iffy weather forecast. One of the packing list items—a positive attitude—was almost as important as making sure we had enough hot chocolate mix.  Between raindrops we smiled and sang our way up Diablo Lake toward Ross Dam.  I knew my mom hadn’t checked the forecast when I spoke with her on Sunday, otherwise she wouldn’t have just told me to – Have fun.

» Continue reading Rainy Adventure on Ross Lake

Diablo Lake overlook, North Cascades Highway

The inside scoop on group rentals

May 26th, 2013 | Posted by in Institute News

So, what are Group Rentals?

Great question! In a nutshell, it’s a unique program that gives you the opportunity to create your own custom event at the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center.

If you’re in search of a venue to host your next business conference, board retreat, wedding or most any other kind of gathering, the Learning Center is the perfect location. Our sustainable, Silver-LEED certified Learning Center is more than simply a place. It’s a retreat inside a national park, surrounded by snowcapped peaks, old-growth forests, glacial lakes, and a stunning display of biodiversity

learning center at night


» Continue reading The inside scoop on group rentals