North Cascades Institute

By Lorraine Wilde

I was a little baffled at first—how could one place, tucked away in forest-draped mountains that loom over a remote lake, also offer stunning green-built facilities, locally-sourced organic meals, fascinating excursions, and educational opportunities for any age or skill level? I didn’t think it was possible until I took it all in over three glorious days at North Cascades Institute (NCI).

Since 1986, through a partnership with the City of Seattle and the National Park Service, NCI has been a unique synthesis of natural and cultural history, science, humanities, and the arts. In 2005, NCI opened their Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake, WA, a collection of forest-ensconced, LEED-certified facilities that include classrooms, laboratories, and lodging for over 90 visitors.

After only an hour in this enchanting place, I knew my family would be back many times; we’d never exhaust the vast opportunities to learn, and make lasting memories.


Environmental Education Is a Cornerstone: As a teacher, I discovered this magical place with my children and their fourth and fifth grade classmates while they attended Mountain School, just one of the many outdoor educational programs offered at NCI. We rode the school bus 105 km (65 miles) east on WA State Route 20 off I-5: a beautiful two-hour drive through the lush Skagit River Valley and thick forests before reaching the majestic mountains of the North Cascades.

NCI’s mission, to conserve and restore Northwest environments through place-based education, shines in each of their programs. The Mountain School message from day one was respect: “Respect yourself, respect each other, and respect nature. We want everyone to become friends with nature so that they appreciate it, love it, and protect it for future generations,” shares NCI Youth Leadership Instructor Matt Kraska.

In addition to Mountain School, NCI administers a service-learning-based Youth Leadership Program for ages 14 to 22, teaching physical skills while encouraging environmental responsibility in their own communities. NCI also oversees a Master’s in Education (M.Ed.) program in cooperation with Western Washington University. Many of the leaders and counselors who taught my kids about local wildlife, weather, and geology were graduate students earning their advanced degree. While education is their focus, NCI’s creative, unique approach to adult and family recreation has garnered them worldwide attention. “Our programs are designed for specific audiences so we have something for everyone, regardless of age, background, or skill set,” notes NCI Communications Coordinator Christian Martin.

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Rub Elbows: If you could have dinner with anyone, who would it be? My answer would be Tina Fey, but if your answer was celebrity chef Graham Kerr of The Galloping Gourmet, or world-class outdoor adventure photographer Garrett Grove, then NCI’s biannual Sourdough Speaker Series should be on your bucket list. Both national talents will present at informal gatherings in mid-May which include a gourmet dinner, overnight accommodations, and a naturalist-led activity in the ample surrounding habitat. Kerr will focus on the evolution of food and eating over the decades, while Grove’s breathtaking mountain photography will accompany a celebration of American Craft Beer Week, pairing dinner entrées with local microbrews from Leavenworth’s Icicle Brewing Company.

Explore Nature Creatively: NCI’s adult classes combine art and nature like no one else. June’s “Landscape Watercolors in the North Cascades” and “The Artful Map: a One-Page Nature Journal” classes offer a productive yet restful weekend retreat to learn from talented artists while being literally surrounded by inspiration. If painting and drawing isn’t your thing, there are also printmaking and wild poetry classes with NCI founder and Executive Director Saul Weisberg to satiate your creative appetite.

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Get Outside with Experts: May’s adventure to Yellow and Jones Islands in the San Juan’s aboard a 1934 wooden sailboat with an emphasis on seabirds, marine mammals, and rare island wildflowers, sounds transcendent. Wandering among the scarlet paintbrush and lilies of Yellow Island, a habitat managed with periodic fire, is an experience as rare as the wildflowers themselves.

Bird lovers can enjoy both Eastern WA’s Methow Valley and Western WA’s Upper Skagit Valley in a single weekend in a comprehensive spring birding weekend, or specialize with University of Washington wildlife biology Professor John Marzluff, an expert in the crafty, clever corvids, the family of birds that includes ravens, crows, and jays.

I’m most excited about the San Juan Islands excursion, “Wild Eats from Land to Sea,” where participants learn to identify and harvest healthy, edible foods from the forests, fields, and intertidal zone of beautiful Lopez Island. Natural delicacies on the menu include nettle pesto, rose petal truffles, ginger-sesame seaweed salad, and Douglas-fir sorbet.

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Food and Facilities Come Full Circle: When I asked my kids what they enjoyed most, the answer was clear: the food! After a long day of discovery, exercise, and fresh air, there was nothing better than the fresh, local, sustainably-produced, and often organic buffet-style dining of the lakeside Salmonberry Dining Hall.

Chef Shelby Slater, whose experience includes 19 years aboard an Alaskan commercial fishing boat, supervises all the food for NCI’s classes, events, and weekend stays. He manages NCI’s Foodshed Initiative, whose goal—to offer healthy, sustainable food purchased locally—is achieved with the help of more than ten local Foodshed partner farms, offering menus full of Puget Sound shellfish, Whatcom County grass-fed beef, and organic produce grown in the fertile Skagit Valley.

“What’s unique about our program is that very little goes to waste. We collect and compost food scraps and leftovers here on-site, and then return them to our Foodshed farms as rich, fertile soil. It really does come full circle here,” says Chef Shelby. That attention to quality and detail is echoed throughout the Learning Center’s modern facilities.


NCI’s neat, ADA-accessible, dorm-style lodging is offered for most Learning Center events and is available for event rentals like staff retreats and destination weddings. My room slept four in two comfortable bunk beds and was close to the women’s bath and shower room. I was too busy hiking to spend time in the cozy common room that would have been perfect for a book and blanket. Their “no shoes” dorm policy, ample gear drying and storage space, and “just right” room temperature management were much appreciated. After my long days wandering through the woods, listening to bird calls and gurgling streams, I actually slept “like a log.”

Do Your Own Thing: You’re spontaneous. You don’t want to commit to anything unless it feels right in the moment. I get it, and so does NCI. Base Camp and Family Getaways could be a great fit for the impulsive, with the freedom to investigate the area at your own pace and whim, while still enjoying the comfort and ease of Learning Center lodging, education programs, and food service.

At the end of our last day at NCI, our student group, the Banana Slugs, gathered around the campfire to say farewell. Instructor Matt Kraska asked us each to think of a single unselfish wish. Mine was echoed widely among the scruffy 10-year-olds, “I wish that future generations will have the opportunity to experience firsthand the splendor of the North Cascades.”

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Take a Tour Through Time: From the window of NCI’s dining hall, escapists and adventurers can see majestic Diablo Lake, an area rich in local history. J.D. Ross, known as the Father of Seattle City Light, led the public utility from 1911 to 1939. He accomplished his lifelong goal to provide affordable power to the public through the Skagit Hydroelectric Project, which included the placement all three of the dams on the Upper Skagit River (Gorge, Diablo, and Ross Dams), and which now supplies at least 40% of Seattle’s electricity. Ross went to great lengths to gain public support for the project by introducing public tours to the area, a tradition still carried on today.

Ross did a few other things that would be frowned upon today, like opening a zoo at Diablo, introducing non-native species of birds, trees, and shrubs to Skagit Valley (still around today), broadcasting phonograph music to the hillsides, and populating what is now known as Monkey Island with the real thing.

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NCI’s Christian Martin says, “The Incline Lift that once transported rail cars and tour passengers up Sourdough Mountain has been replaced by three different, safer, but equally entertaining Skagit Tours.” More than 4000 visitors per year attend one or more of these fascinating tours. The Diablo Lake Boat Tour, guided by a naturalist and park ranger, highlights the influence of local glaciers and geology, dam history, and wildlife. Nerds like me will likely enjoy the Skagit Power Tour, a guided shuttle tour of the North Cascades finest lookouts and, according to Martin, “rare access to a high-security area inside Seattle City Light’s powerhouse, a unique experience limited to a couple hundred people per year.” A free walking tour of historic nearby company town Newhalem, WA highlights the town’s unusual past and still includes the colourfully lit Ladder Creek Falls in honor of J.D. Ross himself.

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