A Look Back At Our Summer in the North Cascades


It seems a little strange to write about summer as we step into winter but there has to be a start to every story and the story of C16 begins with our arrival to the Environmental Learning Center on a warm July day. We were to begin the first course of our year long residency, ‘Place Based Learning In The North Cascades’. For the following seven weeks, we traversed the North Cascades National Park, Okanogan/Mt.Baker-Snoqualmie/Wenatchee National Forests, state and county public lands, private lands, the Methow Valley, and Puget Sound under the guidance of our fearless leaders, Joshua Porter and Lindsey McDonald. The goals of the course were to give us a better understanding of the greater North Cascades ecosystems, learn the natural and cultural history of the region and examine the foundational ideas of place-based environmental education.
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Graduate Program Director, Joshua Porter and Graduate Program Coordinator, Lindsey McDonald.

A great distance was covered that summer. We spoke with geologists, naturalists, farmers, historians and writers; each person adding richness and depth to the stories of the land. We moved from the Methow Valley in the east, up and over the glaciated peaks of the North Cascades, following the Skagit River as it flows into the Salish Sea.
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Just a few of the places our course took us over the summer. Photo – Google Maps

It seemed a monumental task to try and fit all the moments, people, and places into one post so I have instead highlighted some of my favorite memories from the summer to share with you.
Meeting C15


Photo 1: C15 and C16 together at NCI. Photo 2: A little friendly competition, a moo-off between C15 and C16. Photo 3: A delicious dinner at Skalitude Retreat.

Before we officially met C15 (Cohort 15), they had graciously welcomed us to the North Cascades Institute family through an open letter posted here on Chattermarks a month prior to our arrival. Our first C31 (C15+C16) gathering happened in the Methow Valley mid summer. C15 patiently answered all our questions, offered advice and shared their stories. There was some friendly competition, a contra dance, and delicious meals shared. Though they have continued on to the campus portion of our program in Bellingham, they continue to be mentors, friends and gracious hosts when we’re feeling the itch of civilization. 

Van Life
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Photo 1: C16 graduate student, Rachael Grasso, taking charge of the Green Van. Photo 2: Technical difficulties as we drove up to the trailhead of Sauk Mountain. Photo 3: Van life and tub life go hand in hand.

I’m not sure how much time we actually spent in the vans but it was enough for me to always associate our summer with them. We had three vans, two for people and one for gear. The vans really began to take on identities of their own, especially when flames were etched into the growing layers of dust down the sides of the Astro Van. Like all memorable road trips, music was a big part of van time. C15 left us some incredible mixed cds, Taylor Swift was probably played one too many times, and 90s hits were belted out as we cruised over mountain passes. It also wouldn’t be van life without our trusty rubbermaid tubs. We had packed all our belongings into individual tubs and by the end of summer, could load them into the vans with tetris-like precision.
Pit Toilets

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Photo 1: Pit toilet at High Meadow camp. Photo 2: Pit toilet at Bridge Creek Camp.

I guess I can’t speak for the entire cohort but I personally enjoyed the pit toilets! Like unique brown snowflakes, each one we came across was slightly different from the last. There was always a short path away from camp to reach them, a time for self-reflection or an opportunity to search for those perfect leaves to use because you didn’t pack enough toilet paper. Also, after a few hairy moments with our five gallon bucket, the Groover, stability of the pit toilets were greatly appreciated.
Reuniting in Stehekin
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Photo 1: Our campsite at Harlequin. Photo 2: Reenactments of fun moments for the other hiking group.

Summer quarter ends with a ten day backpacking trip through North Cascades National Park. Because of party size restrictions at most of the campsites, our group of 19 was split in half. It was a strange feeling to suddenly lose half the group but midway through our backpacking trip, the groups were reunited just outside of Stehekin at Harlequin campground. Though we had only been separated for a handful of days, anyone who witnessed our reunion would have easily thought that it had been weeks. To add to the excitement of being together, we also spent some time in Stehekin, a unique community only accessible by boat, plane, or foot. Word spread quickly of a bakery and nothing excites backpackers more than the thought of real coffee and cinnamon rolls bigger than your head. I wish I had pictures but my hands were most likely busy with the cinnamon roll.
Basin Creek 

Photo 1: Sunrise at Basin Creek campground. Photo 2: Jenny O’Toole cooling off in Basin Creek.

Out of all our campsites, Basin Creek took top mark. Beautifully situated at the confluence of Basin Creek and the Stehekin River, you are surrounded by peaks in all directions. Glory Mountain, Ribsaw Ridge, Sahale Peak, Horseshoe Basin and Cascade Pass dominate the landscape. Our camp was hidden in alder and willow, tucked off the trail that continues up to Cascade Pass four miles away. The creek itself had cool shallow pools with rocks perfectly placed for one to lie down and take in the views. The large boulders along the water’s edge were ideal spots to reflect in our journals or stargaze under clear evening skies.
Exploring Ross Lake on the Mule
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Photo 1: Looking out towards Pumpkin Mountain on Ross Lake. Photo 2: C16 on the Ross Mule

Ross Lake was one of first destinations this summer, just a few miles up the highway from the ELC. Early in the morning, we met Mike Brondi from the National Park Service. There doesn’t seem to be a story at NCI that doesn’t involve Mike Brondi. It was very clear from the start that he puts a lot of heart and passion into his work. Stopping here and there to point out different plants and trees lining the Ross Lake Trail or sharing stories of individuals who have shaped the park, Mike enthusiastically shared all that he knew of this place. Once at the dam, we boarded the Ross Mule barge were Mike acted as captain and guide for a day long exploration of Ross Lake. Huddled around the picnic table, we poured over maps and field guides, identifying the peaks, glaciers, birds, and trees in our new backyard. 
Alpine Start at Cascade Pass
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Photo 1: My hiking pod, they always look like that. Photo 2: Joshua Porter dressed for the occasion.

Our backpacking trip ended with an alpine start to Cascade Pass. We woke at 3am and starting hiking to the pass at 3:30am in the hope of catching sunrise. We arrived to the pass just in time to watch sunlight fill the valley below, it was a perfect morning to end our time in the North Cascades.
My name is Angela Burlile, you may have read about my useless superpower and ideal finger condiments in a previous post. Beyond my love for chilli paste and cleanliness, I am part of C16 and the new web resource editor graduate assistant. I grew up in Wasilla, Alaska and feel most at home surrounded by mountain peaks, glaciers and rivers. I currently reside at the Blue House in Marblemount and look forward to a year of exploration and adventure at the North Cascades Institute.

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