Outdoors

Environmental Engagement

NCI’s mountain sanctuary

Attend

What: North Cascades Institute's 30th Anniversary Picnic

Where: North Cascades Institute's Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake

Cost: Free

Info: http://www.ncascades.org/picnic

Monday, July 4, 2016

I recently had the good fortune to spend a weekend at the Environmental Learning Center on Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park.

The Learning Center is the beating heart of the North Cascades Institute (NCI), a visionary organization that has evolved over the last 30 years into a globally recognized success story, providing environmental education and engagement.

I’d been to the center before, but this was my first weekend stay. The campus is tucked into the woods above the shore of Diablo Lake, a glacially fed gem that possesses an ethereal hue, thanks to the suspended particles of glacial outwash. It is an absolutely idyllic place. The buildings are scattered in the forest and the architecture has a Scandinavian bent.

Attention to detail is everywhere. Rainwater is collected in ingenious ways. The outside lighting is shielded from above, honoring the night sky. The lights go off at 11pm. More than a few visitors have had to be assisted back to their lodges in the primeval blackness of the forests.

The dining hall offers views of the lake without intruding on the shoreline—a metaphor for the ethos of the whole place—and the food is superb, both well-prepared and imaginative. Much of it is locally sourced. Mealtimes are celebratory.

Short trails emanate from the Learning Center and offer ready access to the silent forests and wind-ruffled lakeshore. No dogs are allowed, in deference to the wildlife that shares the landscape. The students in the photography workshop I was leading were thrilled (as was I) at the opportunity to photograph a handsome black bear browsing in the greenery.

It was a classic North Cascades spring weekend, featuring periods of drifting rain, operatic clouds and luminous sun breaks that ratcheted up the drama of these wild mountains. A double rainbow appeared over the lake. More shutter-clicking ensued. 

By focusing on educating kids, NCI and the Learning Center offer up a welcome and hopeful light in a sometimes shadow-darkened world. The work being done here is amazing—and absolutely vital. Founder and Executive Director Saul Weisberg’s approach of generational change is slow, but he is patient. Perhaps real change takes time.

Today, nearly every fifth-grader in Whatcom County attends Mountain School at the Learning Center; a chance to connect with the natural order. The impact is immeasurable.

But NCI also balances the science with art, offering workshops in writing, painting, photography and more. The approach is one of unfettered personal discovery, another connecting point with the magical landscapes. Weisberg is, after all, a poet. His luminous book, Headwaters: Poems and Field Notes , was published last year.

Thirty years on, the NCI’s unique partnership with the National Park and Seattle City Light is clearly a success story.

Find out more about the North Cascades Institute Sun., July 17, when all are welcome to celebrate the organization’s 30th anniversary at a not-to-be-missed picnic at the Learning Center complete with a barbecue picnic lunch, naturalist-led activities on the lake and trails, and, among other things, boat cruises. Who could ask for more?

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