Have you ever…

Have you ever traversed the North Cascades mountain range, from one side to the other, carrying nine-days of food? Have you ever slept under the stars for eight nights with your classmates? Have you ever thought that backpacking could be a part of graduate school?  The fourteen new students in North Cascades Institute’s graduate residency program in environmental education did all of the above, with six other students, as the grand finale to their summer block of classes at Western Washington University. Some had backpacked before; others hadn’t. Some had grown up in the North Cascades; others saw them for the first time this summer. Regardless of background, everyone experienced something for the first time during this epic adventure. Each of them shares their stories below in short essays asking the reader if you have ever experienced what they did.  We look forward to reading your answers in the comments section!
Colby Mitchell
Have you ever found a place where the world spins more slowly? Maybe it’s a place where the planet seems to stall on its axis completely, even if only for a moment. And in that moment, when everything stands still, you’ve found time that no one else has found and it’s yours to spend as you choose. A few weeks ago I found a place like this and time stood still for a solid moment and a half. You probably didn’t feel it. That’s not how this works but you can take my word for it. I’m very trustworthy. Time stood still and I spent my temporal surplus doing the same; standing still. Maybe I shook a bit because the water was cold. It was probably snow merely hours before it swept around my ankles. Anyway, I stood mostly still and thought about how elated I was to find some time…in a place…where the world stood still. I’m going to keep an eye out for more places like that.

Elephant’s Head flowers

Elise Ehrheart
Have you ever peered into a thousand tiny elephant heads? The answer is yes. After days of hiking through spectacular fields of wildflowers I sat next to elephant head wildflowers. Their fuchsia elephant head shaped blossoms stood in stark contrast to the glass-clear stream. This was my favorite memory of the hike.

Elise Ehrheart journals in a field of wildflowers
The group at Rainbow Falls, near Stehekin

Mollie Behn
Have you ever showered in a waterfall? Without soap of course, gotta follow leave no trace principles. Swimming or rather jumping into freezing water and then scrambling to get out as quickly as possible is a great way to clean off while backpacking, but my personal favorite was “showering” in Rainbow Falls in Stehekin. Our day in Stehekin was hot and my legs were tired from the eight miles I walked the day before in crocs (not a good idea), so the falls was a welcome reprieve. Whereas Kiira and Jacob needed no coaxing to get into the water, I warily followed thinking I was just going to dip my feet in. Thanks to Kiira’s excellent skills in persuasion, I found myself fully clothed sliding into the water. It was so rewarding to be in that pool of fresh water and then stand up on a ledge and let the water coming over the falls drench me and cleanse me of both dirt and any worries. Splash by splash, the ice water cleansed me and freed me at the same time. So next time you’re at a waterfall, I highly recommend taking your shower there. Just give me a call first, I’ll meet you there.

Emmanuel Camarillo (far left) leads his group backpacking to Stehekin

Emmanuel Camarillo
Have you ever led a group of people backpacking during your first backpacking trip? I did just that during the nine day backpacking trip. Nothing felt better than to be chosen by my peers to lead the group for two days. Being in pain, tired and sweaty, it made me want to give up, but with the support of my group I was motivated to continue and reach our destination for that day. It was a great feeling of accomplishment.

Fields of wildflowers

Kiira Heymann
Have you ever tried to identify so many wildflowers? From our first steps up War Creek to our final descent over Cascade Pass, flowers became a theme for our trip, purple lupines and monk’s hoods, yellow arnicas and monkey flowers, cream-colored yarrows and pearly everlastings, pink penstemons and phloxes, orange columbines and tiger lilies all filled the fields with their bright energies. Even when we couldn’t attempt to guess what we were looking at (flipping through Pojar with hopeful eyes), tackling botanical mysteries together started us on our way towards slowly placing ourselves in our new North Cascades home. “What is this?” was the most exciting part of our trip.

Team Sailing Rock at the trailhead on day 1, with Katie Tozier at the far left

Katie Tozier
Have you ever been so nervous to embark on your first backpack trip that you anxiously ate half a bag of baby carrots on the way to the trailhead? Have you ever reached the trailhead (poorly nourished) and realized you couldn’t really lift your pack onto your back without the help of a nearby rock, tree, or classmate? Have you ever gotten one mile into a nine-day trip and thought, “How am I going to make it?” Have you ever woken up on the morning of day two with a renewed spirit and strong sense of companionship, so much so that you didn’t mind standing with a 55-pound pack, in the sun, to feel the warm wildflower-scented breeze rush around and embrace you? Have you ever taken an optional two-mile hike to the highest peak of your journey (7,362 ft.) and experienced the breath-taking power of a 360º view of the North Cascades? Have you ever laughed so much as the night you worked on the bear-hang until 11 o’clock, after once breaking the rope and again breaking the branch, sending the rock over the heads of all your peers and earning your team name, “Team Sailing Rock?” Have you ever been offered a day off, only to accept the challenge of another day hike, and discovered that it was the most strenuous ten miles of the trip (5 miles up with a 4400 foot elevation gain), with a mere trickle for a water source at the top… and enjoyed it anyways? Have you ever bathed in icy, clear-green glacial melt water after sweating all day, with hopes that the water would somehow make you smell better, but always resolving to just feel cleaner and enjoy the scenery instead? Have you ever been given the opportunity to be purely social with people…. without electronics, board games, or online networks, and discovered how close you could get? Have you ever thought that taking nine days to backpack through the North Cascades would take you so far out of your element that you wouldn’t know how to deal, only to find that it instead took you so near the heart of your element, that nothing has ever felt more natural or real in your life? I did, and I am thankful for these memories everyday!

Katie, getting into her comfort zone with supportive classmates

Christen Kiser
Have you ever been overwhelmed with beauty, brought to your knees by laughter, or filled with wonder at the rich, endless landscapes of the mountains and rivers around you? Have you ever stood on a summit and celebrated the stunning view from the top of snow-capped peaks, countless colors, glaciated ridges, hanging valleys, and snowmelt trickling into streams into rivers, a view so astonishing it almost boggled your mind to fully comprehend it? Have you ever passed through fields of glorious sub-alpine wildflowers, open in all their array of color to the lilt of the sun? Have you ever stopped to learn a flower’s name so that when next you encounter it along the trail you can delight at pronouncing Woolly Pussytoes or Pearly Everlasting or Partridge Foot and understand a little more about its environment? Have you ever wanted to stay longer in the wilderness contemplating its beauty and infinite mystery because nothing had ever felt so worthwhile or right?

The two backpacking groups coming together at Lake Chelan to discuss their experiences

These are the experiences of seven of the graduate students. You can read more about the adventure from the rest of the students next week!


  1. Saul

    Have you ever read a better introduction to a new cohort of graduate students? Welcome to the neighborhood everyone. We are glad you’re here!

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